How to get better at songwriting when you’re a guitarist
The aim of these songwriting tips is not to get you write a hit the coming week but to get you started on the right track on learning the craft of songwriting.
A really pleasant and never ending journey.
I will show you what skills you’ll need to develop and why, how to approach songwriting with the right mindset as well give you other tips that will make writing songs easier.
1. Start writing songs now
The reason that I didn’t start writing songs a couple of years earlier than I actually did was that I had this wrong assumption that I needed to keep improving my guitar playing skills before writing my first song on guitar.
The truth is that while songwriting and guitar playing cross each other’s path many times, they are different skills you need to develop separately.
And the first step to writing great songs, is not being afraid to right a lot of crappy songs as a means to the end of learning the craft of songwriting.
If you have no clue from where to start, follow this step by step guide to writing your first song on guitar.
2. Sing, even if you can’t sing
If your friends would rather walk barefoot on broken glass than hearing you sing, you’re in good company.
Though I don’t have a good voice (because I’ve never trained it) I sing all the time when I’m songwriting.
At first it used to feel awkward hearing my own voice but slowly I began to understand that the quality of my voice didn’t matter at all since I wouldn’t be the one singing the song in the end.
My role as a songwriter is to come up with a tune, not sing it perfectly. That’s the vocalist’s job.
If you’re afraid of singing, because your voice sucks, you need to overcome that fear and come up with tunes and singing them anyway.
Being able to come up with melodies from your vocal chords, makes your songwriting life way easier than having to write down all the vocal melody lines.
3. Learn how to sing and play guitar at the same time
Singing and playing guitar at the same time is not a hard skill to earn (unless you’re a complete beginner on guitar and still find a hard time changing chords, in that case, improve a bit on guitar before trying to sing too).
But it will make your songwriting journey way easier if you can play chords and sing on top of them.
4. Learn music theory
Music theory can be boring if the only outcome you expect from learning it is getting a certificate.
It’s a different story if you use music theory for songwriting though.
As a songwriter, music theory is a clear path towards what works musically and arouses the right emotions, tested and proven by great composers and songwriters before us.
It is much less of a set of unbreakable rules than a precious set of songwriting tools.
In fact, I suggest that after you learn a new music theory concept you ask these two questions:
- Can I write a song with this?
- How can I use what I’ve just learned to improve my songwriting?
You may not have an answer to these questions every time you learn something, but most of the time, what you would have just learned could easily be applied to songwriting or improvisation on guitar.
5. Know your fretboard
If you play guitar, you should be memorizing the name of the notes on the fretboard as well as learning scales and chords.
If you’re also a songwriter, the above are a must even more. The music theory concepts you learn should be applied to your songwriting, and your guitar is the medium.
Thus, a basic understanding of how notes, intervals scales, and chords work together on your guitar will help you apply the theory you learn and actually use it.
6. Train your ear
Ear training will help you in many ways in songwriting.
It gives you the ability, for instance, to hear the note/s you’re going to play next in a particular scale or be more accurate on whether the next chord should be a minor or a major.
There is also another reason why ear training can be helpful for some guitar songwriters.
Remember in Songwriting tip 2, I told you to sing, even if you can’t sing?
What this really means is that you should sing no matter how ugly your voice is (or you think it is)
However, if you’re going to sing that tune to someone else, it’s important that you hit the right notes, or at least get close to them.
If your voice is untrained you may still not hit each note’s pitch perfectly, however, if this is backed by a good ear, you’ll be very close, and the real singer of your song will surely understand which note is intended to be sung.
7. Write a lot of lyrics
Unlike learning the guitar, or music theory, I never formally studied lyric writing.
I just developed the skill by writing a lot of lyrics.
When I look back at my earlier lyrics, I see most of them amateurish and I can only conclude that I developed the skill of writing good lyrics by actually writing hundreds of them.
Many of these were lyrics were not even finished, and very few ended up in real songs.
But all of them were a learning process that led me to a stage where I don’t even have to think about lyric writing.
The words just flow.
8. Sing your lyrics as an exercise
Yes, most of your earlier lyrics will get thrown away.
But before doing that I suggest that you find a melody for those words anyway.
There are two reasons for this:
- Every time you do so you’re training yourself to come up with a tune, a vital skill for songwriters.
- It is also possible you’ll come up with a good tune and you realize the lyric is not bad if you just change some things here and there.
9. Don’t fear songwriter’s block
A roadblock is a real block. There are guys with guns and ignoring the fact that they want you to stop is anything but a good idea.
Songwriter’s block, on the other hand, is something artificial that you created in your brain and only you can remove it.
In this article on beating songwriter’s block, I’ll show you how my two years of hell (not being able to write a single complete song) ended in just a moment of revelation that eliminated songwriter’s block completely, forever.
In fact, at this point in my songwriting life, I don’t need to wait for inspiration to write songs.
With few exceptions (such as when I’m seriously worried about something, which is rare) I am able to write songs anytime I want.
This doesn’t mean sudden flashes of inspiration, where writing a song is completely effortless don’t come too.
They do, and I treat them as welcome guests.
However, these are quite rare and if I had to write songs only when I have a sudden burst of inspiration, I would have written way fewer songs than I actually did.
10. Write many songs
The reason you need to train yourself to get inspiration at will, and not wait for it to suddenly flash in front of you is that the most important thing you need to do to become a great songwriter is actually writing a lot of songs.
Think about guitar practicing.
You don’t practice guitar once in a while when a burst of inspiration hits you but pick it up daily/regularly to gain your skills.
The same applies to songwriting.
Set aside some time for songwriting daily, or a few times a week, and use that time to write songs.
Even if inspiration doesn’t want to come. Even if the ideas you are getting are making you feel embarrassed you even considered them.
Write anyway. Because the most idiotic song you’ll ever come up with, also has a role in your songwriting learning curve.
11. Start your songs from different places
Should you start your song with the lyrics, the melody, the harmony (chords), the rhythm, or even the dynamics?
I’ve tried them all and the one that works best for me is coming up with the lyrics and the melody at the same time.
This may or may not be what works best for you, thus it’s a good idea to experiment with starting your songs from different places.
Doing so, also helps you train your creativity since you’re approaching the songwriting process from different angles.
12. Write songs with other musicians
If you’re in a band or have friends who play music, try writing songs with them.
The process of bouncing off ideas, coming up with new ones, and at times, even arguing over songwriting differences, is not only fun but if the chemistry works, you may come up with a song neither of you would have been able to create on his own.
Conclusion: Creativity can be trained
It is possible that no matter what, you can’t find any ideas to write songs.
This might lead you to the wrong conclusion that you were not born a creative person.
The truth is that we’re all born creative.
When you were very young, you were finding creative ways to escape from the playpen or to attract your mother’s attention.
You prepared toy soldiers and sent them for battle even though you had no clue how a war is fought. You noodled on scrap paper (or on the wall) whether the adults liked it or not.
You had no fear your soldiers will lose the war, or that your doodles won’t make sense to anyone.
Your mind was free to create, even if the tools it had acquired by then were very limited.
Then, at a certain point, you started learning to not-be-creative or rather, put a lot of limitations on yourself.
You learned that in order to get an A, or even a C in your assignments, you needed to follow the guidelines more than be creative.
You learned that the guy with green hair will probably end up in prison while the guy in the suit will run the corridors of power.
You’ve lived most of your childhood in a school uniform!
And if you altered that uniform, or drew doodles on it, you would be punished.
You’ve learned above all, that you should put breaks on your creativity or else you’ll either make a fool of yourself or get into trouble.
But to become a great songwriter, you need to not only gain the skills but unlearn all that and be free again.
Because most of the time, the limitations you put on yourself, prevent you from writing songs even more than lack of songwriting skills.
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