One of the benefits the guitar has over many other instruments is that you can easily play chords on it.
On a guitar you can play up to six notes at the same time. On the piano you can play up to ten (as many fingers as you have) but on violin it’s hard to play even three, while on wind instruments you can only play one note at a time.
This is good news for us guitar players because it means that like pianists, it’s easy to write songs on guitars.
I will show you how to write a song on guitar in a simple step by step process. Keep in mind this is just a “method” you can use as a beginner.
It’s definitely not the only way you can go around writing a song on guitar especially when it comes to the order you do things. For example, you may come up with a melody first, or with the words first, or even with the rhythm.
The good news is that no one method is better than another. The method is just something that enables you to unleash your own creativity and organize it into a guitar song.
This method works exactly the same whether you’re writing your song on an electric guitar or an acoustic guitar.
Step 1: Learn these chords
The purpose of this lesson is to get you started in the craft of songwriting, not mastering it.
Thus, the only chords you need to learn in order to actually start writing a song on guitar using this method, are the following:
C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am
If you don’t know how to play barre chords yet, all these chords can be played in the open position. If you can play barre chords, I suggest you barre the F major chord, and play all the other chords open.
Step 2: Choose 3 or 4 of these guitar chords
The chords above are not chosen at random. If you pursue the study of music theory you will understand that these chords sound good together because they belong to either the key of C major or that of A minor.
This is not a music theory lesson though, and all you need to do is choose 3 or 4 chords and experiment with different combinations.
You can get more direction on how chords progress to each other in this lesson but you can also make a chord progression from any random combination of the chords you have learned in Step one.
These are some examples from the many chord combinations you can use to write your song:
C – Am – G – C
C – F – G
F – G – C
G – Dm – G – C
Em – Am – G – C
Em – C – Am
When you get used to writing songs on guitar, you don’t need to restrict yourself to three or four chords. However here we’ll be using a small number of chords not only for simplicity’s sake, but also because most Rock and Pop songs actually use a small number of chords.
Step 3: Create a 4 bar chord progression
Once you’ve chosen the chords, you’ve actually created a chord progression. What you need to do now is to put your chords neatly into bars.
If you’ve chosen a sequence of 4 chords, each chord will take one bar, as in this example:
If you’ve chosen a sequence of only 3 chords, then one of the chords will be repeated twice in the last bar as in this example:
Step 4: Come up with a few words and a tune
What we’ve learned up to now has been very systematic: You learn the chords, choose a few of them, and put them after each other in a logical way.
Songwriting is a creative art though and to really succeed in this step you need to set your creativity free.
Most likely, your mind is going to be telling you that your tunes are stupid, that people are going to laugh when they hear your songs, that you’ll never be able to write a “real” song, and all that jazz.
Nearly all of us songwriters have been through this, which is one of the main causes of songwriter’s block.
You need to get rid of all this and something that will definitely help you is keeping this in mind: Songwriting is a learning process, not a performance.
If you’re performing music, people are watching you in real time, and you can’t correct your mistakes once you’ve done them (though, unless you’re playing on a pro-level making a couple of mistakes is not as catastrophic as you may think).
Even if you’re recording music at a studio, there is a limit to how many times you can get something wrong, since you’re paying for the time you’re spending and using the studio’s service.
This is not the case with songwriting and training your creativity.
In fact, you should be prepared from upfront: You’re going to write a lot of crap. And that’s OK, that’s how you learn.
Hopefully this has helped you get rid of destructive mental thinking, so let’s get back to how to write a song on guitar.
Before you come up with a tune find some words to sing.
Form your words into a phrase and sing it over the chord progression you chose. Keep coming up with tunes until you find one that matches the chords and makes a melody you’re happy with.
If you can’t come up with enough words now, just keep repeating the same line. Your focus should be on the melody here. You’ll come up with more lyrics in a coming step.
Step 5: Add rhythmic subdivisions
In order to keep things simple, in Step 3, each chord is just strum once for the whole bar.
While there’s nothing wrong in playing a chord at the beginning of the bar and let it ring for it’s entire, it’s likely you will want to make your rhythm more interesting and fast paced.
You do this by strumming each chord more than once in its bar, creating a more interesting rhythm.
This example for instance, uses the first chord progression in Step 3 but adds variety to the rhythm through the use of crotchets, quavers as well as a dotted crotchet in the last bar.
Step 6. Add more phrases
So far you should have a phrase, with both words and melody, and the harmony (chords) that backs that phrase, with an interesting rhythm.
In this step, you’ll just write more phrases that match, using the same harmony and rhythm, in order to come up with the song’s verses.
Once again, you’re come up with lyrics that don’t make sense. That’s normal. Keep pushing at it, and finally the right words will come.
Step 7. Write a chorus for your song
In order to write your chorus, you’re going to do the exact same process as in the previous steps, creating a new chord progression (choosing from the same group of chords you learnt in Step 1) and a new rhythm for it.
This time, try to make your melody even more catchy and exciting, and don’t mind repeating something over and over again.
Step 8: Give your song a structure
This probably being your first song on guitar, you should aim for simplicity. Many songs have more complex structures than just a verse and a chorus, but that’s a whole world you’ll be exploring as you’re learning the craft of songwriting.
What you’re going to do is, write two or more paragraphs with your verses, backed by the first chord progression you created.
Then, insert the chorus and repeat the same whole thing two or three times.
While you should have different words for the verses throughout the song, you should use the same chorus every time.
Where to go from here
Songwriting is a vast topic, and what I gave you here is simply one method you can go about writing a song on guitar.
If you’ve managed to write a song on guitar using the method above, I suggest you start learning these items in order to start having more options into your songwriting arsenal:
- More chords.
- Chord progressions.
- Music theory so that you will start seeing the links between the above 3.
- Song form and structure.
- Write as many songs as possible.
- Listen attentively to your favorite songs.
If you implement everything that you’ve learnt in this lesson, you’ve made your first step mastering the craft of songwriting.
Keep working regularly on your skills, and writing a song that will make you proud, may come sooner than expected.
And if you ever lack inspiration to write songs, you might want to go to the place where inspiration comes from.
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