How to Write a Song on Guitar
Writing a song on the guitar can, at times, seem like an impossible task. There may be periods of time (days to years in some cases) where, no matter what, you just can’t seem to find the inspiration to write a song. Or, perhaps you have some song ideas, but experience anxiety at the thought of actually writing them.
The good news is that writing a song on the guitar doesn’t have to be hard. The reality is that a song can be written in a number of different ways, and there are no dead-set rules when it comes to the process of writing a song. Read on to discover some methods you can use to help initiate the creative process, especially when you may be at a loss for creative ideas. Whether you are looking to write purely instrumental music or songs that are to be used with lyrics, you will find benefits with the following information and helpful tips.
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Fundamentals of Songwriting
Before writing a song, it is important to understand the 3 underlying fundamentals that all music is based upon. Each of these fundamental aspects works in conjunction with one another. These fundamentals are best known as:
- Melody – traditionally known as the “singing line” that is unique and characteristic to the song
- Harmony – the musical context that supports the melody
- Rhythm – the underlying pulse that ties melody and harmony together
The beautiful thing about songwriting is that an idea for a song can come from any of these fundamentals. A striking rhythm might spark an idea, or perhaps you hear a melody in your head that needs harmonic context.
Rhythm is really the key fundamental aspect as it can change everything. A melody has its own inherent rhythm but can sound completely different by changing the rhythm of the singing line. Standard chord progressions of harmonic contexts can be made to sound fresh and original just by shifting the rhythm of a strumming pattern.
For the most part, a lot of music can be derived into song forms that can be used to map out the song. This is helpful because it is easier to communicate with other musicians which part of the song may be coming next. Without getting too complicated, there are a few different parts of a song that you may want to think of when writing a song:
- Verse – usually the main part of a song in which verses are sung
- Chorus – also called the Refrain; where verses typically have different lyrics, a chorus tends to have the same lyrics each time the event is repeated throughout a song
- Bridge – a portion of the song that is stylistically different from the Verse and Chorus sections and is used to break any feeling of repetition within a song
There are likely innumerable variations on how these concepts can be put together in song form. However, some common forms include:
Much of this depends greatly on whether you are also working with lyrical content. However, instrumental music can also be segmented into sections like this to help map out a song for communication and practice purposes.
To further expand on these song forms, you may wish to have an “Intro” section, which could consist of musical elements that are similar to another section in the song (such as the Verse or Chorus). Aside from the introduction of the song, the Intro section can also be played after a verse or chorus to help add space and a bit of variance to the song, which can help keep a listener’s attention. This placement is sometimes known as an “Interlude,” which, again, can have its own unique musical characteristics should you choose it to.
Similar to the Intro section, you may also wish to have an “Outro” section, which could either be the same as the Intro, or something completely different (you are the creator). As the name suggests, the Outro section is designed to help carry the song to a close. Though the possibilities for song forms are endless, a typical song form written in complete detailed long-form might look as such:
- Interlude/Guitar solo
Generating the Idea for a Song
Now that you have a basic understanding of the underlying fundamental aspects of music and how a song is built, you might wonder how to go about writing a song for yourself. Creating can often feel like a pain, but it can become quite easy and enjoyable once you open yourself up to the creative process. Each person is unique in their own creative processes, but there are a few general practices that seem to be commonplace amongst most musicians. Once you have an idea, try to fit it into your own song “roadmap” according to which structure you feel is best for the song.
It goes without saying that playing the guitar is a fun activity. However, guitarists (and other musicians, for that matter) can often find themselves bogged down by being overly focused on practice routines. Songs and chords are learned, scales and exercise patterns are practiced, and yes, it is true, practice is extremely important and necessary.
But what is the end goal here? Why did you decide to pick up the guitar in the first place? Many guitarists often get lost by only focusing on their practices, and it often causes them to stop exploring and creating with the instrument. In fact, writing songs can help incorporate the techniques you are practicing to help cement them into your skillset and make them your own.
Exploration and discovery can play an important role in writing a song on the guitar, especially when you have no preconceived song ideas. You might come across a new chord you’ve never played, which instantly inspires you to hear a song in your head. Suddenly, you have the magic of music inside of you, whether you know it or not.
A mistake you may have made while playing the guitar can also be explored in further greater detail. You likely have heard the term “happy accident,” where something played by complete accident ended up working out far greater than could have been anticipated. Do not be afraid to make mistakes because your mistakes could take you down a road you never would have thought possible.
Do you have a go-to riff or creative guitar exercise that you always find yourself playing? You can easily turn your riff into a song. Your riff might be a great song opener, or maybe it would fit well after each line of a verse. Much of it depends on your riff and how it sounds to your ears. Be open to the possibilities because you may already possess a potent kernel of an idea that can be readily utilized within a song.
Once you embark on the first steps to take that music from within yourself and transcribe it to the guitar, you will start to etch out a tangible idea that can be physically played in the real world. The key is to stick with the idea and see it through to its completion. After practicing the idea, you will end up will a song created purely from the musical power within yourself.
The real trick with this method is to relax and let whatever comes, come naturally. Anything can be a song, whether it be a funky 2-chord vamp, a 4-chord progression that you stumbled into on accident, or any combination of possibilities your mind could think of. Don’t worry about not being able to execute the idea perfectly due to issues with technique, that is what practice is for.
Explore New-To-You Chord Progressions
Going along with the exploration method is discovering and trying out chord progressions. Whether it be by randomly playing chord combinations or looking up a resource of chords, chord progressions can spark ideas beyond what you thought could be possible.
As previously mentioned, applying different rhythmic patterns to chord progressions can help to transform a generic or bland progression into something that moves you internally and sounds good to your ears. This can be especially helpful when a progression sounds very familiar to something you’ve already heard before. Another thing to keep in mind while trying out new chord progressions is the Melody.
As a chord progression provides the harmonic context for a Melody, each chord progression has its inherent possibilities for melody. In fact, many jazz guitarists can play chord melodies by playing a sequence of chords that accentuate the melodic line within the harmonic context. Of course, even the most basic progressions can have a melody within the chords.
Once you have a chord progression set to a rhythm that you are satisfied with, the next step is to define exactly what the melody is. Again, this applies to both lyrical and instrumental music. To expand the “roadmap” of your song, follow the melody with your ears to see where the melody wants to go and try to find that harmonic context on the guitar.
Piece Together Your Ideas
You might find after some time that you have some fleshed-out ideas for songs, but for whatever reason, the song may be unfinished due to the song lacking a key aspect that you feel is missing to make the song complete. This is not an uncommon problem to have and you are not alone if you are facing this issue.
A solution to this issue is to be a sort of “musical quilter” and stitch some of your other unfinished song ideas and progressions into one whole piece. While you might find that some of these ideas are incompatible with each other, there are plenty of instances where these unfinished ideas can work exceptionally well together. You might find that a newly created section of a song works perfectly with an unfinished song you started writing years before.
In fact, there have been many famous examples of this type of process being used in the songwriting process to finish a song. While the song “A Day in the Life,” by The Beatles was written by both John Lennon and Paul McCartney, the song was essentially half-written, with the second half of the song being stitched onto the first half to create a complete song. Needless to say, the song itself ended up being one of the most influential and popular songs of the band’s later career.
Some Helpful Things To Remember
If you haven’t guessed by now, writing a song will only be as difficult as you make it out to be. However, humans (and creative artists in particular) have an uncanny knack for getting in their own way when it comes to getting things done. Should you find yourself trapped in this situation, there are a few useful pieces of advice that you can use to help get yourself back on track:
- When writing a song, don’t force it; rather let it be written in its own time.
- Relax and allow yourself to be an open conduit channel so you may receive the inspiration needed.
- Accept that your ideas are valid; do not be afraid to explore them.
- The song doesn’t need to be complex.
- Rhythm can change everything.
- Be open to what happens during the creative process.
- Perfection is a fallacy.
- Don’t worry if your song is “too simple.”
- Write for you, as opposed to what you think people may want to hear.
- Don’t worry if your musical influences are apparent; all music is inspired and derived by other music to a certain degree.
- Your song may morph into something completely different when performed with other musicians
How to Write a Song on Guitar, Conclusion
A song is a unique form of art. CDs, records, and sheet music aside, you cannot physically hold a song in your hands. Rather, it is a piece of art that, when performed, permeates the air with emotion for a duration of time, allowing others to join and experience the message within the song. These songs help people in all events of life, whether it be on the commute to work, in celebration, or during the healing process of a traumatic event.
While all forms of art are powerful, a well-crafted song can change a person’s life. You likely have had a similar experience listening to music, or else you might not have ever decided to write your own music on the guitar. By choosing to write a song, you are not only acknowledging and celebrating the uniqueness within you but also providing the world a gift. Writing a song on the guitar is a fun process, though it can seem a little daunting at times. If you stick with it, you will be able to write a song. Do not worry so much about how you feel about the song; just write. Like anything, it takes time and practice to be able to find your creative identity and create something that you can feel proud of. When that creation comes, you will know it. Then, write some more songs and enjoy yourself in the process.
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