So, you’re interested in writing a song.
Guitar is typically my chosen weapon when writing a song, and I find it works quite well.
Now, you can write songs on whatever instrument you prefer. And, the fun part is that you’ll probably end up with a different kind of song every single time.
Anyway, the guitar is a great instrument for songwriting, whether you’re looking to write pop, rock, blues, country, jazz or otherwise.
Here’s how to write a song on guitar in seven easy steps.
Table of Contents
Determine What The Emotion Or Theme Of The Song Is
The first step to writing a great song is determining what you want to say with it.
Although you can write a riff first and come up with a meaning for it later, if you begin with a theme, you might find it easier to put the rest of the song structure in place.
So, what do you want to write about? What’s near and dear to your heart right now?
Maybe you just went through a heartbreak. Maybe you experienced success. Perhaps you went on a long drive and felt inspired.
Here are some common themes and topics to write about, in case you’re stuck:
- Love, heartbreak and passion.
- Injustice and political turmoil.
- Frustration and anger.
- Joy, elation and relaxation.
- Fear and anxiety.
- Faith and spirituality.
- Patriotism and pride.
I know it may seem silly, but if you pick a topic, you’ll find the songwriting process goes much smoother. What flows out of you will reflect the personal experiences you’ve had.
Alternatively, you can try writing from someone else’s perspective too. Bands like They Might Be Giants do this well.
This can get you out of the “same old, same old” and into someone else’s world, which can result in a compelling story.
You don’t need to have everything set in stone at this point. Just capture the basic feeling or emotion of the song and then…
Brainstorm Riff Or Chord Progression Ideas
At this stage, you don’t need to have everything figured out.
But based on the emotion or theme of the song, you should start coming up with riffs that are matched to the original song idea.
Now, sad songs can be in a major key, and happy songs can be a minor key. Many musicians use this technique and it can bring depth to a song.
So, you shouldn’t feel constrained in this regard.
But if you’ve chosen reggae as your genre, you should start coming up with riffs or chord progressions that suit the musical style you're emulating.
If you’re going to be playing the blues, then you should probably start thinking about how your song is going to fit into the 12-bar, I – IV – V structure.
This isn’t to say you shouldn’t come up with as many riffs as you can. Quite to the contrary, I recommend trying a variety of things at this stage.
You never know what might end up coming together. Maybe country and metal are a match made in heaven. Maybe country and funk aren’t as different as we thought after all.
I’m not saying you need to invent a new genre. I’m merely suggesting that you keep things open ended while you’re still brainstorming ideas.
Make Sure You’re In The Right Key
Most guitar songs are in the keys of C, A, G, E and D. This is because these are the easiest keys to write in.
If you have a capo and know how to use it, then you can obviously move around without much trouble and find a key that’s right for you.
The main issue is your vocal range. For me, I’ve found they keys of F#, G, G# and A to be ideal.
That doesn’t mean I don’t write songs outside of those keys, as it’s always good to have songs in a variety of keys in your set.
But because I know my vocal range and where my voice sounds best, I tend to lean heavily on keys that allow me to be at my best as a singer.
If you’re not the one that’s going to be singing the song, then talk to the vocalist and find out what keys are best for them.
If they don’t know, take them through a few keys and see where they’re most comfortable.
It can be a little painful to have written a killer riff only to have to move it to a different key.
But this is exactly what apparently happened with The Eagles’ “Hotel California”.
Originally, it was in the key of Em, but at the insistence of singer Don Henley, it was moved to Bm. On the capos went.
Of course, “Hotel California” went onto become a big hit, so who can argue with Henley?
Don’t worry if you end up having to move your song to a new key. It might end up being the best thing you can do for it, because every key has its own signature sound.
Refine Your Riff Or Chord Progression
“Each part of the song has a unique identity, and you can tell it’s gone through a process.”
That’s a piece of feedback I recently received on a song I originally wrote in 2017.
True, as I considered what the observer had shared, I realized that every part of the song had its own rhythmic pattern, dynamic and feel.
That didn’t necessarily make it better than my newer song, which was still basic in terms of its structure.
But it certainly meant that my newer song could be better than it was with some adjustments to the arrangement.
So, don’t be too quick to settle into your riff or chord progression.
Sometimes, a song is best served with a simple three-chord strumming riff.
But there are so many other scenarios in which a song would be better if it just had a better structure and arrangement.
Even if the song is being written on guitar, maybe it’s worth thinking about how other instruments would interact with the parts you’ve written.
Maybe the intro could be played with a piano. Maybe when the vocals enter, the bass, drums and guitar could join in. Maybe in the second verse, you could insert a synth part.
A song is so much more compelling when each section has its own unique identity connected to the whole.
Write A Catchy Melody
No, your melody doesn’t have to be catchy. It can just be a melody that sounds good to you.
The point is to start coming up with a rough idea for how the melody will sound.
It could be that you’re trying to write an instrumental, so maybe you’ll end up playing the melody on the guitar too.
Or, maybe it’s a more vocally oriented song, so you’ll want to be more thoughtful in how you compose a melody.
Keep in mind that either you or the singer will be singing the melody, and it will need to go with whatever lyrics you set to it.
Now, if you want to leave the singer to come up with a melody, that’s okay too. See my previous point on ensuring that the song is in the right key.
But otherwise, it’s good to spend some time thinking about this.
By the time you’ve written a few dozen songs, you’ll probably end up writing melodies on autopilot, and that also means you may not grow much as a songwriter.
Depending on the artist or the band, they tend to have a stronger focus on melody, harmony or rhythm, and not necessarily all. It’s usually apparent when you listen to the music.
I’m more melodically oriented than anything myself, but I always enjoy putting an interesting rhythm around it.
I will often leave the harmony to the bassist or pianist, so they can stretch their own imagination.
Regardless, I think it’s worth putting some thought into the melody of the song.
Write Powerful Lyrics
As I mentioned earlier, you could be writing an instrumental, in which case the lyrics don’t matter.
Otherwise, with the basic structure of the song in place, it’s time to write lyrics to the theme you originally came up with.
As you’re getting started, it’s okay to write stream of consciousness style. There could be a lot of usable lyrics that flow out of you.
Once you’ve ran out of ideas, you can ask your bandmates or collaborators for feedback. You could even ask your family, friends or fans.
Something else to consider is power words. Power words are typically provocative and emotional in nature.
There are too many to mention here, but I’d like to give you a few examples:
There are plenty of others. Anyway, these types of words tend to draw the attention of the listener.
This is something I happen to think the Texas-based hard rock band Disciple tends to do quite well.
Just look at these song titles:
- Long Live the Rebels.
- Underdog Fight Song.
- Beautiful Scars.
- Phoenix Rising.
I think you get the idea. These types of titles tend to make you want to listen to the song. And, their lyrics are full of similar references to war, battle, violence, revival, overcoming challenges and so on.
Although the music can create the mood for the song, the lyrics can still make or break it (just look at Dan Reed Network), so it’s worth putting some time and effort into your lyrics.
With your song structure and lyrics in place, there’s only one thing left to do – edit.
Now, this is where some songwriters hesitate. They don’t think they should have to edit, or maybe they have no idea to improve upon an already good idea.
If you can edit, you will stand out from the crowd big time, because I don’t know many musicians who can do this well.
First and foremost, it’s important to “sleep on it”. Leave some space so you can come at the song fresh, with a new perspective.
You may need to leave a day. You may need to leave a week. Either way, if you come at it after you’ve given it some time, you’re more likely to come up with worthy ideas for improvement.
Second, if you have no idea how to improve on the song, or you think it might be perfect as is, you can always get some feedback on it.
Talk to your cowriter, producer, band, fans, family or friends – whoever is willing to offer their perspective.
This isn’t to suggest that all feedback is good feedback, as that isn’t necessarily the case.
But let’s say one of your band mates says your song is too repetitive. Okay.
What if you added an organ section to the second verse? What if you added a heavier guitar part to the second chorus? What if you created a solo section with a new chord progression?
Even if you are the chief songwriter for your project, it doesn’t mean others don’t have worthy ideas. So, gather feedback and see if there are ways to make your song better.
Third, just focus on trimming the fat. There’s a reason why DragonForce’s “Through The Fire And Flames” was edited for radio. The parts that were edited out arbitrarily lengthened the song.
I’m not saying the original was wrong. But perhaps a stronger statement could have been made without the extra parts.
And, so it is with any song. Unless there’s a purpose for each section, it could end up just filling time.
If you want an example of a good eight-minute song, listen to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”. Eight minutes is a long time for a song to go on, but every minute is captivating.
There are many ways of approaching songwriting.
There isn’t necessarily a right or wrong. If what you’re doing is working, then you should probably keep doing it.
Just don’t get stuck in a rut doing the same thing over and over. Occasionally, you’ll want to step out of your usual way of doing things and approach songwriting from different directions.
Side note, do you want to learn to play guitar songs the easy way? Learn how here – results are guaranteed!