If you want to know how to write a song on guitar but need help knowing where to start, then you’re in the right place.
While there are many ways to write a song on guitar, the following steps are the most consistent framework I’ve found for my own songwriting.
While writing is a learning process, if you practice what I share here, you’ll be well on your way to writing your first song (or hundredth).
Let’s get started!
#1 Authenticity & Discovery Before Anything Else
One of my favorite things about the songwriting process on guitar is discoverability. You don’t need to be a music theory genius or understand the notes you’re playing.
You can write songs if you can press down a string and make a sound. I started writing my own songs on guitar after a couple of months of learning when I was nine years old. I found that my creativity and ear helped me develop an interesting melody without any idea what I was doing.
As you learn how to write a song on guitar, don’t forget to allow yourself to make mistakes, try new things, and see where your ears guide you.
While this may not make you a technically proficient songwriter, it will help you develop your “sound” and discover what feels right.
#2 Learn the Guitar Chords of the G Major Key
It’s easy for beginner guitar players to get overwhelmed (and frustrated) learning scales and chords. However, when it comes to creating an original song on your electric or acoustic guitar, it can be simple.
The chords in G Major are the most common chords you’ll learn when you start playing guitar, and these chord shapes are often used in our favorite songs.
The G Major Chords are:
#3 Use a Capo for Key Changes
Only some people’s vocal range will fit within the G Major Scale. However, if you use a guitar capo to help you transpose your keys, you can use the same chord shapes to play in any key you wish.
A capo acts like your index finger and will barre each of the six strings. This is handy when playing a chord progression in B Major or any flat or sharp key signatures.
These signatures often rely on you to play barre chords, which can be difficult for many songwriters.
With the capo, you essentially move the nut of the guitar up. This keeps the chord shapes the same, but you can play in a different key.
When you use a capo, you can also use something called the Nashville Numbers system. Each chord is assigned a number; instead of learning each chord’s name, you can call them out by number.
For example, in G Major, the number system would work as follows:
- G Major (One)
- A Minor (Two)
- B Minor (Three)
- C Major (Four)
- D Major (Five)
- E Minor (Six)
- F# Dimished (Seven)
If you use a capo and the major chord shapes, you can easily say the tonic chord for the key (one) and then call out the numbers for other musicians to play along with.
Using a guitar capo is an incredible hack, and why writing songs on guitar is my favorite way to express my musical creativity.
#4 Write Your Chorus Chord Progression First
“Don’t bore us, get to the chorus” is a phrase thrown around in songwriting circles. With this in mind, it’s a good indicator you have a song worth writing when a chord progression connects with you in an intangible way.
As your strumming your guitar and you come across something that just clicks, stick with it. In fact, this is usually the starting spot for your song’s chorus.
Remember, the thing that hooks you into your song will also be the same thing that hooks others into it.
#5 Understanding Rhythm
Once you have a solid chord progression and understand how to transpose to any key on the guitar, you can quickly and easily start writing your own song.
The next critical component of songwriting is making an interesting rhythm. While what makes a rhythm interesting depends on the type of song you’re trying to write, there are some basics you ought to know.
Before we move forward, the topic of rhythm in music is a big topic. For a more extensive deep dive, please check out my article discussing rhythm in music here.
Copy Other Popular Music
Let’s say you’re not a music theory wizard, and you want the “shortcut” to a great rhythmic pattern, then copy what you hear in popular songs.
Think about the feeling you’re going after, and then find a song to match it. Listen to the phrasing and then try and copy it.
If you’re a beginner and want a great song that teaches the basics of rhythmic strumming on a guitar, listen and learn Oasis’s “Wonderwall.”
This is one of the first songs I learned on guitar, and it’s a classic guitar strumming pattern that can carry over and help you make many songs.
The most basic rhythmic pattern is a whole note. A whole note is a long, drawn-out note that rings out over an entire bar.
This will be the most effortless rhythm for beginners and a great option if you want to create a sense of space and a laid-back vibe.
Strumming is the most common and effective way to play your guitar. Most chord progressions on an acoustic guitar will incorporate a strumming pattern.
The most common pattern is a simple up, down, up, down pattern.
Another typical pattern would be down, down, down, up, down, up.
Strumming is all about feeling. As long as you stick within your tempo and time signature boundaries, you can use your creativity and ear to make very interesting rhythmic phrasing.
Arpeggios are when you pick out the individual notes within a chord. This can create a complex and beautiful rhythm that quickly catches a listener’s attention.
Arpeggios are a more advanced technique and will take lots of practice. However, learning to play clean arpeggios is the gateway toward fingerstyle guitar playing that blends great rhythmic and lead-style guitar playing.
With a Pick
Using a guitar pick is the best way to create a consistent and controlled sound on the guitar.
While using a pick is a personal preference, it’s often more necessary when playing an electric guitar. The electric guitar lends itself to the attack of a pick more than the acoustic and can give you more precision.
Without a Pick
Playing without a pick gives you more intimacy and movement compared to a pick. The challenge with playing guitar with your fingers over a pick is that it can be more painful and sound more sloppy if you lack control.
However, playing without a pick can make your playing sound more intimate, connected, and gentle.
Writing songs on acoustic guitar can offer many benefits, as you can easily alternate between fingerstyle and strumming to create exciting and unique songs.
Taking Advantage of Rests
Rests are when you don’t play anything at all. This can create drama and dynamics within your song that can help keep a listener engaged.
One of the best ways to use rests is the moment right before a section transitions into another section, i.e., from verse to chorus.
Often an effective rest can be at the end of a chord progression, where you cut the measure short and let the silence of your instrument carry you into a new chord progression.
#6 Build Out The Rest of Your Song Structure
After you’ve written your chorus, it’s time to move on to the rest of your song. The most common song structures are:
While you can write great songs that break conventional song writing rules, it’s best to stick with popular frameworks to give guidance and structure to your songs.
Also, songs don’t need to have multiple chord progressions throughout. Plenty of great songs have a single progression that repeats throughout the song.
For example, OneRepublic’s “I Aint Worried” is built on a single loop.
Don’t let the song structure stop you from moving forward. Pick a structure and prepare for the fun part of the songwriting process…writing lyrics and melody!
#7 Lyrics First vs. Melody First
Now that your song has taken shape on guitar, you can either call the song done as an instrumental or take it to the next level and add lyrics and a vocal melody.
The question is, which should come first?
While there aren’t any hard rules when it comes to which one you start with, from my personal experience, writing the melody first is most straightforward.
You can write a great song with a catchy melody and ok lyrics. But if you have the best lyrics in the world but a lackluster melody, your song is unlikely to connect with your listener.
When you begin with the vocal melody, you allow yourself to explore what feels right over the guitar chords you’re playing, making writing a lyrical phrase more natural.
Try singing gibberish first, then add a few words from the stream of consciousness and build from there.
#8 Tips on Writing Melody
While understanding music theory can help you craft melodies quickly, using your intuition and ear helps you write more natural and authentic-sounding songs.
A couple of rules you should consider to write compelling melodies are:
- Keep the melody simple. You’ll know if the melody is simple and effective if you can hum it from memory after taking a break from writing. Also, if it gets stuck in your roommate’s or family members’ heads, that’s a good sign!
- If your verse melody is busy, then make your chorus melody more spread out. This contrast will make for a more enjoyable listen
- Ensure that the verse and chorus use the same melody, only adding a slight variation for intrigue
- Write in a stepwise motion. Don’t have massive note jumps; keep it at one to two intervals per note change. This will make a song easier to sing and remember.
The topic of writing melodies is complex. For a more in-depth read, please check out my writing melodies for songwriters here.
#9 Tips on Writing Lyrics
Once you’ve established your melody, writing lyrics should be much more straightforward. Lyrics can sometimes feel like magic, but there are a few songwriting tips you can use to help you avoid the dreaded writer’s block.
- Define the characters of your song: Is the narrator speaking to another person, or are they speaking to a group of people?
- Define the scenario: Listen to your song arrangement and think of how the sounds make you feel. Where do you see yourself? Who or what is the narrator singing to? Are they inside or outside?
- Write a title: The title should be the main idea of your song. Simple titles often are better, and all your lyrics should build towards this main idea.
- Keep your lyrics conversational: If you can’t read them out loud and have them sound natural, your lyrics may be too complicated and contrived.
Writing lyrics is a vast topic, and if you want to dive deeper, please check out my article on writing better lyrics here.
#10 When Writing Songs on Guitar, Document Everything
It’s critical that when you write songs, you record everything. There is nothing worse than getting into a songwriting groove only to forget everything after a lunch break.
Also, often you will think what you are writing isn’t good. However, when listening to your musical sketches later, you will discover your ideas were pretty good. Having a bank of songwriting ideas will help keep you moving forward and finish more songs.
The recording doesn’t have to be complicated. Simple voice memos on your phone will do the trick.
The Bottom Line
Learning how to write a song on guitar is easier than you’d think. The guitar is one of my favorite instruments to write on because it uses repeating patterns.
Start with the basics and commit yourself to learn a few major and minor chords in the G Major Scale. Then, you can write songs in any key you wish with a guitar capo without learning new chord shapes or understanding chord inversions.
If you want to dive deeper into songwriting, check out my how to write a song article for more tips on creating your own original music.
Thanks for reading!