How to Write Songs on Guitar

The beauty of songwriting is that there are no boundaries. You don’t have to be an insanely talented musician or a technically proficient guitar wizard to write a great song, and everyone has a unique perspective that is just as valid as anyone else’s, musician or not. So, if you’ve never written a song or you’re an experienced songwriter, the overarching themes I’ll discuss in this article will help you either get started on your musical journey or hoist you over a wall of writer’s block.

Getting Started

When you write music, you’re essentially conveying the sounds you hear in your head, and understanding the tools to put this concept into action will improve every element of your musicianship, from ear training to internal time-keeping to melodic development. Songwriting allows you to find your voice on your instrument, whether that is finding your ideal guitar tone or discovering certain genres that capture your imagination in its most complete form.

Songwriting shouldn’t be a task; rather it should be an enjoyable experience as you attempt to formulate exactly what you want to say with your music. This goes back to the notion of finding your musical voice. If you listen to Jimi Hendrix’s first album, and then subsequently put on a track from his final chronological album, you’ll hear tendencies that instantly identify the fact that it’s Jimi Hendrix coming out of the speakers, and nobody else.

Why You Should Write Songs

The best part about songwriting is that you’ll never be a worse musician after writing a song. In the worst case scenario, you’ll understand what it is that you don’t like about what you just created, so when you go forward to the next piece of music, you won’t make the same “mistakes” as you did in previous creative efforts.

The Process

When you’re getting started with a new song, there are many approaches to take, all of which are correct. You can choose a melody you hear in your head, a chord progression that speaks to you, lyrics that mean something important to you, or a rhythm that gets your body moving. Once you choose a starting point, the rest will come together as the music develops. For the sake of this lesson, I’ll start with a chord progression that inspires me, and I’ll show you how we can use this influence as a catalyst to construct something completely original.

Here is the opening riff to the Lynyrd Skynyrd classic, Sweet Home Alabama.

Example 1

By analyzing this guitar part, a few things jump out to me. By analyzing both the harmony and the rhythm, I can lay the framework for my own ideas. At its most basic form, the riff contains three chords and a turnaround to bring it back to the beginning. Looking deeper into the harmony, I can tell that the relationship of these chords is a I, bVII, V progression.

If I want to apply this structure to something of my own, I can alter a few things, such as the tonality, tempo, and feel.

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Example 2

By making an adjustment to the color of even just one chord (changing the D Major to D Minor), you can hear the progression begin to transform. Let’s go a step further, and displace where the chord changes happen on the beat.

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Example 3

Another approach you can take is to find a chord sound that instills a certain feeling in you. I really dig the sound of a Minor 7#5 chord, so I’ll use that as my foundation. As I work out a new set of chords, I’m keeping that initial Sweet Home Alabama riff in mind as I build the format of my new progression. Remember, it had three chords with a turnaround to get me back home to my initial chord. After some noodling, I might come up with something like this.

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Example 4

By using notes from the natural minor scale in the style of that original Skynyrd riff to bridge the gaps between chords, I created something completely different, even though I know the foundation of this idea is rooted in a classic rock song that millions of people would instantly recognize.

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Closing Thoughts

As I emphasized in the beginning of this lesson, there is no right or wrong way to write a song. This is merely a glimpse at one way I approach making music. I don’t always subscribe to this method of songwriting, but in the words of the great slide guitarist Dave Tronzo, “You’re never smarter for NOT knowing something.” I hope this technique finds you well in your creative endeavors, and always remember to write music that means something to you, and worry about what anyone else thinks only after you are satisfied with your creation.