Written by Shawn Leonhardt for guitar tips and 30 day singer
If you’re looking to try your hand at songwriting, the guitar is a great instrument to start with. It lets you play guitar chords and their progressions, which happen to be the backbone of the most popular songs. In this article, we’ll go over some basic tips and techniques to help you write great guitar songs.
Chord progressions for song structure
Have you ever wondered how jazz musicians can play a new song they’ve never heard? All thanks to chord progressions. And there are only about 10 to 20 of those that musicians use repeatedly. One such chord progression is IV-vi-IV, this progression is so popular that there is a band that only plays songs made from it.
The Roman numerals are simply symbolic of the degree of the scale on which we find ourselves. Below is a chart of the 12 keys and their major scale degrees. It is also called the Nashville Numbering System, which uses Arabic numerals. It’s honestly better to use Roman because it helps later when you start extending chords.
|Tonic||Great Tonic||mediant||subdominant||Dominant||Submediant||Main tone subtonic|
In the key of C, our IV-vi-IV progression would be the chords CG-Am-F. In the key of G, it would be GD-Em-C. You simply take the progression and apply the necessary chords. In this case, pick the key you sing best in, or stick to the easier keys of C and G. If you’re not sure, grab a chromatic tuner and start singing! See which grades suit you best.
The most popular beginner progressions are shown below, and they really make up the bulk of the songs. The music is not as creative and unique as many people think. If you look closely, you will find a lot of songs that fall under these.
Once your chord progressions get boring, start extending chords. In early blues and rock, instead of playing an I-IV-V, they would play an I-IV-V7 (CF-G7). The added 7th creates more tension and is the basis of most R&B. You can create a new song by adding more flavor to standard chords.
Scales for the melody of the song
Now you might be wondering how is it legal for every songwriter to use the same progression? If you play different songs of the same chord progression, they will always sound different because they have a unique melody. The chord sequences can be used by anyone, but the main melody of the song is what can be copyrighted.
You can either create a melody from a chord progression or take a melody you have created and create chords around it. Choose the process that works best for you. If you know your chords, you can search for guitar scales that match them to refine your melody. Working from a melody can take longer because you have to find the scale you are in and then create chords. You can always use a scale finder to help you.
It is possible to do all of this by ear and settle for what sounds good. But knowing which chords and scales mix is very useful. In addition to choosing the right scale, here are some tips on melodic writing.
- When playing chords on the guitar, match the notes you sing and write them down. A chromatic tuner helps.
- Stay in range if you want a strong melody. Venture out if you want exoticism.
- Make sure it follows the same patterns set for each section of the song. When we want to invoke a change or a strong emotion, we alter this pattern or change the tone.
- Use software. There are many scale and melody generators. If you don’t feel inspired, just have it randomly picked!
Just like chord progressions, rhythm patterns and percussion cannot be copyrighted. The song’s basic groove, or drums and bass, can be shared. And that’s because there are only so many. When we play the guitar, we change our rhythmic patterns by picking and strumming in different ways.
We can start easily with simple down (D) and up (U) strumming and, depending on your level, different picking styles. Remember to keep the right pattern for each section so it’s consistent and not random.
- DDDD and DUDU try them in different orders and with 1/8and and 1/16and Remarks
- Travis Picking is great for country tunes
- Muted Strums are great for a funk song
- Play arpeggios over every chord instead of strumming
One of the best ways to write a song is through drum machine apps or software. Activate a backing groove in 4/4 or 3/4 and simply start playing a chord progression. Play the game and the ideas will come.
The main parts of a modern song are the verse (A), chorus (B), and bridge (C). Some songs use all three and some are kept very simple. In some cases, the songs only have the same chord progression in each section.
It is often a chord progression by section and divided into 8 bars at a time, but it can depend on the author. And there are more parts in a song like intro, ending, pre-chorus and even solo section for some. These parts are often composed after the main A, B, and C sections. If you have a strong guitar riff or hook in the song, you might want this to start.
For your first song, try this ABABCB (example in the key of C).
Verses IV-vi-IV CG-Am-F
Choir I-IV-V CFG
Bridge iii-vi Em-Am
The verse is uplifting, but not too much with the added minor. The chorus then shifts to all majors, which sets it apart and elevates it. And the bridge we take everything in minor before ending everything on an edifying refrain. Of course, there are many combinations to do with the progressions above, use the chords that match the emotions you need.
Sometimes the songs are built around specific lyrics or a hook, other times they are composed and no subject matter exists. If you need help with ideas, it’s always best to go to Wikipedia and randomize it. Just roll the dice several times and choose a subject. Otherwise, the rest is up to you. If you want the song to be understood, use plain language or just mumble poetically like Bob Dylan or Billie Eilish.
- Always write down lyric ideas or you’ll forget
- It helps to make your chord changes at the start of new words
- Don’t cram too many syllables into each bar
- Being shocking, weird and deep always gives the song potential
If you still can’t write a song on the guitar, just go learn your favorite songs from top to bottom. Break down every musical aspect like chords, melody, rhythm, format, and lyrics. The more songs you analyze, the deeper the process will go. Songwriting on the guitar is very easy, which is why it’s so common, and like any skill, it just takes regular practice to master it.