Last update: December 6th, 2016.
In this hands-on tutorial, I am going to show you how to write a song on the guitar – without any knowledge of music theory. I have no background in music theory whatsoever, the process I’m laying down in this article made me write over 50 songs on my guitar, of which some are very popular for the audiences I am playing.
Why this guide is the only one you need
So you’ve got your guitar setup. You learned a lot of songs of others and the respective chords. But when it comes to writing your own song on your guitar aaaand…
…you’re suddenly stuck. How the hell shall I start to write a song?
Writing a song on the guitar can be challenging because it is not easy to figure out where to actually start. I read a lot of articles on the internet, but none of them really helped me.
Here is what you can expect from this article: A totally hands-on, step by step guide how to write a song on guitar without knowledge of any music theory.
The kind of article that I wished to have read when I started writing songs.
In each step I will first present the technique that I applied on every song I wrote and then illustrate it with a concrete example of a song I have written using this technique. In addition, I will also share with you webtools and apps that I use in my songwriting process.
In case you prefer a Video, you will find one at the end of this page.
So how to write a song on the guitar?
- The song I wrote using these techniques
- Who this guide is intended for
- Prerequisites for this tutorial
- Inspiration for your song
- Harmony – easy on the guitar
- Add rhythm to song
- Add variations to your chords
- Write the Melody
- Some more hints on harmony
- The last thing to do
1. The song I wrote using these techniques
The song I am referring to in this article is called “Schön, dass es Dichgibt” (German for “It’s great that you’re there”). The chord progressions, song structure, and vocals were all written using the process I am laying down in this article.
2. Who this guide is intended for
I wrote this article for aspiring guitarists that are also songwriters (singer/songwriters) and that want to write songs. This guide is probably more suited for folk / pop / singer-songwriter songs than for example metal songs.
3. Prerequisites for this tutorial
You are a guitarist and own a guitar.
You know what a chord is.
You can read tabs and can play chords that are noted as tabs.
4. Inspiration for your song
Here comes the obvious one: you will need inspiration.
Inspiration will help you narrowing down the potential endless possibilities of WHAT KIND of song you’re going to write.
Will it be a heavy metal song? Or a folk song? Will it be a love song? A funny song? Or do you want to write a sad song about that horrible thing that happened to you lately?
In my experience, the best way to get inspired is by listening to music.
How to do it
It’s very likely that you are already inspired and that you know, what kind of song you want to write on your guitar.
If not do this: Create a playlist of songs on Spotify or Youtube that you like, find inspiring and that you enjoy listening to. This playlist should include songs that are in the style and mood of the song that you are attempting to write.
Listen to this playlist in preparation for your songwriting session.
If there is a particular song in your playlist that you really like, check if other playlists have the same song and browse those playlists for more inspiration. If you find another good song, add it to your playlist.
What I did
In the particular case of my song, I wanted to write something with a slight pop / folk influence, because this is the kind of music I’m listening to at the moment. I kind of already knew what I wanted to write about: Austria (my home country).
The idea came from a particular song by Michel Polnareff, a French musician that I really adore. In his song “Lettre à France”, he sings about his home country, France and how he misses it (he basically spent half his life in exile). I heard this song on the radio.
That particular song was the starting point of my inspiration.
So before even picking up my guitar, I already had a rough idea what the song will be about. But what about the music? Since I knew it will be a song about Austria, I created a playlist on Spotify with Austrian artists and listened to the playlist when I was riding on the subway or when I was traveling. It included some very well known artists here, as well as some artists that are maybe lesser known and that I discovered while browsing playlists of other people. I tried to pick songs that fit my idea of a song with a pop / folk edge.
Listening to the playlist did not only give me the joy of listening to great music, but it also got me into the mood to write my own song.
Tools you can use
Reddit has several forums that are meant for music discovery. A particular one is ListenToThis in which you will be able to find unknown music based on community votes.
How to write a song on the guitar – getting started
One of the most valuable lessons I learned on my own is to respect the three pillars on which a good song is based.
Those pillars are:
My songwriting approach incorporates those three pillars into a process, which I am going to describe further down below.
The guitar is a great instrument to write a song because all of those pillars can be incorporated into your songwriting process: Harmony by chords, rhythm by the strumming pattern that you chose to play and melody by playing melody lines on the guitar and later by singing.
I always follow the order above when I start to write a song on the guitar: First working on the harmony, then rhythm, then melody (vocals).
5. Harmony – easy on the guitar
I assume that you are inspired by your playlist and have a rough idea what your song should sound like and what topic it shall cover. Let’s start with the harmony for your song.
How to to it
In this step, you will layout one part of the song (verse or chorus) by creating a chord progression.
A chord progression is a progression of chords that are played throughout a certain part of your song. There are no rules on how many chords you need to play throughout your verse or chorus. Actually, just one chord alone could do the trick.
Protip: do not overcomplicate your progression! Less is more! Some of the best songs on this planet consist of three chords only. There is actually videos on YouTube that will show you how many well-known songs consist of only three chords. Google it, you will be surprised.
First, pick a key that you are familiar with and that has many open chords. Open chords are chords that you can play on the first three frets of the guitar and that contain one or more open strings. By using open chords you can really focus on the sound of what you are playing and the music, instead of counting frets and transposing chords all the time, which will draw your attention away from the music.
If you do not know where to start, pick one of the keys above. For your information: C major / A minor is by far the most popular key in music.
Now let’s create a chord progression, which is simply a sequence of chords.
Again, I suggest that you start with an easy progression. Now that you have selected a key, just try other chords in your progression. Experiment with different number of those chords, different sequence.
Example: For the key of C major your could try C Major – G Major – A Minor – C Major. Or C Major – D Minor – G Major – C Major.
All of those two progressions are composed of chords listed in the respective key.
The most important: Rely on your ear: Cycle and play through the different chord possibilities and pick the one that you like the most.
Congratulations. You have just created your first rough sketch of a part of your song.
In case you didn’t find a progression for your song, I have described another approach using a <Chord!> further below in this tutorial.
What I did
Let’s see how I applied this method above on my song.
First I picked a key, namely D major. It’s not the number 1 key in terms of open chords in the list above, but it still ranks at number 3. The reason why I picked this key is because lately I had written a lot of songs in the key of A minor and E minor and I just wanted to use something different this time.
The next step was to create a chord progression.
I picked the progression D – G – A – D, which is the I – IV – V – I chord progression. I picked it because the two others chords in this progression, G and A, are open chords, so they are easy to play. Also, this progression is the classic three chord Rock’n’Roll progression. My background is actually in rock music, so I went for a real standard here. I just feel very comfortable using it and I really wanted to keep it simple.
So, this is how my D -G -A -D progression sounds like:
Tools you can use
In case you did not find the right progression for you: Autochords will generate different standard chord progressions based on a key and a mood you enter. That’s pretty nifty… less creative, but more choice. It’s up to you.
6. Add rhythm to song
Let’s add ingredient number 2 to your song: rhythm.
How to do it
Rhythm translates to speed (beats per minute or bpm) and time (4/4, 3/4, 6/8), with time being the more important aspect in my opinion.
If you don’t know what time you should pick, you can always use the safe bet, which is a 4/4 beat. It’s the most commonly used time in popular and rock music and you are for sure familiar with it.
However, I encourage you not to be afraid to experiment with other times as well. Writing a song is really a lot about trying things out that you have not tried before.
Once you have picked your time and speed, you often you play the chord in that time. You could for example repeat the first chord twice before playing chord 2, 3 and 4. Or you play all chords for the same amount of time.
Experiment with different timings when it comes to the chord change until you found a progression that works best for you.
The last step is to create the real rhythm of your progression. Let’s say you chose a 4/4 time. There are many ways how you can play a chord in a 4/4 bar. You could pick the strings like an arpeggio on every note (e.g. Nothing Else Matters by Metallica), or using a strumming pattern to strum the chord (e.g. something that Bob Dylan might do). You could strum the strings on all beats of the chord (1 – 2 – 3 – 4) or apply any other kind of strumming pattern.
Experiment with different techniques and patterns. Move from strumming to picking and vice versa, ad a rest somewhere in the pattern that you are just playing to see how it sounds.
In case you cannot come up with a pattern of your own, check the website out that I have linked in the tools section below.
Advice: This step is a real creative process and it might take some time until you feel you have it right. Don’t worry if you do not come up with something that pleases you within half an hour. It usually takes me 2-3 days with some breaks between my songwriting sessions to create a pattern that I really feel comfortable with.
What I did
For my song, I wanted to pick an odd-time signature of 3/4. 3/4 is the time of the Waltz, which is the typical music for Vienna. As my song was going to be about Austria, I deliberately chose to take this time.
So I played around with my little chord progression (D – G – A – D) in a 3/4 signature and this is how it sounded.
When it comes to the timing of the chord changes, I went for something very very simple: Just apply a chord change every bar.
By now I had a very rough sketch of a chord progession with a time. In my case, I wasn’t to happy how static my rhythm sounded… so I started playing around with changing emphasis on the time, until I came up with a rhythm that was actually in they key of 6/8.
You will hear that the progress between the two versions above is marginal, but still it has a very different feel to it. This is exactly what you want to achieve, moving your chord progression from a boring text-book situation to something with a real groove. Sometimes it really only takes small, small changes, but it’s really the detail that counts.
Tools you can use
StrumPatterns is an online library of different strumming patterns for different time signatures. It’s great to get some inspiration. The site might not work on mobile devices because they are using flash, though.
7. Add variations to your chords
I mentioned earlier that I like to start with keys that can be played with open chords on the guitar. The great thing with open chords is that you can play around with removing some fingers on the fretboard to change the sound of the chord.
How to do it
As you saw in the last paragraph, it really is just about small details that will make your song come to live. We are going now to apply this concept of small change on the chords that you have chosen before, to spice them up.
This technique will work very well on open chords. Starting with a standard chord shape and play around with removing one finger from the fretboard and let the open string sound instead. Here’s an example: play a D chord and now remove your finger on the high e string. Or move a finger when you play the G major chord. The chord shapes will change like this
As I said I don’t want to focus on the music theory behind it. The new chord you created has still the general feel of the D chord in the first case, but it sounds more open, creating tension and excitement.
I also like to try the following: If you have a chord change (for example G – C) try so substitute some of the notes of the latter with notes of the former. This could lead to something like this:
Put this in the context of a chord progression like Am – G – C. Try it out… this does sound interesting, doesn’t it?
You get the idea. Don’t be afraid to experiment and mix the notes of different chords. There are good examples of songs that take advantage of that technique (Oasis – Wonderwall) that play the same two notes throught all chord changes in the song. It really can spice up your progression tremendously.
What I did
In my case my progression started a D chord. I played around a bit and thought that removing one specific note on the fretboard (namely the F# on the high e string) created a sound that I really liked, much like in the example above.
I actually liked the sound of the F# – E variation so much that I applied it on the other chords in my progression, namely G and A. So I would play the F# on the G chord (instead of the G) and also for the A chord. And it sounded wonderful, the little F# – E theme was like a little thread through the whole progression (the soon-to-be verse of the song).
Technically speaking, it changed G to Gmaj7 and A to A7add13. Wow, that sounds like some scary Jazz chord stuff.. but who cares. We did this with our ears.. a musicians best tool when it comes to songwriting.
Sometimes this process can take a little time and you might need a break and start experimenting with a fresh head. This exercise will really pay off in the end.
Tools you can use
8. Write the Melody
When you write a song on the guitar, the most important part is actually the melody and vocal part. A lot of guitarists heavily understimate the importance of it. They think that the songwriting is done with harmony and rhythm. It isn’t. The vocals (melody and lyrics) are the destinguishing feature of your song and if you don’t get this right, you won’t have a song that touches your audience.
My uneducated guess is: The power of a song lies 30% in harmony and rhythm and 70% in vocals.
How to do it
We will start with the melody first and then think about the lyrics.
Here’s another big pitfall, I have heard it so many times and don’t want you guys to tap into it: do not overload your vocal melody. Try to make it simple and give your melody a rest (or two). If your vocal melody is a constant flow of notes, it WILL lose its power. A melody needs rests in order to have room to breathe.
How do you come up with your melody? Play your chord progression repeatedly and hum some notes over it. This is how I always do it. I will admit that this is really tricky part and will need some time to come naturally, but eventually, it will.
Once you have a melody (or a fragment of a melody) that you feel is fit for your song, repeat it immediately and start playing this fragment in a loop. While doing so, try to come up with some dummy words first. Or if no dummy words come to your head, just sing la la la at the beginning. The important step here is to fix the melody line. Record it somewhere (I will usually use my mobile phone for that).
Move on to the next part of the melody that you want to create. Don’t forget to put a rest into your melody.
Repeat until you have your full melody.
Now that the melody is composed, you know how many words and syllables you will need to fit into your melody. It might feel like a constraint, but it isn’t. It will force you to focus on the essential in your lyrics. Again, less is more.
I will cover the lyric writing process in another article because it is an art of its own.
What I did
I wrote above that I really liked the F# – E variation in my chords. So I build the melody line around it. When you listen carefully to the melody, you will hear that the F# and the E are included in every phrase of the verse.
Also note, how I added a lot of rests into the vocal melody line. The vocal line does not start at the count of 1, but later. You will also notice that I carefully tried not to put too many notes into the line, there is actually a lot of silence.
Tools you can use
The best way is to actually record your chord progression and play it back in a loop. Since you do not need to play the guitar and get chords and timing right, this will allow you to focus more on the melody creation. The disadvantage of this technique, however, is that you cannot iterate on your guitar line because it is set so it will take away some of your freedom to improvise while coming up with the melody. But in my opinion, this is worth it.
You can use any sound recorder that is available either on your computer or even your mobile phone. I personally use Hi-Q MP3 Rec (Free).
9. Some more hints on harmony
I suggested above a way to create your harmony and chord progression for your song from a standard chord progression.
There is a really cool way to do this with an app, which I’m going to show you here.
I use a tool called Chord! that is available for both Android and iOS. And I use a specific feature of that app: Scales and Scale harmonization.
So what does this app do? It will show all chords that work with the key you wrote your song in without the need to know anything about music theory. It even plays them back to you and shows you different ways to play the chord.
This app has been extremely helpful for me when I’m writing songs on my guitar. And that’s exactly what we need here, right?
I really love this app and there is a free version available. I used it a lot in my songwriting sessions and if you guys find it as useful as I did, give the creator a hand and buy the premium one which has many more features in it.
I used the app to create the chorus of my song, which is actually more complex than the verse. First, let’s see all chords that are available for the key of D.
So, we know now that the chords that we can actually use with our D major key are:
D, Em, F#m, G, A, Bm, C#dim
Hey… and look, our two chords from the verse also show up: G, A.
But there is a lot of other chords that we can use in our chorus.
Just play those chords in random order to see how they sound together and which chords follows which chord best.
Let’s first look at the timing. In the verse, I was playing the chords over two bars (D one bar, Dsus2 one bar). In the chorus, I will play each chord just over one bar, giving the chorus more dynamics and creating a climax.
In my case, I came up with this progression for the first part of the chorus:
G, A, D, Hm
C#dim, F#m, Hm, Hm
This is already a bit more complex than the progression we had before. We put it together only with the help of the app, no music theory knowledge necessary.
But you might hear that there is some potential in spicing this up a little bit. So let’s do it: Play each chord separately and see if you can add spice by adding or removing notes in that chord.
Here is what I came up with in my song.
For G we already know what to do. Let’s play it back exactly as we did in the verse, namely as Gmaj7.
For A, I removed the middle finger (the octave), to give me A7.
For D, I chose to move my F# to G,which will create a Dsus4 chord. I did this because The G will lead perfectly to the F# on the high e string in the Bm chord.
I like the sound of the F# in our Bm chord, so I extend the C#dim chord to include the F#.
I replace the F#m chord with F#aug7. This is a trick that I once came across in a Jamiroquai song and I just love the sound of that chord and how it actually leads to the Bm chord.
Bm I leave untouched, I just add a little variation in the second one by removing my index from the second fret, playing the A in the bass over the Bm chord which will create a nice bassline towards the G, which I chose to play in the second part.
For the second part, I picked the following chords:
G, Em, F#m, Hm
Em, A, D
Let’s spice that up again:
G to Gmaj7. Em we leave untouched, it sounds rich. We replace again F#m with F#aug7. Bm we leave untouched. Em we leave untouched.
And as we return to the verse, we just take over the chords as we played them in the verse, replacing A with A7add13 and then D.
And Chord! can help you find even more chords! It’s really amazing. Just select 4 notes instead of 3 in your scale harmonization screen:
You can hear the full song in the song widget at the beginning of this article.
10. The last thing to do
If you have followed the steps above, chances are that you have a song written by now. The best way to progress on this, add instrumentation and arrange it is to play it together with other musicians.
In my case, I met a great keyboarder from Germany on sofasession and worked on this song in a couple of online sessions with him. We came up together with a great arrangement and cool instrumentation. It was a great way to play my song to a professional audience and get their feedback.
Thanks for reading this
I really hope that this tutorial was helpful to you and that it will help you to write a song on the guitar. If you have any comments, please let me know in the comment section below, I will be happy to help you out.
If you think this tutorial can be helpful for any musician friend of yours, of course, you are welcome to share it.
I am going to release a PDF version of this article soon enough, so be sure to check it out once it is done.
Last protip: When you register for sofasession, you will be notified via e-mail when it is ready.
Songwriting for guitar PDF
Natalia covered the songwriting for all types of musicians in her blogpost How to write a song in 10 easy steps (beginners).