You’ve spent countless hours practicing how to play all your favorite songs on guitar. Now you think you’re ready for a new challenge. Namely, you want to write your own songs on the guitar.
The problem is, you have no idea how to write a song on the guitar.
Where do you even start?
What are some steps you should follow for your first foray into songwriting?
In this post, you’ll learn exactly how to write a song guitar step by step.
Here’s a quick summary of all the guitar songwriting tips we’ll be discussing in the post.
To write a song on the guitar, just follow these 10 simple steps:
- Begin by thinking about the genre and style of your song (genre can be a little loosey-goosey, but the style should be more clearly defined)
- Select some chords (such as Am, G, F, Em, Dm, or C)
- Work your way up to a four-bar chord progression
- Find the song’s tune as you begin coming up with lyrics
- Use rhythmic subdivisions for more varied chords
- Decide on the structure of your song, like verse-chorus-verse or even something different
- Consider including arpeggios, further chord progressions, or scales to your song
- Get everything down on paper or tape
- Let the song rest for a while
- Come back to the song and refine it as needed
That was a lot we just threw at you, but don’t worry. In this article, we’ll walk you through each of these 10 steps, giving you all the info you need to write your very first song!
How to write a song on guitar in 10 Simple Steps
1. Selecting the Genre and Style of the Song
Some artists don’t like to be pigeonholed into genres, and you may feel the same way yourself. Without defining at least a loose musical genre, though, you can’t really begin in any one clear direction with your songwriting.
To pick the genre, look at the music you most like to listen to. You probably already play songs in this genre anyway if you practice tunes from all your favorite bands and artists. That makes it easier to assimilate to the genre as well.
With the genre decided, you can choose a style you want to play in. For example, in the rock genre, ‘90s grunge sounds a lot different than pop-rock.
You might want to stick to a more comfortable, familiar style for your songwriting, at least for your first few tunes. After all, you’re still trying to get the basics under your belt. You can wait until you’ve written a few more songs before you strive to reinvent the wheel.
2. Choosing Chords to Start with
Woo-hoo! You know the genre and style you want to write your song in. Now you need guitar chords to make the song happen.
While there are countless chords out there to explore, you want ones that sound good together. If you’ve learned music theory, then you’ll know more about grouping chords together. If you want to stick to chords in A minor or C major keys, then you should base your song around chords like Am, G, F, Em, Dm, and/or C.
Yes, that’s only six chords, which may seem a little limiting. That said, you have plenty of options for combining the above chords. For instance, you can play in Em-C-Am, Em-Am-G-C, or even something like F-G-C or C-F-G.
Remember once again that you’re trying to learn the basics here, as this is your first song. You don’t have to use the above chords or chord combinations exclusively, but they’re a good starting point. After all, they’re guaranteed to sound harmonious when played together, which will bolster your confidence in your songwriting.
3. Advancing to a Four-Bar Chord Progression
The above examples of chords grouped together are known as chord progressions. If you have four chords in one progression, that’s a four-bar chord progression. You can also have a bar with three chords in your four-bar progression. In that case, you’d take one of the three chords and repeat it in that fourth slot. For instance, you might play Am-C-Em-Em using the chords above.
Four-bar chord progressions will become the skeleton of your song. You can even use chord progressions as your main guitar riff, or a short repeating part. Noodle around on your guitar and see what works and feels best for you. Once you get some four-bar chord progressions down, you’ll be cooking with gas.
4. Working out the Tune and Writing Lyrics
With some chord progressions at the ready, you can begin tinkering around and figuring out what the tune will be to your song. This isn’t something we can really advise you on, nor should you want someone to. It’s your chance to flex your songwriting muscle, as it’s hopefully one you’ll strengthen many times in the coming months and years.
Here’s what we will suggest: don’t listen to your inner voice too much. You’re probably going to tell yourself that everything you come up with is awful. Rather than judge all your musical outputs, stick with a few and see how far they take you. Then assess them later when you have a more fleshed-out song in your midst.
After you figure out out the tune that will carry your song, you can add to the song in a major way. We’re talking, of course, about writing lyrics.
The lyrics will fit in naturally according to the tune and chord progressions you’ve dreamed up thus far. Writing lyrics might not come nearly as naturally, at least at first. Once again, you’re going to think everything you come up with is terrible. That’s okay. You don’t have to be a masterful lyricist during your first stab at it.
Just write down what comes to mind. What if you’re drawing a complete blank? You have several options for lyrical content. You can take a basic concept like rain and use it as a thematic element for your lyrics. Another idea could be to examine past experiences you’ve lived through or those of your family or friends that are especially poignant to you. You might even create characters and a story.
Don’t agonize over your lyrics forever. You can put a few hours, maybe even several days into writing them, but don’t pour all your time and creative energy here. The great part about lyrics is that they’re not set in stone. You can always come back to them later, and you more than likely will.
5. Implementing Rhythmic Subdivisions
If your song feels a little hollow so far, you might be interested in using rhythmic subdivisions. These break up a song so you’re not just repeating the same few chords across the whole tune. Instead, you’re changing up your rhythm so it’s more varied and unique.
To add some rhythmic subdivisions into your in-progress song, you want to assess the chords in your bar. Then, for each chord, strum it several times. If you’re writing down your music, you might add elements like a dotted crochet, quavers, or regular crochets to demarcate how the chords should be broken up or repeated.
If all this sounds too complex for you right now, that’s okay. There’s no rule that your song must have rhythmic subdivisions. It’s just something to consider if you want to write a completer song with more going on in it.
6. Sharpening the Song Structure
You’ve come a long way with your first song on guitar, but you’re not quite done yet. You next want to find the song structure if you haven’t already. As we said, some songs are structured like verse-chorus-verse while others might be something like verse-bridge-chorus-verse-bridge-chorus-solo-chorus.
Other songs eschew basic song structure altogether. That might be your goal someday, but for now, it’s better to keep things simple.
Of all the parts of your song that will dominate your attention, the chorus is probably the biggest one. This is what people sing when they hear the song on the radio (or on Spotify or YouTube), so you want to make it memorable.
Musically, this will mean changing up the chords from the verses and the riff. Lyrically, you don’t want to think too hard. Some of the most beloved songs have no words in the chorus at all! Feel the song and let the chorus come to you from there.
7. Adding Flourishes like Arpeggios and Scales
Do you feel like your song could still use some more oomph? You don’t have to leave it as-is if you’re not really into it yet. There are some more songwriting elements that can spruce up your song even further.
One of these is the arpeggio. With this, you take a chord sequence and pull the notes from it. Arpeggios are also referred to as broken chords. The word is Italian and translates “to play on a harp,” although you can obviously play arpeggios on guitars and other stringed instruments.
Arpeggios come in different patterns and can help you greatly if you want to attempt a guitar solo during your first songwriting session. This isn’t something you have to do by any means, but the option is there if you want to take it.
You can also introduce scales to your song. Guitar scales are represented in sequences and may be minor or major. Scales are like chord progressions in that they sound great when paired together, such as scales in A minor pentatonic. You can use them to enhance your songwriting or to form parts of your song.
Don’t forget your chords! You can always feel free to add more to your song if you think it will improve it.
8. Recording or Writing Down Your Work
You’ve followed the above steps and you’re really excited about how well your song is coming together. It sounds like, well, a fully-realized song, at least for the most part. Now, some songwriters can’t get songs out of their heads until they’re written down or recorded. You may or may not fit into that group, but at the risk of losing your material, you better jot down what you have so far.
You could even record an early version of the song should you want to. No matter which way you record it, make sure the song is saved in some form. You want both the musical and lyrical components of the song so you can come back to them.
9. Giving the Song a Break
Now give yourself permission to forget the song, at least for a little while. It’s natural to be critical of your songwriting at the beginning, but nitpicking and obsessing will do you no favors. If you look at anything for too long, it’s easy to begin picking it apart. Sometimes what you think is bad now turns out to be pretty good when you look at it later.
The only way to get that perspective shift is to take a break. You have the song written down and/or recorded. It’s not going anywhere. Even if you by chance forget some of the parts now that the song is out of your system, you can go back and look at your records for how to play it.
Take a day or two away from the song. If you can’t spare that kind of time, then at least give it a few hours before getting back to things. You’ve now had a chance to kick back a little and focus on other endeavors. Maybe you even got a good night’s sleep or two.
This break gives you a chance to come back to the song with fresh eyes. Like we said before, maybe something you thought was terrible isn’t so bad on the second listen. Perhaps you come back to the song full of ideas that you allowed to grow over time. Now you can craft the song to be even better.
10. Tweaking and Finishing Your Song
If you do want to work on the song further, that would be the last step of the process. You can take as much time to do this as you need, but do know when to pause and leave the song be for a while.
Unless you have a recording contract, the song never has to stay exactly the same. Your favorite band likely has a song or two in their catalog with a live or demo version that’s very different to what later came out on an album. You too have the same license to keep working on your song, using different inspirations and skills until the song is finally where you want it.
Then, once you’re happy with it, it’s time to start the process all over again with your second song!
I hope you found this comprehensive step by step guide on how to write a song on guitar helpful!
Writing your first song on guitar can seem very difficult if you’ve never attempted songwriting before. It’s best to use your favorite musical inspirations, such as genre and style, to shape this first song. Then you want to add chords, chord progressions, a song structure, lyrics, and fun additions like arpeggios or scales if you so wish.
It’s natural to feel uncertain and doubtful of your abilities as a songwriter at first. Just know that your favorite musician has been in that same spot before.
But once you learn how to write a song on guitar, it’ll truly allow you to express yourself as a musician.
With time, practice, and some confidence, you can overcome your concerns and write songs you’re truly proud of!