Even if you just started learning to play guitar, you already have the tools to write your first song. Guitar teacher Aimee B. shares how to get started…
You can write a song on guitar as early as after your first lesson or once you’ve learned a few basic chords. Whether you ultimately want to accompany your lead vocal, jam with others, or to be a wailing lead guitarist, you can, at anytime, write your own unique song.
So where do you begin? How do you write a song? Here’s how to write a song using only three chords.
Listen to the pros. Numerous hits have been written using only three chords. Below is a list of ten songs that use three easy guitar chords.
I, IV, V
- “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” (G, C, D) — Bob Dylan
- “Tush” (G, C, D) — ZZ Top
- “Sweet Home Alabama” (G, C, D) — Lynyrd Skynyrd
- “Atmosphere ” (A, D, E) — Joy Division
- “Release” (G, C, D) — Pearl Jam
I, V, IV
- “Rock Around the Clock” (E, B, A) — Bill Haley & His Comets
- “Margaritaville” (D, A, G) — Jimmy Buffett
- “Wild Thing” (A, D, E) — The Troggs
- “Get it On” (E, A, G) — T. Rex
- “505” (Dm, Em) — Arctic Monkeys
Roman numerals are used to describe the chord progression, independent from what key you are in. For example, if you are in the key of G, the chords of the harmonized G scale are:
- A capital letter or roman numeral indicates a major chord.
- A lower-case letter or roman numeral indicates a minor chord.
- “Dim” refers to a diminished chord.
Notice that eight out of the 10 hits listed above use the I, IV, and V chords. This is the arguably the most common chord progression in popular music. And this is where I suggest you start writing your first song.
A very common and simple song format uses just two parts: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, etc.
The verse is the main narrative section of the song, or the part where the writer describes what is going on in the song. It is the place where the setting is established and characters and actions are introduced; in other words, where the story happens.
Here are a couple example verses:
Verse of “Knocking on Heavens Door”
Mama, take this badge off of me
I can’t use it anymore.
It’s gettin’ dark, too dark to see
I feel I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door.
Verse of “Margaritaville”
Nibblin’ on sponge cake,
watchin’ the sun bake;
All of those tourists covered with oil.
Strummin’ my six string on my front porch swing.
Smell those shrimp
They’re beginnin’ to boil.
The chorus is often the most memorable and sing-along-friendly part of the song. It is the part that people will recall most readily when they ask, “Hey, do you know that song that goes like this…?” The chorus repeats numerous times, and it serves to drive home the overall sentiment or feeling being expressed.
The chorus is also the place reserved for a “hook” (easily-remembered melodic or lyric phrase that repeats throughout song). A chorus can be one hook phrase repeated, like in “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” or a group of words repeated, like in “Margaritaville” or “Wild Thing.”
Chorus of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”
Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door
Chorus of “Margaritaville”
Wasted away again in Margaritaville,
Searchin’ for my lost shaker of salt.
Some people claim that there’s a woman to blame,
But I know it’s nobody’s fault.
Chorus of “Wild Thing”
Wild thing, you make my heart sing
You make everything groovy, wild thing
Take a moment to listen to the ten songs listed above, and see if you can identify the verses and choruses.
You may also run across a third section that appears only once in a song that doesn’t sound like either the verse or the chorus. This is called the bridge of the song, and it serves to break the momentum and monotony of the song, while offering a very specific outlook on the lyrical information in the verses and choruses.
To keep it simple for your very first song, however, you do not need to write a bridge.
Easy Form for your First Song
Here is a suggested song form to start with to keep things very simple. You can write as many verses as you want while keeping one chorus that repeats throughout the song. It might look something like this:
Keys of G, C, or D
- I, V, IV: (G, D, C), (C, G, F), or (D, A, G)
- V, IV, I: (D, C, G), (G, F, C), or (A, G, D)
I, V, IV on each of the four lines
V, IV, I on each of the four lines
Here is a sample of my own first verse and chorus as an example.
“Summer Love” by Aimee Bobruk
G D C C
I can see us when I close my eyes
G D C C
Runin’ away on the 4th of July
G D C C
Under a sky glowing with sparks
G D C C C
You took my hand and pulled me into the dark
D C G G
As you’re experimenting with how to write a song, try to come up with a simple melody that you can remember and have fun while playing. A million melodies can fit over the same exact chord progression, so your choices are endless. You can explore using some rhymes at the end of lines or write free verse with no rhymes.
Just remember: Put the story part of the song in the verses, and reserve the chorus for your catchy phrase or theme.
Have a blast!
Photo by Daniel Montemayor