Writing a song can be one of the most satisfying experiences you’ll have with your instrument! Guitar teacher Samuel B. shares three things every guitarist should know about writing a song on guitar…
As a teacher, having you develop the ability to express yourself is my number one goal. Playing guitar solos is one form of personal expression. Writing songs is another. If you’ve never written a song, you might think of songwriting as something that only a few special people can do. In reality, nothing is further from the truth.
Anyone Can Write a Song
During an 1990s interview in Performing Songwriter Magazine, John Mellencamp was asked whether or not songwriting is something that comes naturally to him. His response was “I think everyone’s a songwriter.” He compared songwriting to shooting baskets and hitting baseballs. There are, of course, people with greater abilities than others, but he made it clear that songwriting is not something that only five people in the world can do.
Lionel Ritchie once slapped his hand rhythmically on the arm of a chair in response to a very similar question. “All of you who can hear a song or a melody playing in your head right now,” he said. “You’re a songwriter.” Songwriting requires no special training or qualifications – only the ability to hear music and the desire to create it. Although I teach soloing only at a set point in the curriculum (after you’ve learned chords in the keys of C, D, and E), songwriting skills can be taught at any time.
Most American Songs Are All Loosely Based On The Same Three Chords
E, A, and B7th are as basic to the key of E as D, G, and A7th are to D, and C, F, and G7th are to C. These are three examples of the I-IV-V chord progression which can be heard in campfire songs, gospel, contemporary country, rock, folk, and (of course) the blues. The pattern gets its name from the fact that C is the first note of the C scale (just as F is the 4th and G is the 5th). Although you’ll want to make variations in each song (such as the amount of time you play each chord), you’ll be surprised how many options three chords will provide you.
You may decide to write a song with verses and choruses only (ie “This Land Is Your Land”). You may decide to add a bridge (which you will play only once). You may decide to include verses and a bridge only. Whatever your preference, you will likely want to include a minor chord somewhere in the mix for variety’s sake. Am is the appropriate choice for a song in the key of C (just as Bm is for a song in the key of D and Cm is for one in E).
Bridges Are Often Structurally Simpler Than Verses And Choruses
One song I teach that’s become a favorite of at least one student is Bob Dylan’s “Man In The Long Black Coat.” The entire song involves four chords (Em, G, D, and C), includes verses and a bridge only, and involves fewer chord changes during the bridge than the verses. The Em, G, and D progression is repeated four times during a verse before a full measure of C interrupts the flow. The verse concludes with one final round of the Em, G, and D sequence.
The bridge, however, begins with a full measure of C. Its second measure involves two strums of D and two strums of Em before another full of measure of C is played. Just like in the verses, the bridge concludes with a single go-around of the opening sequence (Em, G, and D). You might think of the bridge as the song’s chance to “air out.” For the musician, it’s actually a more relaxing part of the song as it tends to be where both the tempo and the rate of chord changes decrease.
Although these are all important guidelines for how to get started, you may find that your compositional preferences involve more (or fewer) chords than those I’ve recommended. You might become absorbed in an elaborate picking pattern that requires fewer than three chords. You might branch out into jazz a bit and want to embellish a four-chord song with some additional variants (ie minor seventh, ninth, augmented, and/or diminished chords). Songwriting is a process (not a product) in which you slowly discover who you are as a musician. Enjoy the ride!
Samuel B. teaches beginner guitar lessons in Austin, TX. He teaches lessons face-to-face without sheet music, which is his adaptation of Japanese instruction (involving a call-and-response method). Learn more about Samuel here!
Photo by Greg Roberts