A Guide to Writing Instrumental Neoclassical Guitar Songs

Different people learn to play guitar for different reasons. 

Some people want to learn their favourite songs, some people want to play in bands and play guitar solos…

and some people want to be able to compose, record and perform their own songs. 

This article is going to look at the different topics that you need to study in order to be able to compose neoclassical instrumental guitar songs. 

So, if you’re into players like Yngwie Malmsteen, Tony McAlpine and Joe Satriani; and you want to write your own instrumental guitar songs, read on! 

This article is especially applicable to guitarists who play neoclassical guitar and are interested in composing their own music.

In order to reach the level where you can compose and record your own instrumental guitar songs, there are several areas that need to be studied, which broadly fall under the following categories:

  • Guitar technique 
  • Basic music theory 
  • Harmony 
  • Melody
  • Form
  • Arrangement 
  • Music Technology / DAW Skills

Let’s talk about each of these different areas and what they involve:

Guitar Technique

While guitar technique is not strictly needed to compose your own instrumental pieces, I’m going to assume that you are interested in playing the music that you write – whether you are going to upload your songs to YouTube, or play them live with a band (or both!). 

Studying and practising your technique will allow you to take the music you write, and with practice, you will be able to confidently and effectively perform it. 

I’m going to assume that we are talking about technically challenging music, in which case you will want to make sure you are well versed in the following areas of technique:

  • Economy picking 
  • Sweep picking 
  • Ornamentation 
  • Rhythm
  • Applied music theory 
  • Chords
  • Tapping (optional)

I put tapping as optional as you can perform complex pieces you compose without using tapping. 

Studying basic sweep picking has tremendous benefits to your playing, even if you are not interested in ripping through arpeggios, I would recommend every electric guitar player at least studies two string sweep picking and learns to apply it to scale runs.

Covering each of these topics requires a well constructed course of lessons, and some of them are quite tricky to learn properly without good guidance.

You will also want to make sure that in addition to studying these topics individually, you work on integrating the topics together.

For example, can you transition from a picking run into a sweep picked arpeggio? 

Can you switch between rhythm and lead playing effectively?

Can you place a nice vibrato on the last note of a sweep picked arpeggio without going out of time? 

Integrating techniques is what make your playing sound more musical. You can see some examples of this in the following free guitar lesson on making your sweep picking more musical.

Integrating these techniques will be very helpful when it comes to performing your compositions, as “real music” requires you constantly switch between techniques.

Hopefully this goes without saying, but if you are serious about improving your technique, you should be using a metronome.

To What Level Should Your Technique be Developed before You Start Composing?

It might be tempting to think that you “must” develop a very advanced technique before you start composing music. 

This is what I ended up doing, though not by intention. 

For example, I ended up developing my picking to around 1000 notes per minute before I worked on the theory necessary to be able to compose my own music properly. 

However, I would recommend that you develop your compositional skills and playing skills in parallel. 

While you are developing your technique, compose pieces that push your ability, but are within your ability, to play. 

So if you are more at the beginner end of the spectrum, maybe you’ll want to leave out the 16th note scale runs at 150bpm. 

If you are more advanced, then maybe having harmonised sweep picking with triplet 16ths at 140bpm is a good idea. 

Basic Music Theory

Before studying any of the more advanced music theory that we are going to discuss, you will want to be well versed in the basics of music theory. 

The basics of music theory cover the following topics:

It would also be very useful to learn how to read musical notation and apply it on guitar. 

If you are serious about composition, then learning to read notation is a must.

Notation allows you to work with music on a very technical level and understand music in a depth that is impossible to players to can’t read. 

We’ll go into more detail about the benefits of being able to read notation in another post.

Harmony

What is the study of harmony?

Harmony refers to the vertical element of music. 

Another way to think about it, is that harmony refers to how we combine notes that sound together simultaneously.

Harmony is the study of chords.

A topic within harmony is “voice leading”, which is the study of how one chord moves to the next.

A great place to start the study of harmony, is by studying what is referred to as the “Common Practice Period”, sometimes abbreviated to CPP. 

The common practice period is loosely spans 1650 – 1900 and covers tonal music (tonal music loosely means nice music).

Studying the CPP approach to harmony will give you a wealth of knowledge on how to write interesting, musical and emotional chord progressions.

Why study harmony? 

Studying harmony will unlock an endless combination of chords that you can use.

By effectively studying harmony, you will be able to sit down with a pencil and paper and write a chord progression which will not only work, but also sound good. 

Harmony is what gives music momentum, it creates a feeling of anticipation and surprises the listener.

Harmony creates tension and drama in your music.

A lot of the emotion in music comes from how harmony is used. 

When you hear a piece of music that is driving forwards, to leading the listener towards the conclusion, you are listening to an effective use of harmony. 

You can see some examples of minor key chord progressions here.

The Importance of Harmony to Melody

The emotion in melody, largely, comes from the harmony that is under the melody.

When we listen to a melody (we’ll come to melody in a minute), you are not listening to the note that is being played, you are listening to the relationship of that note to the harmony that is being played by the other instruments (or the implied harmony, which is a topic for another day). 

For example, the chords C major and A minor both contain the note E. 

If you were to play the note E on guitar over a C major chord, then an A minor chord, you will hear that it has a different emotional quality, depending on the chord. 

So by studying harmony, you can create music that will draw the listener in as well as giving your melody an emotional depth that most guitar players can only dream of. 

Harmony and Voice Leading 

When it comes to studying harmony, the topic covers not just the vertical element of music, e.g. moving form one chord to another, but also voice leading, which is how we move from one chord to another.

This is a very important topic. 

Applying voice leading effectively to your compositions will add another depth of complexity and beauty to your music. 

It will also allow you to understand why some melodies are more effective than others.

If you want to add orchestral instruments to your music (this especially applies to anyone interested in writing symphonic metal) then studying voice leading is vital. 

Without effective voice leading, your orchestral instruments will sound blurry, muddy, like they are getting in the way and lifeless. 

With effective voice leading, your orchestral instruments will sound rich, beautiful and they will add an exciting layer to your music.

Harmony and Roman Numeral Analysis

In modern music, we approach the analysis of harmony using what is called roman numeral analysis. 

This allows us to classify chords into a system that shows us how they work together. 

This method of analysis can be applied to everything from rock music to classical music, and allows us to understand why certain pieces of music sound the way they do.

Understanding this then allows us to replicate these sounds in our own music. 

Roman Numeral Analysis is a vital component of harmony, and the modern approach to studying CPP uses Roman Numeral Analysis all the time.

You can see an example of roman numeral analysis in the following piece for string quartet (composed by myself): 

Classical string quartet piece demonstrating roman numeral analysis.
At the bottom of the score, you can see a series of roman numerals. This is a method of harmonic analysis that allows us to categorise and structure chord progressions. The piece is a small ternary piece for string quartet that I composed.

Melody

What is Melody?

Melody can be thought of as the horizontal element of music.

Melody is how we move from one note to the next.

As a guitar player wanting to write instrumental music, the “melody” is probably what you will be playing on guitar. 

Although, having said that, there is no reason you can’t compose a piece where the melody is on cello, or violin, or switches between violin and guitar… or some other combination.

The possibilities with how you arrange or orchestrate your melody are nearly limitless. 

But this is something we’ll come back to when we talk about arrangement later on.

The study of melody can be broken down into the following areas:

  • Chord tones 
  • Non-harmonic tones 
  • Compound melodies
  • Melodic variation 

Here is an example of a melody, written for electric guitar:

Melody written for electric guitar.

Why Study Melody?

Studying melody allows you to sit down with a pencil and paper (or open up MuseScore / Logic Pro), look at a chord sequence you have written (because you have studied harmony), and simply write a melody.

It may not be the greatest melody in the world, but it will work.

And if it isn’t the greatest melody in the world, you will understand different techniques and approaches you can experiment with in order to vary the melody until you do like it. 

Another great benefit to understanding how to write melodies, is that it gets around a problem a lot of guitarist suffer from – they struggle to write anything new, or to put it another way, everything they write sounds the same.

Having your musical ideas all sound the same comes from writing “with your hands”. 

When you use your hands to come up with new ideas, you will subconsciously be engaging your muscle memory.

Your muscle memory recalls things you’ve done in the past, hence your ideas come out sounding very similar. 

When you use musical notation to write out melodies, you get a “big picture” view of what the music doing. 

When you have this big picture, it is very easy to experiment, change, or edit your ideas; or even to write out ideas that are very different to each other.

This is another very powerful benefit to learning to read musical notation.

Form

What is Form in Music?

Form is a fancy word for “structure”, or, how to take a short idea and build on it to write a full length piece of music. 

The study of form starts with what is called a 2 bar basic idea, quickly building up to what are known as “themes”, which tend to be 8 bars to 24 bars long. 

There are several different types of theme, although, learning just two types of theme will quickly allow you to start writing interesting and captivating music. 

Anyone looking for a good place to start should learn the themes known as a “sentence” and a “period”. 

Themes are then built into the following full length pieces:

  • Binary
  • Small Ternary
  • The Standard
  • The Rondo
  • The Sonata
  • The Concerto
  • The Song 
  • Theme and Variations

Some of these structures are more complex than others. 

Some of these structures can also be combined within each other, allowing you to write quite complex pieces of music.

Modern instrumental music tends to revolve around song structure, but some players such as Joe Satriani will use rondos and standards in their compositions. 

The sonata and concerto were very popular in years gone by and tend not to be used these days, even in the classical world, however, there is no reason we can’t use them for writing pieces. 

The sonata and the concerto have a much more complex structure than the other types of theme and will generally take longer to write, and longer to perform!

Benefits of Studying Form

A lot of guitar players seem to have no trouble creating ideas. 

In fact, if you’ve been playing for a while, you probably have a collection of riffs and ideas that you have built for yourself.

However, where a lot of guitar players do struggle, is turning those ideas into longer, full length pieces. 

And this is where studying form can really save the day. 

The study of form gives you a collection of different structures you can use, almost in a “plug and play” manner. 

This works because in the different forms, different sections relate to each other in a particular way. 

Start off with one of your ideas. Pick a form. Write the next section according to the rules for that particular form. 

Done. 

While that is a simplification, that is the process. 

When it comes to turning your ideas into full length pieces of music, form is a key piece of the puzzle. 

When you have studied harmony and melody, it is straightforwards to write additional sections according to the rules of the particular form that you are using.

Arrangement 

What is Arrangement?

Arrangement is the study of how we go from having music for one instrument (typically, guitar players write the guitar parts first), to having music for a full band / orchestra.

So from a rock perspective, arrangement would be the study of how we add drums, bass guitar, possibly keyboards to the music we have written.

This tends to be technically less complex than the other areas that we have talked about, but is no less vital. 

Making the arrangement “work” is largely dependent on having a firm understanding of harmony and voice leading.

If your harmony and voice leading is solid, adding additional instruments will be very easy – you use them to fill out extra voices that haven’t yet been used, or to simply double other others. 

It is sometimes as simple as copy and pasting one part an octave higher (or lower) on another instrument.

If your harmony and voice leading skills are weak, you will find adding extra parts difficult, because they will often clash with the existing music. 

Hopefully you are starting to see how these different areas of study build on each other.

Why Study Arrangement?

Unless you want to write music for solo guitar (and there is nothing wrong with that), you’ll be wanting to at least add drums and bass to your compositions. 

Understanding the basics of how to write drum patterns and how to write bass guitar parts will allow you to quickly write parts that work with your composition. 

Understanding how a choir, strings, keyboards and other instruments work allows you to add additional layers to your music and fill out the sound in ways that can sounds epic. 

Arrangement and Melody

Earlier when discussing melody, it was briefly mentioned that we would revisit melody in arrangement. 

Hopefully you are starting to see how a lot of these topics are connected. 

As guitar players, it is very tempting to have a “guitar first” approach to writing music. 

And this is understandable, as we play guitar. 

However, there are many other instruments available that we can write for. 

Maybe we can take the melody that we wrote, and have it played on a cello, or a violin, instead of guitar? 

Maybe we can take the melody that we wrote, and start it on guitar, and finish it on a wind section doubling in octaves? 

Maybe the first time we hear the melody it’s being sung by a soft choir, and then we play a variation of that melody on guitar? 

As you can see, there are a lot of ways that we can approach melody. 

The more you start to think of the guitar as “an instrument” rather than “the instrument”, the more your mind will start to think of possibilities and combinations. 

If you want to have a go at being creative with this, write out some possible combinations of instruments you can use for melodies on paper, and then have a go at composing your ideas.

What “Order” Should You Use to Compose a Song?

Now that we have covered several different topics, you might be wondering, “Once I have studied this topics, how do I actually go about composing some music?”. 

Well, the answer is, it doesn’t matter what you start with – just pick something and get started. 

Allow me to explain. 

You could write a melody that you like, then harmonise it, then apply form to turn it into a full length piece and arrange it.

You could write a chord progression that you like, then write a melody over the top, then arrange it and then apply form to have a complete piece of music. 

There are no “rules” for which order you have to do any of these steps in, but they will all need to be applied at some point. 

You will probably find there is a process that works for you, and the only way to find that will be with a bit of trial and error. 

Music Tech / DAW Skills

A vital part of being a modern musician / composer is understanding the technology on a deep level, so that you can focus on creating and no get stuck trying to make your programs work. 

You are going to need programs that accomplish two things:

  1. Allow you to notate your ideas 
  2. Allow you to record your ideas and produce demos

Amongst guitar players, Guitar Pro is an incredibly popular program for notating ideas. Built for guitar players, it has a “tab first” perspective on how it works – entering music as guitar tab is incredibly easy. 

It also has the most in depth guitar notation of any program on the market.

However, as a consequence, entering music in notation, while it can be done, is a bit more clunky.

MuseScore is a program that has a “music first” perspective to how it works, and can work in notation and tab. Entering notation on MuseScore is incredibly fast, and tab is pretty good, btu not quite as good as Guitar Pro. 

Guitar Pro also has a lot more features and detail to what the tab can do than MuseScore.

If you are working from notation perspective, I would be inclined to use MuseScore, as it is much faster. If you want to “tidy up” the guitar tabs afterwards, you can always do so in Guitar Pro once you have finished composing in MuseScore. 

When it comes to recording your ideas and making demos, you will need what is known as a “Digital Audio Workstation”, often abbreviated to DAW. 

There are three industry standard programs for DAWs:

  • Logic Pro
  • Cubase 
  • Pro Tools

Logic Pro tends to be slightly better for working with MIDI and Pro Tools has a few more options for editing / mastering audio. 

I’ve not used Cubase myself, but a lot of studios around the world run on it, and hey, if Hans Zimmer uses it, it can’t be that bad. 

I find Logic Pro does have a great user interface compared to other programs. 

It also has a great score editor, allowing you to work in notation and tab. 

So you can have your guitar tabs and instruments all written out in Logic, and also record in there too. 

Having everything inside one program is pretty fantastic. 

Logic Pro can record and edit your music, aswell as having your guitar tabs, so that you can record along to your tabs.
Logic Pro’s main arrange window, with a tab sub window. You can also display the tab in a separate window, which is great if you have two monitors.

Tips for Using DAWs and Programs 

Whatever program or collection of programs you decide to use, there is one tip I would highly recommend:

Learn the keyboard shortcuts and customise them for what you do.

Using the mouse is an incredibly slow way to use music programs, and learning keyboard shortcuts, while it may be a bit more complicated to start with, will save you a huge amount of time in the long run. 

When using a DAW to make demo’s of your songs, you may find it useful to buy a MIDI keyboard.

This will allow you to play the parts on a keyboard, which gives you a much more “natural” or “realistic” sound than programming the parts straight into MIDI. 

Using a MIDI keyboard along with a good sample library will give you realistic sounds that can be very difficult to distinguish from something being played with real musicians!

MIDI keyboards can be picked up quite cheap second hand on Facebook marketplace. If you have the space, getting a 61 key keyboard would be great. 

If you have a tablet, you can often use it as a custom control surface for your DAW – giving you buttons you can customise to make using your DAW even easier. 

There are also additional control surfaces you can get, such as mixing surfaces which can be useful if you will be doing a lot of mixing. 

Using Good Sound Libraries 

Most DAWs will come with acceptable sound libraries built in, however, you may find that you want to using higher quality samples than those offered in your DAW, especially if you are looking to work with orchestral instruments. 

The world of sound libraries is a complete rabbit hole, and there are 1000s of options available. 

If you want a great set of orchestral instruments, Symphonic Orchestra Gold by EastWest is a great option (usually around $150).

If you are after some great rock instruments, Toon Track do EZ Bass and EZ Drummer, which both sound great and both go for around €150. 

If you are just getting started, Logic Pro has a pretty good rock kit built in (SoCal) and also a decent array of bass guitar sounds.

If you are programming your guitar parts in Logic Pro, I would use a piano to play them back, I find the software guitars sound awful!

Conclusion

This article has been a bit of a whistle stop tour of all the different areas of music theory that go into writing a good instrumental guitar song. 

As you can see, writing an instrumental guitar song is a surprising amount of work and requires some serious studying of music. 

Getting a basic understanding of the above subjects can take a few years of dedicated study, and mastering them is a commitment that takes a lifetime. 

However, the rewards are fantastic – being able to sit down, compose your own song, demo it, then go into a recording studio and properly record / produce it is a deeply rewarding experience.

While I would say most people need a few years of study to master the basics of all these elements, I have found that some of my students start writing and recording full length songs after around 18 months of study… it all depends on how seriously you take your study.

If it is something you are interested in, then the best option is to get started now. 

In three years time you will be three years older… and you have a choice to either be where you are now, or three years into the process of becoming someone who can write and record their own instrumental songs.

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