Writing your first song on guitar can be quite challenging. If you have never written a song before, you’re probably not sure how to get started.
I know that was the case when I started writing.
I found writing my first few songs quite difficult. Then I started wondering, “How can I make song writing easier for my guitar students?”, and after thinking on that question for a few days, I came up with a solution.
The solution, is a simple process you can use as a plug-and-play framework, to start writing your own songs. I’m going to walk you through this process, step by step.
You don’t need to know any theory for this to work, I’ll explain what you need to know on the way, and link to any relevant bits of theory you might need.
You don’t need to have any ‘god given’ inspiration for this either – I’ll be showing you principles that work, regardless of inspiration.
This process is not designed to create the greatest song in the world. It is designed to demonstrate:
- There are principles behind song writing
- That you can learn and apply those principles to your own song writing
To get started, we are going to look at the guitar side of song writing.
I’m going to show you how to create a simple strum along song.
Now, if you are interested in rock and metal playing (like I am!), this process is still good to work through. Even though the song you write will sound like a folk / singer songwriter style song (i.e. to metal fans, boring), the principles apply to rock / metal playing.
What does a song consist of?
Broadly speaking, a song has three components:
- The structure – the different pieces of the song. For example:Intro
- The chord sequences in each piece that we outlined above.
- The arrangement. This includes how different instruments are used to express the chords, use of silence / stops, where backing vocals are and are not placed, where guitar solos go, etc.
We are just going to work on the first two elements, structure and chord sequences. Once you have an understanding of these two elements, understanding the third element, the arrangement, is a lot easier.
Writing Your First Song
Step 1 – start with a very simple structure
You are going to start with a simple structure:
The verse will have one chord sequence, the chorus will have a different chord sequence.
Step 2 – write a chord sequence for your verse
Often, beginner song writers get stuck trying to find chords that “work” together.
Fortunately, there is a piece of music theory that can help us – harmonised scales.
A harmonised scale is a set of chords, that are built from that scale. You can read a more in depth description on harmonised scales here.
For writing your first song, you are going to use chords from the C harmonised major scale:
C∆ D- E- F∆ G∆ A- Bdim
(I use ∆ for major and – for minor, C∆ = C major chord, A- = A minor chord).
Now, the Bdim chord can be a bit awkward to use, so you are going to ignore it. This leaves the following six chords:
C∆ D- E- F∆ G∆ A-
So… how do you write your verse?
Take a sheet of paper and a pencil. Choose 4 of the above chords – any four.
Write them down.
Strum each chord four times – or put your own strumming pattern on each chord.
Don’t worry too much about the exact pattern. Just pick something. You can always change the strumming pattern later.
Strum through your chord progression.
That is your verse – done!
Step 3 – write a chord sequence for your chorus
Next, you will write the chord sequence for the chorus.
Again, take four chords from the C harmonised major scale. You can use some of the same chords you had in your verse. If you use similar chords, try to put them in a different order.
The objective here, is to make the chorus sound a bit different from the verse, but, by taking chords from the same harmonised scale, you can ensure the sections will still flow nicely.
Make sure the first chord in your chorus is different to the first chord in your verse. This helps create a “shift” in the music between sections, telling the listener that the section has changed.
Strum each chord in your chorus four times, or, use your own strumming pattern. Again, don’t worry too much about the strumming pattern you use, but try and make it a bit different from the strumming pattern in your verse.
Step 4 – put the sections together
So now you should have a chord sequence for your verse and a chord sequence for your chorus.
Play through the following:
You should hear, it starts to sound like a song coming together!!
And a very simple process.
Thinking about the rest of the song structure
Now the structure you used was very simple. You can add a bit more into it. You are going to add an intro, an outro and a bridge.
The overall structure for your “song” will now look like this:
(new sections in bold)
We are going to think about the functions of these sections a little more than we did with the verse and the chorus.
What is the purpose of the intro and outro sections in a song?
“Intro” is short for introduction. It is usually less intense, or less dense, than the rest of the song. Rhythmically there is usually less happening and often there are less instruments playing.
The intro is usually simpler than other sections of the song (aside from the outro).
Quite often, the intro is a simplification of another section of a song. For example, a simplified version of the verse or chorus.
Writing your intro
For example, you could take your verse chords, and rather than use your strumming pattern, you could strum each chord once.
This is a very simple idea, but very effective.
Finally, use the intro for your outro.
What is the purpose of the bridge in a song?
The bridge, in most songs, is a section of song that is different to any previous section. The general idea behind a bridge is to create something new, to give the listeners ear some variety, so that when the listener is hit with the chorus that follows, the chorus, while familiar, has an element of being ‘new’ again.
In rock / metal music, this is often a guitar solo. In modern pop, some awful mess of noise is used as a bridge.
There are two main ways (in the context we are working with) to write a bridge section:
1. Change the chords
2. Change the rhythm
You are going to use both.
Writing your bridge
Part 1 First, choose two chords that either:
• Have not been used yet, or
• Are different to the chords that your verse and chorus started with
This is going to help create a change. After hearing the chorus played twice in a row, your ear is expecting to hear the first chord in the chorus again. Hearing a different chord, that is still in key, creates a ‘nice surprise’ for the ear.
Part 2 Change the rhythm.
We want to dramatically change the rhythm here. Making the rhythm significantly slower than the chorus usually works well.
Bear in mind you want to make this different to the intro.
Taking your two chords, and strumming them once, for two bars each, is a good start if you are short on ideas.
Putting it all together
So now you have written all the sections to your song, it’s time to put it together!
Your song is:
So there you have it. It should sound like a simple song, where everything fits.
Now obviously, there is a lot more that goes into writing a song than just this, but, this is a great place to get started and gives you a strong foundation in the principles of structure and harmony that you can move from.
Have some fun, experiment, and write your first song on guitar!