Now that you've got some skill and control over the guitar, you want to start writing and performing your own songs. But all your famous artists have such amazing, complicated songs, it's hard to know where to begin.
This page is a general guide to writing songs on the guitar. Although it won't necessarily teach you to write a Top 40 hit, it will give you some general ideas on how to write an effective song. If you haven't already, please read the Singing and Playing section.
- Keep it simple. The most popular, catchy tune on the radio is probably the simplest, most oft reproduced melody in the world. But that doesn't stop you from humming it all day, does it? Never forget that when some people hear "a complex, thought-provoking piece", others hear "an over complicated mess."
- Have confidence. Your song may not be the best in the world, but a gutsy, less talented performer is always more admired than an amazing performer that is too shy to get a single note out.
- Keep trying. If you don't "figure it out" immediately, that doesn't mean that you never will. If something sounds terrible, try the opposite, or only use the second half of whatever your work on. The key is to keep trying different things until something clicks.
- Don't get frustrated. If absolutely nothing is clicking, then just come back to it later. Record whatever you have, take a break, and play it again later. The song isn't going anywhere you aren't going, and it'll still be there the next day.
- "Borrow" someone else's melody. Often the best melody is the one that already exists. The history of music (and any art, really) is checkered with people taking bits and pieces from other artists and adding their own spin to it. However, this doesn't mean you should just copy some famous song and call it your own, because chances are someone else will notice. Other songs should be used as a source of ideas, not something you can photocopy.
- Ask someone else. You might be stuck in the same rut, but that doesn't mean anyone else is. Ask another musician (or even a regular person) what they think might fit well. Sometimes the advice will be surprising. With this method you have to be careful of copyright issues, especially if you make it big.
Turning Chords into Songs
Often players come up with a catchy riff or two, and they're not sure how to develop it into more. Songs typically are built up in layers; for example, in a band, one guitarists creates a riff, and another adds a catchy lick over top, the bass player brings in something to support it and the drummer keeps time and adds some interesting rhythms. Even though the first guitar part might still be the same, it is ultimately the contribution of the other parts that turns a few chords into a song.
The most important thing to remember when writing a song is that very little sounds good completely on its own, and generally it requires at least more than one part to make things interesting. There are many ways to add a second part to a song. For instance, some players (especially those that can finger pick) can simultaneously play a bass line on the thicker strings and a melody on the thin strings. Really complicated riffs can also sound good on their own, however these tend to be difficult to write and you may not have enough technical skill for complicated writing.
Another player can also add depth to a riff. For example, a bass player can add another sound texture, and having two players allow them to bounce melodies off one another. The song Dueling Banjos from the movie Deliverance is a good example of how two players can create an interesting, purely instrumental song.
But if none of these options are available to you, or perhaps you only like to compose songs alone, there is always one other layer you can add to any progression; your voice. Amazing singing can turn even the simplest progression into a groundbreaking song
Creating Melodies and Hooks
The main melody, often called the "hook" in popular, radio friendly music, is the catchy, often repeated words and melody that makes the song most memorable. In most songs, especially modern music, the hook is contained somewhere in the chorus. However, this is not always true, as some songs use hooks in the verses, or put hooks in both the verse and chorus.
In general, it is much easier to put words to a melody, rather than a melody to some words. Words tend to have their own syncopation, and this can make it tough to make them fit with an irregular strumming pattern. Already having words is also tough because generally the author does not want to change them.
There are certain cases where putting music to words is a better option. For instance, a rhyming poem or free verse with a regular meter can easily be made a song. Simple chord progressions lend themselves well to these sorts , especially the I - IV - V and IV - V - I.
Often when you are creating a song, a chord progression comes easily, but it is tough to figure out what goes over top. Even if it seems difficult, there are many ways to make things easier for yourself.
- Record a chord progression, then play it back and try to hum or whistle a melody over top. Often this is enough to get things started and get you unstuck. You can accomplish the same thing by just playing the progression over and over again, but it takes a surprising amount of coordination to play a new riff and spontaneously invent a melody.
- Record a chord progression, and then try to solo on top of it. This is similar to the first method, but actually using the fretboard can help you figure out what notes work best.
- Isolate a particular part of the progression and repeat it over and over until you come up with some sort of start. it is best to use at least two chord changes, because just strumming the same chord all the time is uninteresting, and it tends to make coming up with a melody even more difficult.
Another approach is to begin with a melody form, and then put chords behind it to turn it into a song. This may be more challenging, especially if you already have a chord progression you really enjoy, but sometimes approaching a problem from a different angle can make things easier overall.
For instance, in the well known 'Danny Boy' or 'Derry Air' as it is sometimes called, the 'hook' is found where the melody appears to try to surge forward into the chorus and the words "But come ye back" accompany that surge in chord progression.
Use a Method
It is recommended that you work following some simple procedures instead of just trying to come up with something remarkable from scratch. Here are some guidelines on how to work step by step in order to be more efficient.
- Choose or come up with a scale for the song before you start working on it. Although experienced guitarists might be able to follow a scale subconsciously, thus skipping this step, it is better for beginners to use a scale so as to avoid inconsistencies and to set a mood for the piece. Keep experimenting with scales until you find one that suits the tone you want to give and then start working on the song. Note that you can change scales for different parts of the song, what you shouldn't do is change scale in the middle of a single riff or melody. Also keep in mind that when you are more confident with your guitar you can break away from the scale and use notes not included in it, but the best way to work is to play along the predefined scale and play an odd note only when you want to add a different tone. This usually results in a more original melody, but is hard and might result in sounding like random notes if not used properly.
- Keep in mind the desired result. You won't get a very good result by simply coming up with random riffs. You must always focus on what you want to create. For example, you might want to create a complicated, original riff for the intro to attract the listener's attention or you might prefer a more melodic but less memorable intro. Either way, you must always have the goal in mind instead of composing aimlessly and keeping the riffs that sound good. This way you won't end up with a style you didn't intend to create.
- Start simple. If, for example you want a complex riff you should start with a very simple melody and then modify it gradually, by expanding it, for example, or altering the rhythm, until you get the desired result. This will not always give better results, but it's easy for beginners.
Also see the Writing Effective Songs wikibook for more help.