How to Write a Song on the Guitar

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The songwriting process can seem highly complex, but you can simplify it by breaking it down into the following steps:

  1. Select a style for the song
  2. Choose the chords
  3. Advance to a four-bar chord progression
  4. Work out the tune
  5. Write lyrics
  6. Sharpen the song structure
  7. Implement rhythmic subdivisions and add flourishes
  8. Write down a polished draft of your work
  9. Record the song
  10. Listen back and make changes

Write Songs on Your Guitar

Man playing the guitar and writing a song in a recording studio

You may have started your journey by learning how to play your favorite songs on the guitar. Yet, now you feel like you’re ready for another challenge. You’re looking to learn how to write a song on guitar.

This task can be daunting at first, and you may not even know where to start. The truth is there are no strict rules to the creative process, and everyone works differently. Still, there are a few tips to get the gears moving if you’re feeling a little overwhelmed when starting out.

This article will help you learn how to write your first song on guitar in a few easy-to-follow steps.

By following this guide until the end, you will have created a song that allows you to express yourself as a musician.

What You Will Need to Follow This Tutorial

Assuming you already have a guitar, you’ll also need a few skills to start creating your own music. Here are a few things you should know about:

Basic guitar theory – This includes the aspects of music that allow guitarists to find their way around the fretboard, compose, and play music. You don’t have to be an expert, but knowing a little bit will help you during this process.

Chord progressions – Almost every song comprises chord sequences. A few one chord songs do exist, but they’re rare (and not very good). A chord progression is an arrangement of chords that sounds pleasing. You can’t just play random chords and expect your song to sound awesome. 

Learn the fretboard – Knowing the notes on the fretboard allows you to transition between various chord shapes seamlessly and write some nice lead lines – especially on electric guitar.

Learning How to Write a Song on the Guitar

You can’t just write a song in one session, especially as a beginner – and that’s okay. If you’re worried about someone making fun of you, just work alone. We all sound bad at first, but the most important thing is to stick to it and open the door to creativity, and a new chord progression.

It’s better to take it slow and go one step at a time. Keeping that in mind, here are a few steps that can get you started and help you write your first song on the guitar.

1. Select a Style – Acoustic Guitar or Electric, Genre, Theme

Acoustic and electric guitar lying on the floor

Sometimes, you can just freestyle without thinking about genre and end up making something great. Other times, you have to find what’s near and dear to your heart. In either case, if you’re stuck on where to start, choosing a style for the song will help get the ball rolling and avoid writer’s block.

When we’re talking about the style of a song, we could be referring to any of the following:

  • Genre
  • Mood
  • Theme
  • Tempo, etc

For instance, you could decide you want your song to be a pop ballad with a sad tone (minor chords) and chord progression, be about losing a loved one, and have a slow tempo. Or something more upbeat with major chords.

By the time you’ve decided all that, you’ve pretty much written half of the song. It’s like writing an outline for an essay before you add the arguments and information to it.

It’s also a good idea to brainstorm song names to help you understand what your song will be about. Maybe you experienced heartbreak. Perhaps you had a high point in your life, like a first kiss. 

If you’re looking to create art, just remember what Paul Cezanne said: A work of art that did not begin in emotion is not art.

If you’re still having trouble coming up with ideas for a theme, here are some broad topics that can help you get started. Just narrow them down a little to your experiences:

  • Passion and heartbreak
  • Faith and spirituality
  • Pride and patriotism
  • Fear and anxiety
  • Frustration and anger

As a beginner, it may be in your best interest to stick to a style you listen to a lot or similar to artists whose songs you’ve already learned. 

You can try different styles after you’re more experienced with writing songs, and that’s when you can start to bring more unique ideas into the mix. To knock your first song out of the park, it’s a good idea to focus on what you already feel comfortable with.

2. Choose the Right Chord Progressions

Male hands playing guitar

You have a vision of your song, and you know what style and genre you want to go for, that’s good news. Now what you need to do is choose the guitar chords to match. Here is where a bit of music theory comes in.

Sometimes it can work out well to just muck around with a chord progression you already know, but it’s also wise to know about music theory. That way, you will learn more about which chords work together and how to group them.

Knowing a little about musical keys is a huge bonus. At the very least, knowing the difference between major keys and minor keys will help you fit the intended feel of your song. 

Knowing which key is comfortable for you to sing in and choosing chords that fit that given key will help you when you’re ready to start building your melody. Yet, the great thing about writing songs on acoustic guitar is that you can change keys and still use the same chords simply by moving a capo up and down the fretboard. Think of the best songs for you to sing and investigate their key.

If the terms major key and minor key intimidate you, take inspiration from others instead. Listen to songs you love  by your favorite guitar players. Then, experiment with the chords you hear in those songs. 

Don’t feel like you’re stealing. Most popular music conforms to certain chord patterns, and pretty much all modern music is derivative of other music, especially in terms of chords.  If you want your song to sound like Bob Dylan – use some of the chord progressions he uses. You can make it your own with words and melodies.

If you’re looking for ideas during the songwriting process, then try some of these common chords that many popular songs use:

  • C – G – Am – F (I – V -vi – IV)
  • C – F – G (I – IV – V)
  • C – Am – F – G (I – vi – IV – V)
  • Am – F – C – G, (vi – IV – I – V)
  • C – F – Am – G, (I – IV – vi – V)

You don’t have to choose from these chords specifically. Most of the time, songs use a mixture of various chord progressions for different segments of a piece.

Do remember, this is your first song. You can stick to one chord progression for now and make changes later. You could write the verse and chorus and change it up for a bridge once you’ve nailed down the other sections.

3. Advance to a Four-Bar Chord Progression

Man's hands playing guitar

While not every song ever written follows a four-bar pattern, it is prevalent amongst most popular songs. To keep it simple for your song, it’s a good idea to stick to this pattern. Also, you’ll want to use a 4/4 time signature

Once you’ve chosen the chords, you just need to put your chords into bars. You have plenty of options as to how you can arrange your chords.

You could have one chord per bar for four bars, two chords per bar, and so on. 

You could also mix it up by having one chord in the first bar, two in the second, etc. The choice is really up to you how you arrange the pattern for your chords.

Of course, you’ll also have to decide on a strumming pattern with an interesting rhythm for strumming chords. You can change this up at any point, so don’t get too caught up in it. 

Have your guitar in hand and play around with some ideas during this process.

4. Work Out the Tune

When composing music, people like to write their lyrics first, and others the melody. So feel free to switch up the order here as you write music. However, it is generally easier to make lyrics fit a melody than vice versa.

Play the chords you’ve decided on and hum a melody. Again, if you know a little bit of music theory, you’ll know what notes fit in the scale. 

But, if you have a knack for singing already, you’ll be able to hear if your melody doesn’t fit without the knowledge of scales. If you’re unsure, record yourself on your phone or computer and listen back. 

5. Write Lyrics

Man writing a song

Now that you’ve figured out the melody for your song, you can start adding lyrics to it.

Make sure the lyrics fit naturally to the tune and the chord progressions you chose. Don’t be afraid to alter the melody a little if you have a lyric that doesn’t quite fit. 

One method you can use, especially if you don’t have any written words, is to sing the melody in the form of words. You can sing gibberish initially, but what matters is that you put the voice to the melody. You’ll often find the vowel sounds you make come close to actual words that can inspire your writing.

The great part of writing lyrics is that you can come back to them anytime and switch up a few words, and you probably will. So, don’t be too pedantic on your first try. Just get your thoughts on the page.

6. Make Small Improvements

With chords, a melody, and lyrics, it’s starting to sound like an actual great song! But something is missing, right?

This feeling is because you haven’t added a lot of depth into it yet. You need to add a few little bits and bobs to make your art shine.

You can use rhythmic pattern subdivisions to add breaks to your song, which changes the rhythm, so it’s more varied and unique.

You can also use some more elements to really spruce up your song. You can use arpeggios; this is where you take a chord sequence and pull the notes from it to play them individually. 

If you have the capacity to do so, you could also add some lead lines or minor stylistic improvements like hammering on particular notes of the chords or adding a diminished chord here and there.

You can also add more varying chords to your song if you feel like it and improve the song’s overall feel.

7. Sharpen the Song Structure

Female hands playing guitar

First verse, chorus, second verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, chorus is the classic western music song structure. You can stick to this with no issues, but don’t be afraid to spice up your songs with a pre-chorus or second bridge either.

Remember that a structure isn’t set in stone. You can always try to invent something new. 

The chorus of your song should stand out and have a catchy melody. If it isn’t, maybe you need to rethink your song a little and perhaps use the chorus ideas as part of a verse or bridge instead.

You need to make it outstanding and preferably radio-friendly if that’s what you’re going for.

Sometimes you don’t even need words to make a song section that sounds good, and you can just hum, whistle, or let your instrument take the wheel with a guitar solo section.

8. Create a Polished Draft of Your Work

The lyrics you’ve written and the structure so far are probably scribbled everywhere across a notebook or something similar.

To make the final polishing touches, it’s a good idea to have your work neatly written down so it’s less confusing.

Editing your song can make a huge difference and make it stand out. Trim out the unnecessary parts and add to some of the sections that sound bland.

You’re almost there.

9. Record the Song

Close up shot of a male playing guitar, microphone in front

You have a song that’s fully coming together, so now is the time to record it somewhere. We aren’t talking about a fully mastered song; recording music can be just you strumming it on the guitar while singing your lyrics.

No matter how you record it, you need to make sure you have your lyrical and musical components recorded in some way. Don’t worry about a studio with fancy microphones and soundproof walls for now.

At this point, we suggest you forget about the song for a while. While your initial idea seemed perfect, at this point, it’s normal to be nitpicky and obsessed with perfection, and this won’t do you any favors.

Now how does this help you? This break will give you a change of pace and a much-needed perspective shift. Now when you come back to it after a few days, naturally, you will look at it differently than before, and you will realize that most of it sounded pretty good (or not).

Not only that, when you come back with a fresh mind, you will have new ideas too, which you can incorporate into your song and make it even better than before.

10. Add Final Touches and Finish the Song

If you want to add further into your own song, feel free to go back to any previous steps. However, if you feel like you’re happy with your original song, you can record a demo or start showing people.

Test it out by playing the song on an open-mic night or ask your friends for their honest feedback.

Get Songwriting

Once you feel like your work is complete, you can start this process again for your next piece! Don’t stop learning new things about guitar and singing, and writing great songs will only get easier. 

It’s natural to doubt your songwriting abilities at first, but after you follow these steps, you should know how to write a song on guitar, express yourself as a musician, and write songs you’re genuinely proud of!

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about the author
Gerrick Cass
Gerrick is nuts about all things guitar. From acoustic to electric, fingerstyle to metal, he's played it all, and can show you how to play it too. When he doesn't have a guitar in his hands, he spends his time writing, teaching, and hiking with his dog.