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How to Write a Song on Guitar: A Singer/Songwriter Guidebook

How to Write a Song on Guitar: A Singer/Songwriter Guidebook

The guitar is constantly evolving, yet the one aspect that has never changed from the 50s to now is the singer-songwriter strumming his acoustic and sharing songs of love and tragedy. The only constant in the guitar world is songwriting, but it is also a completely different, often ignored muscle to train, detached from the world of techniques and tone.

Songwriting and guitar skills often go hand in hand, with all the biggest guitar names, like Jimmi Hendrix, Clapton, Gilmour, and many more, being equally as good at writing iconic songs as they are at lead or rhythm guitar.

Great solos and riffs are always found on great songs, and beyond sharing my approach to writing a song on guitar, I’ll be explaining the importance of a well-written piece, and the difference exercising your songwriting muscles makes to your guitar playing.

Having stepped into both worlds as a session guitarist & songwriter for my band and multiple artists, I’ll share practical tips for players of all levels. And since there’s no set way to write a song, I’ll do my best to guide you through the guitar, music theory, and overall music skills that will help you find your own process.

Why Write Songs on Guitar?

writing guitar song

There’s something about the guitars’ physicality, sound, and each individual instrument’s musical tale to tell in the hands of a storyteller that harks back to ancient traditions of bards and poets. We see the same in Rock, Folk, and Country stars – the ‘mythology’ of the songwriter singing their songs with the guitar in hand is still very present.

Even modern pop stars like Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran might have compromised on a more commercial arrangement but always kept the guitar as the primary songwriting tool. 

But why is the guitar such a good instrument for songwriting? Well, here’s my take on things

The Shape and Size

It sounds like a mundane reason, but it does impact massively. On the road, with a travel guitar, Joni Mitchel wrote more complex songs than most professional piano players could in their entire career – the guitar allowed her and you to pick up and play when the notion took her. 

Also, with an acoustic guitar, the size, and volume are a perfect match for the human voice. You cannot have a bad ‘mix’ when someone is playing and singing in front of you.

The Blend of Rhythm, Melody, and Harmony

Strumming an acoustic is much more complex than it initially seems. While strumming, you hold the rhythm while playing chords – being a drummer, bassist, guitar player, and singer simultaneously.  No other instrument gives you this much freedom.

With almost endless ways to blend the percussive nature of the guitar with your voice, chords, and melodies, you can transmit an honest version of the final song you’re writing and be constantly inspired.

The Layout of the Fretboard and Tunning

The guitar fretboard is not laid out very intuitively, and the deeper you get into it, the harder it gets until you master all notes, triads, and inversions. 

It may be harder to grasp than a piano, for example, but the fretboard and standard tuning allow you to play the same chords in multiple places, all with different sounds and contexts, giving you more options to write exciting and unique guitar parts.

Also, alternate tunings and using a capo make it easy to match the voice with the guitar and discover new ideas. In short, more complexity leads to more freedom and variety. 

Setting out clear guitar goals will help you achieve the freedom you need if you aim to master the fretboard.

The Dynamics of the Instrument

The direct contact of the fingers with the strings,  picking strength, vibrato, feel and touch – all give a different context to the song you’re writing. The same chords and melody can sound drastically different, giving you your unique ‘voice’ as a player and songwriter.

Think about how you can tell a player out of millions just by how they play one note.

A Wide Range of Sounds

The tonewoods, brands, shapes, sizes, and your playing style make for a different acoustic guitar tone. Electric guitars offer an even wider world of sounds  – from distorted power chords to synth and orchestra-emulating pedals you can use to write a song.

The best guitar-playing songwriters often use specific gear for writing songs, ‘as different combinations of amps, guitar, and pedal can inspire a new song.

How To Approach Writing a Song on Guitar?

writing guitar song

There is no set way to write a song, and the number of approaches you can take is endless. Many songwriters credit a life story, others a moment of bliss, while a few big names like Paganini, Dylan, and Bob Weir often credit dreams of long-dead musicians showing them the melodies and lyrics.

A moment of great inspiration can bring forth a great core idea, yet honed songwriting and guitar skills can refine that idea into a well-crafted piece. Sting put it well, saying that songwriting is a different muscle, and just as you practice your scale, you practice wiring songs.

However, there are a couple of things you should ask yourself before you begin:

Are you a Guitar Player who Sings or a Singer who Plays Guitar?

I’m more of the first, meaning I rely more on my guitar knowledge to ‘dig’ out parts, fancy chords, and good-sounding progressions and work on top of those. This approach, for me, leads to more ideas, but it also has the downside of sometimes focusing too much on the guitar.

Singers who play guitar are more in line with people like John Lennon, who might not be a flashy player, but could rely on their voice to get out what they have in their head, figuring out the chords on a guitar, and then riffs.

You can also blend both approaches.  In recent years, building up experience working around great artists I recorded for, I started by having a melody and a clear idea, emotion, story, or lyric to focus on, sang it, and after that, picked up the guitar,

Should you Start Writing Lyrics or Music First?

It varies from song to song and what makes you feel more comfortable. Maynard from TOOL and a Perfect Circle would always listen to an instrumental demo from the band and write based on the music – Others, like Neil Peart, would write poems and turn them into songs.

Always keep your notepad and voice recorder in your phone ready. When you have a lyric or melody idea, save it on your phone and use it as a foundation to build upon.

How I Write Songs on Guitar 

My process on my band’s latest single, “Back Home,” blended both approaches as a singer and guitar player. I focused on the emotion and story, the bitter-sweet sadness of lost love and the aftermath of a journey, and had the lyrics and motive “I don’t wanna go home” and then relied on guitar skills to hone the song.

I already had a small riff written and carved out the melody of the song’s vocal hook from the core riff and then let it all build around that. If you listen carefully, the vocal repeats the same melody as the main riff – the only difference is that it’s in a different range.

If you listen carefully, the song only uses three chords the whole time besides the bridge, with the goal of making it more memorable through simplicity. The intro riff started it all, and the intent behind the words “I don’t wanna go home” helped forge the lyrics. 

Music theory was helpful when writing the bass parts and the fills in between; I knew the chords, so I just underlined them. For the bridge, I had a reference of what a descending ‘line cliche’ was and aimed to do just that.

Regarding guitar skills, the solo is where they came in handy most. There’s nothing flashy about it: a blend of following chords and arranging multiple leads derived from the main vocal melody. 

The Structure is basic but crucial, as I had a clear idea of the structure before filling in the rest of the lyrics and music. I wanted to write a song that gradually increased power and dynamics. In my mind, I imagined the music building up the whole time with more guitars and drums, and when I reached the highest point, I would close it up with the intro acoustic guitar.

Another skill I’m lucky to have earned through session work is home recording for guitar players. Without it, none of the demos I recorded would ever turn into real songs.

Some people also like a visual approach to writing songs, and that helped me, as well as just starting at the cover art and lyrics video, which I oddly finished before the song, helped me lay out some final parts.  

Guitar Skills You Need To Write Songs

The good thing about honing your craft as a guitarist is that it never really stops. There is always something new and exciting you can pick up and add to your repertoire.

There’s no end to how good you can get at guitar, and the more you can dig out of the instrument, the more ideas for songs you will have. However, to simply begin writing a song, however basic, I would say that these base skills are needed: 

To write a song on guitar, you need guitar skills that correspond to your songwriting style, just enough so that you can get the idea out of your head; depending on the genre, though, this can range from open chords to extreme alternate picking.

Know Your Chords 

Open chords are a good start for beginners, going to all 5 CAGED shapes and exploring all possible triads on the neck. 

Chords are the key to writing songs, as everything is, in one way or another, a chord progression with a great melody on top.

Whether you start from the melody or the chords is up to you – yet as John Mayer said in an interview at Berkley, “You should have something going on with the guitar part beneath the vocal; a good memorable progression, riff or both that holds it all together.”

 There is much more to chords than just rhythm, as when you get higher up the ranks, you understand that the best solos are the ones that don’t just go with the flow but the chords as well.

A Good Sense of Rhythm

Overall rhythm on guitar, whether you are playing fingerstyle, strumming, or even melodies, is what separates a good part from a great one. From experience, I find that if I don’t feel the groove, neither melody nor words come up for me or my band’s lead singer.  

A good trick is always to imagine a drum part in your head; even if your drummer is not great or you’re playing alone, have the groove in your head and follow that. Stop for a moment or two to hear what’s in your head or around you.

Also, don’t take strumming for granted! The better you become at strumming, the better at performing your songs and even writing them you’ll find yourself to be.

Avoid Noodling

Noodling is the demon all players fight. The go-to licks and patterns in your playing are hard to break and keep you from writing interesting parts, whether on guitar, vocal, or any instrument.

My cure is to stop, listen, and hum a few lines before picking my guitar – it does work wonders to let your ear guide close your eyes and not care even if you hit a wrong note or two. 

Use Effects and Let them Use You

An effect is an extension of your voice, so either have a voice in your head you then turn to delay, reverb, chorus, etc., or start with the effect and play according to it. This is what U2’s The Edge has been doing since forever, and it’s working wonders for him and can for you.

For example, a stereo delay with a mix over 50% will guide you to write and play a specific way; you can’t force your strumming there, no matter how much you insist. Here’s a guide on the best pedals if you still need to decide what to add to your pedalboard.

You can learn all of the above skills from multiple sources; Fender Play is one of which I highly recommend for beginner and intermediate players.

Music Theory You Need To Write Song

writing guitar song

Music theory is not necessary, but it does help, especially when you are stuck and don’t know where else to go with your song. You could do as Guns n’ Roses did and just sing, “Where do we go now” in the ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine” bridge, but since that is already taken, I listed out some of the basics, which might also be all you’ll ever need.

  • The chords in a key and how to borrow chords from parallel keys
  • The circle of fifths
  • Intervals and ear training
  • Basic scales 

This is all I have ever used so far. It served to write and record everything from rock to folk and even some stuff in the ‘Jazz’ realm. The trick is to get the basics down at the highest possible proficiency. 

Does Music Theory Hinder Creativity?

Whenever I hear the old internet rhetoric of ‘theory hinders creativity,’ I’m always slightly disappointed, as even though some people function perfectly without any theory, there is no real basis to stopping others from learning it. 

The myth of Jimi Hendrix not knowing any notes on the guitar and quotes such as “the blues is easy to play but hard to feel’ lead many people to the wrong deduction that you don’t need to know any theory and that it’s bad.

Music theory only helps you write better songs, as it’s up to you to decide when to go by feel. Theory only gives you more options and allows you to communicate better with other musicians.

Storytelling Skills To Write Songs

Everything becomes more subjective here, and there are only opinions, suggestions, and individual processes. 

  • Focus on one emotion, thought, or story
  • Focus on actions, ‘show not tell.’
  • Have a structure in mind.
  • Aim to be simple with words and chords.

This works for me from the lessons from great writers I was lucky to meet in person. Not just lyrics but also melodies and chords come to me this way. 

A Great Song Makes For A Great Guitar Part

performing on concert

‘A solo is an extension of the vocal.’ is how Brian May described his lead playing on all great Queen songs. The lead picked up where Freddy left the vocal and the song’s story – it was a good song that led to a good solo, rarely the opposite. 

All the greatest guitar solos ranked by rolling stones are on great songs. Comfortably Numb, Stairway to Heaven, Hotel California, and all the rest – you can’t say the solo or the song is better as they became an anthem. 

As a session guitarist, I’m often tasked to make something happen out of nothing. Many of the songs I work with come to be unpolished, and not all can be considered to have an interesting melody or chord progression. 

Still, when playing at a high level, you have to deliver something good; guitar skills, studio experience, and music knowledge help you make that happen – but if the song is not good, there’s not much you can do to elevate it to become a ‘hit.’

Overall, from the lesson taken from my career session, I argue the following.

You can make a good guitar part out of nothing, yet you can only make an epic, singable and iconic part when the song is equally as great. The guitar can’t be separated from the other instruments, as each part of the arrangement follows the same musical and emotional intent the song leads to.

Always Finish Before Starting a New Song

Bob Dylan acclaimed ‘The Voice of a Generation,’ might be relatively recent to us, but who’s to say that in 500 years, he won’t be given the importance we give to historical figures? The same can be said about all other prior and after.

That would have never happened if Dylan and other writers did not finish one song after the other. Having 100 average songs before getting a good one is how everyone learned how to write songs, from the local performer to Geniuses like Paul Simon and Roger Waters – they just tried more and failed more.

Focusing on finishing songs rather than piling up demo after demo is the secret to improving over time. Make quick decisions and grab the moment – done is better than perfect, as perfect in music and songwriting don’t exist.

How to Write a Song on Guitar: FAQs

Question: Is It better to write a song on acoustic or electric guitar?

Answer: It depends on the style, genre, and your skills. You can get an equally good result with an acoustic or electric guitar as long as you’re leaning on the instrument’s strength. However, my general rule is the following:

If your music is mainly based on chords, like that of many folk, rock, pop, or country singer-songwriters, then an acoustic will give you more to play around with. 

If your song is based on riffs, you might be better on an electric – however, an acoustic will still cut it for the writing part of most electric parts, apart from heavily down-tuned technical music.

The downside of the electric guitar for writing songs is that it’s not an ideal instrument to strum on due to the dirty and messy nature of the amplified clean tone. So aim to write for electric guitar only if you’re playing electric and sharpen up your control over the amplifier. 

Question: Is the Piano or Guitar Better for Songwriting?

Answer: Both instruments are the basis on which most modern music is based, and there’s no set rule which works best for songwriting. The best answer is that it depends on your writing style and with which instrument you feel more comfortable. 

Even the greatest guitar players in rock sometimes sit by the piano and come up with their best song – the same can be said for keyboardists who often pick up an acoustic and go to the most unexpected chords.

Question: What is the best guitar for a singer-songwriter?

Answer: A big-body acoustic guitar is an excellent choice for a singer-songwriter who wants to accompany his voice with the fullest tone possible. Dredanughts are loud and full of the warm mid-range and sometimes low-end you need when you’re the only one on stage.

Any of the popular acoustic guitar brands we listed out might work for you, whether you’re buying your first guitar or aiming to invest in a premium instrument.