Writing a basic song on guitar: Part 1
TIME TO COMPLETE: 20-30 minutes
WHAT YOU NEED: Guitar, 50 Essential Chords Pack, pen and paper
SKILL LEVEL: Beginner (no music theory knowledge needed)
Many people want to learn guitar so they can one day write their own songs. Being able to write and play your own songs is a fantastic feeling, a feeling not many people experience. The problem is that many people feel they aren’t creative enough to write songs or can’t find any lessons on how to do it.
In this lesson series I will teach you an extremely simple method to creating basic songs. Think of this method as your introduction into songwriting. Once you use this method a few times you will start to get a feel for writing simple songs and can move on to more complex and interesting forms. The important point with this method is that you don’t need to know anything about music theory to use it. Anybody can come up with a basic song using this method. In this first part we will think about what type of song we want to create and look at building a chord progression to match the type of song.
This is an extremely simple step-by-step method that you can use time and time again and come up with basic songs. As you get better at working through the steps you can modify the method to suit the type of music you want to create. Don’t think of this method as a rule for creating songs; instead think of it as one possible guide. There are so many different ways you can write songs and this is just one way.
STEP 1: WHAT TYPE OF SONG DO YOU WANT TO CREATE?
Before you pick up the guitar and start playing chords, have a think about what feel you want the song to have. Do you want it to be sad, happy, upbeat, aggressive, calming, dark, mysterious? Choosing the mood of the song before you start brainstorming will make the whole process run smoother. When you’re just starting out, stick to basic moods such as happy or sad. Later on when you develop your songwriting skills you can aim towards more specific moods. In this lesson series I will give examples on creating sad songs as well as a happy songs.
As well as deciding on the mood of the song, have a think of what type of song it should be. Is this going to be an acoustic ballad that you will be singing over? Or how about a rock piece for a whole band to play? There are many options but in this lesson series we will create the most basic form: an acoustic ballad. After you write a couple of these you can move on to more complicated forms.
Before you go to step 2: Take out a piece of paper and at the top write down what type of song you want to write as well as what type of mood you want to express.
STEP 2: THE CHORD PROGRESSION
Acoustic ballads are usually formed around a couple basic chord progressions. We will come up with two basic progressions in our practice song; one for the verses and one for the chorus. The verse is a section of a song where the lyrics (if any) tell a story or situation. Basic songs normally have more than one verse to keep the story-telling moving. The chorus on the other hand is the main draw of the song – the part most people remember and often hum or sing along. Unlike the verses, a chorus will usually be the same every time it repeats. Of course this isn’t always true, but most songwriters usually keep the chorus the same throughout the song.
If you understand music theory you will be able to come up with chord progressions fairly easy. It’s a little harder when you don’t understand keys and how the chords relate to each other. But even if you don’t know anything about music theory you can still come up with chord progressions for your songs. We will use the 50 Essential Chords Pack to help us come up with chord progressions.
What we will do in this step is choose four chords for our verse. Follow the steps below to choose four basic chords.
- Shuffle the pack and draw out four cards.
- Lay the four cards out side by side.
- Play each chord four times working through the four cards left to right.
How do the four chords sound when played in a row? Does it sound interesting? Does it sound boring? Play the four chords again and think about which chords sound good and which don’t. Think about which chord you want to get rid of. Which one sounds the worst in the progressions? Follow these steps to replace that chord.
- Take the card that you want to replace and put it to the side.
- Pick a new card from the shuffled deck and replace it in the old card’s position.
- Play through the four chords again and listen if it sounds better.
- If it doesn’t sound better, repeat steps 1-3 until it does.
Until you try it, this method may sound silly. It probably sounds strange to pick random chords then replace the chords you don’t like until you find ones you do like. Once you learn more about music theory you will know which chords to choose and why. But for now this is a very effective method for choosing chords and more importantly it teaches you how chords sound in a progression. I urge you to use this method not only to come up with basic songs but to learn about the chords.
EXAMPLE CHORD PROGRESSION
If you don’t understand the instructions above, this example will show you what would happen if you tried it.
First, I’ll shuffle my pack and draw out four cards. The four cards are Dm C Am7 E. Listen to the recording to hear what these chords sound like.
Have another listen to the chord progression and think about which chords sound good together and which don’t. I like the sound of Dm and C but Am7 and E aren’t quite what I’m looking for. Starting on a minor chord is an easy way to express a sad mood for the song so I’ll stick with that. If instead I wanted to try to write an upbeat song I might try playing D Major instead as the first chord.
So for now I’ll keep Dm and C as the first two chords. I’ll leave those two cards in place and put Am7 and E in a ‘reject’ pile. Now I can draw out two new cards. With the two new chords the progression is Dm C Fmaj7 G. Here is how that sounds:
I’m quite happy with that sound so I’ll keep those chords in that order for now. If I didn’t like any of the chords I would simply remove them and pick a new card from the pile. This chord progression will be for the verses of the song. I’ll use the same method for creating a progression for the song’s chorus.
The four random chords chosen are: Eadd9 Asus4 D6 Gsus2
Listen to the chord progression above a few times and think about which chords (if any) you would change if this were your song.
The only thing about this progression is that it must sound good on its own as well as sound good when played after the verse progression. In other words the two progressions need to sound like they are both part of the same song. Listen to the first progression then straight away listen to the second progression. Notice they don’t fit together? Once you learn about music theory it will be more obvious why but for now we will just move the chords around until they work.
I like the sound of Eadd9 and Asus4 but I don’t think Eadd9 should be first. I don’t like D6 or Gsus2 so I’ll choose two new chords to replace them. The new progression is now: Cadd11 D Asus4 Eadd9
Listen to it a few times and think about which chords you would change. Keep in mind that these are random chords and may not go perfectly together. This progression sounds more upbeat compared to the verse progression so for our practice song we will have a slightly sad sounding verse and an upbeat chorus. Once you get used to the sounds of chords you can make the mood move obvious. Don’t try to write the perfect sounding progression every time. Everybody needs to learn and start with the basics. There are a few problems with these sample progressions that you will learn about later on if you decide to learn about music theory.
So that was the first part in creating a basic song – creating an interesting progression. It may sound a bit basic now but by the end of the series you will be able to see how we can turn this basic progression into a decent sounding song.
The next part will look at different ways you can play the chord progression. The focus on this part is to get the hang of choosing chords for a progression and learning to listen to how they sound when played together. Keep in mind that you may need to go through these steps quite a few times before you come up with an interesting sounding chord progression. But the good news is that the more times you work through the method, the faster you will learn which chords will work and which won’t. I really recommend that you use the cards and work through this method if you want to write songs. It may sound a bit silly to pick random cards from a pack but it will teach you a lot and can be quite a fun way to learn.
Part two will be released soon.
More lessons here.