How to write a song on guitar: 10-step composition guide

13.06.2022 Ben Maloney Guitar

There are few musical traditions more sacred than the art of writing and playing songs on guitar. The image of a lone performer accompanied by nothing but this most versatile of instruments - telling a story through words and music - is iconic in popular culture.

The path of the guitar-playing singer-songwriter is well trod, to be sure. From the old blues master of the Mississippi Delta to the 21st-century adolescent recording lo-fi in their parents’ attic, countless musicians have contributed to this tradition. An even greater number have listened to and been moved by its art.

But somehow, despite this volume, original and exciting work continues to be produced en masse by artists today - clearly a lot of room remains for fresh ideas and perspectives. If you have something to say in song form, and are looking for some assistance conveying it, then you’re in the right place.   

Here we outline ten steps to follow to get your song from conception to completion. Bear in mind that this guide presents just a handful of methods designed to get you started on the songwriting path. They're certainly not the only ones.

There's no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to the songwriting challenge, and as you get more experienced you’ll doubtless figure out an approach that better suits your musical style and way of working. When you do find that, forget our ten steps and run with it. It's an early sign that you're discovering your unique creative voice - which is really what this process is all about. 

1. Learn the basic chords


Step one is a preliminary one. The one thing you’ll absolutely have to put some time into before you start the songwriting process proper, is filling up your chordal repertoire. You’ll find it difficult to make progress without knowing the most essential guitar chords.

This is because the vast majority of songs are constructed using chord progressions, and even those that don’t utilise the clear and complete chords shown below are still built on a harmonic framework that tends to be assembled using chords. 

Those shown below are the ones that you’re most likely to find in guitar music as well as use yourself in composition. You’ll probably notice first of all that they’re either major or minor - these types of chord are far and away the most common ones used in songwriting.

It might seem to be a random array of major and minor chords. Where’s B major? Chords such as B or, say, E-flat minor are omitted because they’re normally associated with keys that are rarer to find in music for guitar, because they’re a little more complex to handle and awkward to play. Have a read of the article on how to find the key of a song for more info on keys.

The better you get at songwriting, then the more you can branch out with your chords, learning more obscure major and minor triads and other types - or qualities - such as seventh and sus chords. But for now, by getting as comfortable as you can with these basic chords, you'll be able to integrate them quickly and easily into your initial songwriting efforts.

Although it considers them primarily in the context of piano-playing, this article explores a lot of the theory behind chords - you might find it useful as background reading. 

2. Settle on subjects and themes


With the essential guitar chords in tow, you can start the songwriting process itself. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to start writing progressions, riffs, notes, or in fact any kind of specific musical material just yet. 

This is the planning stage. Here you conceptualise your composition, give it a sense of purpose, and finally build an imaginary framework that you can flesh out with more specific musical ideas. The best songs have thematic integrity, lyrically as well as musically - a distinctive, overarching character. Take time to envisage this North Star at the outset and it will then benefit you by inspiring your ideas and guiding the creative process. 

These principles apply particularly strongly when it comes to words. Your song will need a  subject - lost love, faith, friendship, hope, a place, even your favourite football team. Determining the overall thrust of your song at this stage will then help you orientate yourself within the infinite realm of creative possibilities, and focus on a certain remit and direction.   

It’ll also help you to set the right tone musically. From general mood right down to specific motifs, the music can also benefit hugely from some thoughtful planning. So think about some musical attributes that your song might have. Should the guitar accompaniment be sparse and slow-moving? Do you want your melody to build on a repeating figure? Should there be some sections with wordless singing?

You can ask any question and provide any answer you like. At this point, you have a totally blank canvas, and you’d be surprised at the extent to which you can fill it with a creative brainstorm before you even pick up your guitar. It helps no end when it comes to making decisions further down the line. 

Of course you’re under no obligation to stick to this vision as you progress. If you end up moving in a different direction, that’s just fine. It’s there to help, even if that just entails getting the ball rolling. 

Again, all this comes with a caveat: you don’t have to follow this method to the letter. If it works better for you - as it does for many songwriters - then dive right in with explicit musical and verbal ideas. Just bear in mind that compositional planning is a good place to start if you find yourself struggling to find inspiration.

It’s also helpful to reflect on who or what your influences might be at this point. You may want to emulate particular guitarists or engage with certain genres, oftentimes without knowing it. By making a conscious decision to write in a definite style and adopt certain attributes, you’ll effectively be laying a creative path before you that you can follow - or stray from.

3. Pick a key and the chords that go with it


Just as most songs are composed, constructed and performed using chord schemes - i.e. sequences of chords that generate a sense of structure and movement - the vast majority of songs are also grounded in one key. 

As the article linked above explains, a key is essentially a group of notes that forms the basis of a piece of music. There are seven notes in this group, and they can be arranged and expressed in a scale. The notes of the key of C major, for instance, correspond to the notes of the C-major scale.

Songs in the key of C will stick more or less to the seven notes above, which will ground the piece in that key. The first note in a scale, called the tonic, is the most important. It's the most stable and consonant note, the centre of gravity for all the others, and it's for that reason that the key is named after it. Play the tonic and the music will always sound like it’s resolving, like it’s coming home. 

You’ll need to pick a key so that you can apply this tonic anchor to your composition. When choosing, try to pick a key that lends itself to your vocal range. If you sing the notes around G really well, then G would be a sensible choice, as you’re likely to be singing it frequently.   

A key corresponds not only to a group of notes but also to a group of chords - chords built using these seven notes. These chords are known as diatonic - this is a word used to describe music that utilises only the notes of the key it’s in.

By picking a key, you’ll also be establishing a set group of chords that ‘go together’. As a collective, these chords harmonise smoothly because they share common tones. These complementary relationships form the basis of tonality, the system that governs how musical pitches and chords interact, which underpins most of the music made around the world today.

Because many of these principles are more closely associated with classical music, many beginner songwriters aren’t aware that key comes with a set of chords that function well alongside one another. Pick a key and focus on its chords and you’ll be able to exploit their compatibility and build solid, smooth progressions that sound great. 

The infographic above outlines the set of diatonic chords for both major and minor keys, outlined using staff notation as well as tablature. Roman numerals describe each chord’s relationship to the tonic by indicating the scale degree that the chord’s root note matches with - so chord V is built on the fifth note of the scale, in this case G. Capital numerals are major triads, lower-case are minor, and the superscript circle indicates a diminished chord - two minor thirds stacked atop one another.

Picking between major and minor tonalities is a big decision when it comes to determining your song’s feel. Major keys tend to carry happy, uplifting connotations, while minor keys usually engender melancholy, pensive feelings.

Note that the tablature depicts just the most common voicing of every chord - each one has many alternatives on the fretboard. The awkward-looking voicings for C minor, G minor and A-flat major are barre chords. To play these you'll need to lay your index finger across the fretboard and stop the rest of the pitches accordingly. 

It's worth bearing in mind that C minor is a good key to demonstrate theory with, but a bad one for guitarists to play - you might want to pick an easier key and set of accompanying chords if you're opting for a minor-key song.

As we said, the C-major and C-minor scales are used as examples here, but there's a set of diatonic chords for every possible key, to which the Roman numerals can be applied. In order to figure out the set for your preferred key, just apply the numerals to the scale that corresponds to your key, determine what the chords are, and then use this guitar chord chart to figure out how to play them.

Although you’re by no means restricted to using these chords in your song, they still form a perfect jumping-off point - a core selection of harmonies - when it comes to creating its essential structure.    

4. Establish a chord progression and rhythmic pattern


Step three marks the end of the planning stage of composition, and step four marks the onset of the creating stage. With your song set in a particular key and equipped with its related chords, it's time to string together a chord progression - the backbone of a song. 

A sequence of chords can be anything you want it to be. It doesn’t have to use particular chords or contain a certain number of them. It doesn’t need to repeat, be a certain length, or move from one chord to the next at regular intervals. It's good to have a degree of stability and balance, though.

This is why most chord schemes will repeat, feature consistent changes between chords, and occupy even numbers of bars. A bar is a period of time as well as the fundamental horizontal unit in sheet music, which in both cases represents the duration of a recurring beat pattern. Every bar is delineated by vertical bar lines and it's within the space of a bar that notes are is written. 

Check out a few of the most popular chord schemes depicted below. Again, for the sake of simplicity, they’re notated in C, but can be transposed to any key - just apply the numerals to the tonic of your chosen key. 

You can see that the progressions last for even and easily divisible numbers of bars, that individual chords tend to last for just one bar and then change - in other words, they have a regular harmonic rhythm, and the same primary chords typically feature. They also tend to repeat - in ‘Down Under’ by Men at Work, for example, the first scheme repeats in the chorus, though the band spices things up with a final V (sus2) before the I returns.

Spend some time with chord schemes like this. Listen to songs that use them, get used to playing through them on your guitar, tweaking them here and there, and have a go at crafting your own. Bear the conventions we’ve highlighted in mind, but don’t be afraid to subvert them if you feel compelled to take the music elsewhere. A simple four-chord scheme is a pretty solid place to start.

The optimal way to do this is by experimenting on the guitar itself. That is a really important rule of thumb: it's always best to write with your instrument.

This is when you can begin to compose a rhythmic pattern. When you’re strumming your chords, try to articulate them with a distinctive rhythmic flair that’s repetitive enough to be catchy but again fluid enough to be exciting and seem natural. 

The rhythm of the intro to Oasis’ ‘Wonderwall’ is a great example. The firm rhythm in which Noel Gallagher plays that famous sequence is arguably no less integral to its appeal than the chords themselves.  

If your scheme seems to be lacking some shape and direction, then it might help to know this: tonal music (which is most music) more or less shifts between two polarities - tonic and dominant. Once a comfortable tonic has been established, the home chord of our key, new chords move away from it, creating tension that our ears instinctively want to be resolved with a return to the tonic. 

The diatonic chord that creates the most tension, yearning most strongly for the return to the tonic, is the dominant chord - chord V. It’s because of this that chord V tends to precede the last chord I at the end of a song or a classical piece. Think of all those big, dramatic V-I-V–I-V-I endings:

But other chords also possess dominant function, meaning they instil that same tension. These belong to the dominant chord family. There’s also a tonic family of chords that reinforce the tonic and provide stability. Finally there is the subdominant family - chords that prepare the dominant, paving the way for a firm resolution to the tonic. 

The chords that make up each family are shown below. Chords built on a certain scale degree belong to the group indicated in both major and minor keys. For that reason, the minor-key staff notation has not been included and all the chords are capitalised for simplicity. 

When you’re writing your chord scheme, try to keep these relationships between tonic, subdominant and dominant in mind. Use them to manage the interplay between your chords and create a sense of structure and flow, tension and resolution. Return to the tonic frequently enough to ground the music, but rarely enough to create a sense of musical adventure - and then reward when it does finally return. Also try switching out chords for others in the same family, a technique known as substitution.

Don’t forget that you can pick different notes, chords and even keys for your song to add interest and colour. These can sometimes be difficult to integrate naturally, but do it well and it’ll be interesting and sound great. Again, the need to write on guitar is so important here. It’s always easier to experiment when working on an instrument - it'll help you to ensure that the new things you're trying still produce idiomatic, natural-sounding music. 

5. Write your words and compose your melody


Once you’ve worked out what seems like a functional chord progression, settle on it for a moment, even if you’re not totally happy with it just yet, and begin to think about what you’ll sing in your song - words and music.  

Catchy tunes and powerful lyrics make all the difference, and all the great songwriters are able to marry the two. Despite using the same 12-bar blues schemes, ‘Johnny B. Goode’ and ‘I Got You (I Feel Good)’ are very distinct (and great) songs. It’s what’s being sung that really sets them apart.

Although it’s often a good idea to try and write the words and the melody they’re sung to in tandem, we’ll consider the two separately. 

Lyrics: remember your theme, and try to serve it. Tell a story, but not too descriptively - try to approach text poetically, and don’t be afraid to be vague when it comes to its meaning. Bear in mind that the form of the words is no less important than the content, and ensure that you don’t fall into the trap of thinking that your lines are obliged to rhyme. Paul Simon’s ‘America’ is a bona fide clasic that doesn’t rhyme, and you’d never notice it.

As for the music, start small, then expand your ideas. There’s usually one lick or motif that really stands out in a song - try to find it and then incorporate it into an extended phrase that aligns with the chord scheme you have. Play through your progression and see what arises naturally - it’s so important to compose with your guitar at this stage. If you’re using notation software to write, resist the temptation to rely on digital MIDI playback. 

It’s easy to succumb to the pitfall of singing the root notes of each chord and matching the rhythm that you’re playing. That’s a good place to start, but try to use that technique as a stepping-stone to crafting a more independent and interesting melody. 

We’ve approached everything up to this point quite systematically. Learn the main chords, make a plan, choose a key and construct a basic, logical progression. But songwriting is a creative art, not a science. To really excel in this phase of the process you’ll have to tap into creativity, confidence and perseverance. Steer as clear as you can of self-doubt. 

The all-too-familiar feeling of impostor syndrome is something that every songwriter has had to contend with at some point, and it’s the worst stifler of creativity. If you’re going to let your best work come forth, you’ll have to transcend the fear of not being good enough, and liberate your creativity. Succeed in that and you’ll fulfil your potential. 

Despite the fact that this is a big and significant phase of the process - or maybe because of that fact - it’s difficult to offer detailed advice here. This is the most creative, individualistic and unscientific part of writing, and you’ll have to find your own way of navigating it.  

But you don’t have to do that entirely alone. More supportive than any songwriting advice is the inspirational work of the greats. Listen to the music that stimulates you, whether for sheer motivation or for clinical compositional research. From José González to Joan Baez, The Tallest Man on Earth to the wallflower John Fahey - think about what makes these artists so distinctive, and let that steer your work.

You’ll doubtless find that the chord scheme that you initially envisaged begins to evolve to accommodate the music and words as they develop. This is totally normal - go with what the music calls for and don’t cling too tightly to your initial vision. To paraphrase the old Yiddish proverb: if you want to make God laugh, make a plan. 

And for goodness sake, don’t forget to write your ideas down.

6. String your phrases together


Unless your inner voice has whisked you off the course that we’ve laid out thus far, what you should have now is the basic workings of a chord scheme, some melodic material, and some lyrics.

To put it another way, these ideas are the fragments that you’ll have to gradually expand, combine and develop into a complete song. The first step in this process of consolidation involves beginning to think of your melody in particular as being made up of phrases, as opposed to smaller motifs. 

The term ‘phrase’ loosely describes an extended musical statement - the kind of musical equivalent of a spoken sentence. There’ll be several such phrases in each section of your song (in the verse, chorus, and so on - we’ll come back to these shortly), and each one’ll perhaps measure the length of a four-chord cycle.

So as you extend shorter ideas into larger phrases, let your chord scheme - which might be fairly solid and well thought-out by this point - support you. Any lyrics you have should also help to guide the development of phrases. Ultimately, these are likely to be the most decisive element of the song, in which case the flow of the music will be made to match that of the words.  

As you begin to handle multiple phrases, you’ll need to maintain a sense of contour between them, so they don’t come across as a series of disjointed statements. As you’re playing through them, try to shift as smoothly as you can from one to the next. 

As ever, try to establish a healthy balance of repetition, variation and contrast within and across your phrases. Try to think on a large formal scale as well as a smaller motivic one. A great strategy in this regard is the arch-shaped contour, a kind of template that you can apply to each phrase individually, or to a sequence of them. You can see how the great John Williams handles it in his famous ‘Force theme' from Star Wars.

In this example, you can see the aforementioned arch applied as a medium-range strategy. The excerpt is long enough for each part to sound as a fairly self-contained statement, but it’s compact and smooth enough to feel like one extended phrase. 

At this level, there are a couple of long-established classical forms that you can borrow and adapt for your own ends: the period (upper) and the sentence (lower), examples of which are shown in the infographic below. See if they can help you to introduce similar structural principles into your song.  

7. Move on to new sections


Here, as we move from small- to medium-scale thinking, we’re drifting towards questions of form. This term pertains to overall, large-scale song structure, which can broadly be defined by the mapping of a song’s various sections. The framework that form provides will give your song coherence, direction and balance.

Once you’ve expanded your ideas to the point where they constitute a series of phrases, you’ll need to consider where they’ll be situated within this larger scheme. Once you've established that, you’ll need to turn your attention to other parts of the song.

Perhaps you already have other ideas that you’ve refined significantly. If not, then you may have to develop some new material, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to start from scratch. As you’ll soon see, that material doesn’t always have to be contrasting, so you can adapt what you’ve written. 

Once again, there are precedents you can fall back on when figuring out how to go about building your structure. In popular music, form usually entails some combination of verse and chorus sections, a wide category labelled with the umbrella term verse–chorus form.

If you’re not familiar with the terminology, ‘verse’ normally describes the sections in pop songs that offer musical and lyrical exposition, tending to prepare and build up to the ‘chorus’, a climactic, repeated refrain usually emphasised with more energy and instrumentation and contrasting rhythm, harmony and melody. 

In most cases, the chorus is the catchiest, most melodic part. The verse, meanwhile, is often a little more speech-like - but this isn't always the case. Artists often like to subvert these conventions and handle the material a little differently.

If you haven’t done so - and if you like the prospect of writing in verse–chorus form - have a think about whether what you’ve written already will function optimally as a verse or a chorus, and how other sections might shape up relative to it. New sections are where new chords and keys can come into their own, helping to differentiate one section from another.

Don’t dig this form? There are some alternatives: AABA form (or 32-bar form), the 12-bar blues we encountered earlier, and classical forms such as binary and ternary that might help you to approach your material in a fresh way. Or abandon formal straitjackets entirely and freely move from one idea to the next, as in a rhapsody, of which there’s of course no better example than Queen’s very own ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’.

8. Add riffs, gestures, transitions


As we’ve iterated more than once, this is just a guide - there’s no obligation to approach songwriting as per the method outlined in this article. This caveat is truer of no aspect of the process than it is of the steps discussed in this section, in which we’ll look at adding memorable riffs, small musical gestures and transitional material to your song. 

‘Hooks’, ‘licks’ or ostinati describe compact, repeating ideas that are exceptionally catchy and often serve as the primary marker or building-block of a piece of music. Think of the iconic motif that opens and underpins the Rolling Stones’ anthem ‘(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction’:

That’s a textbook riff - one of the greatest of all time, in fact - and it’s worth taking time to see if one of these could give your song extra drive, cohesion and character. Sadly there’s no magic formula when it comes to writing an effective riff, but a thing that’s always worth trying is adding a dash of syncopation - accents off the strong beats. Note how well that works in the ‘Satisfaction’ hook above. 

Often motifs like this will be a seed from which all else grows. The more experienced you get at writing, the more likely that is to be the case, as you hone your ability to cultivate ideas and material organically. Ideas can emerge at any time, so make sure you take note if one just pops into your head or on to your fretboard. That’s why we stress again that this article just offers a guide. Don’t feel obliged to wait till now to start thinking about things in terms of riffs. 

As for gestures, these can be thought of as motifs that aren’t quite as repetitive or central as riffs, but still take the form of memorable and characteristic musical ideas. But even if little embellishments like this aren’t as fundamental as hooks, they can still really make a song, bringing a dash of colour and distinction here and there.

Take Bob Dylan’s classic ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’, for instance. The ever-so-small gestures bring so much to the performance, and its easy to overlook opportunities to add these vital little flourishes. These are particularly easy to incorporate into finger-picking, as Dylan does on this occasion. We’ll look at finger-picking briefly in step ten. 

Gestures (a little more substantial than Dylan’s ‘micro-gesture’ above) can also function transitionally, as material helping to tie one phrase or section to another - perhaps leading into or out of a chorus, say. An arpeggio might do the trick, or you could, say, echo on guitar something you’ve just sung. Techniques like this can really smooth over clunky changes between sections. 

Although they’re arguably worth considering when you’re working out a chord scheme, it’s worth sparing a thought for cadences here. These are shorter harmonic progressions that mark important structural points in a phrase or section - usually at the end of one. You might have noticed them mentioned in the analyses above.

Depending on the type you use, a cadence can - broadly speaking - bring a passage to a close or propel it onwards. For this reason, they can be really useful in managing transitions and demarcating section boundaries. You can learn more about how cadences work in this article on piano chords.   

Bear in mind that you can expand transitional material into more substantial, independent sections, which, mainly in the context of verse–chorus form, can function as a pre-chorus or a bridge, depending on where it falls in relation to verse and chorus. The image below outlines how these sections are typically incorporated into verse–chorus form. 

9. Refine music and lyrics


This step, the last in the songwriting process, is relatively straightforward in theory, if not necessarily in practice. It basically entails integrating all the ideas that you’ve cultivated up to this point - in terms of both music and lyrics - then working them into a complete form, and finally refining them to your satisfaction. Get it?

Take as long as you need to finalise words, melody, guitar accompaniment - and anything else you think the song requires - and sculpt it into a fully fledged composition that you’re able to perform reliably and consistently, from start to finish. It is always good to retain a degree of flexibility, though, so that you can perform the song with the right amount of spontaneity.

Use whatever notation tools you think appropriate not only to cement the song, and therefore remember it, but also to prepare it for whatever performance it’s destined for. If this song is a purely personal project, then an aide-mémoire might be all you need, but if you have plans to give sheet music to others to perform, or even to publish it, then you will need to ensure that your notation constitutes a complete, intelligible set of musical instructions. 

At any rate, refining music and lyrics to your complete satisfaction can mean only one thing: that you have a finished song. Making it this far is quite the achievement - something to really be proud of.   

10. Learn, improve and go again


The experience of writing a song is a lesson in itself and will teach you a great deal. But it’s still worth taking time to explore supplementary reading and practice to enhance your knowledge and skill.

First, spend some time with music theory. It’s certainly not necessary to be a theory whizz if you’re going to write a great song - Paul McCartney can’t even read sheet music (allegedly) - but it can certainly add another dimension to the way you think about music and approach the creative process. 

There’s a number of articles on the blog that can help you out in this regard. To find them, simply click Blog at the top of this page, scroll down to find and click All categories, and then take a look at the Sheet music and Music education options.

Secondly, guitar practice will help no end. The more comfortable you are as a player and the more you expose yourself to a variety of styles and techniques, the more you’ll have in your locker when it comes to expressing your ideas. 

Broaden your library of chords, practise scales, arpeggios and standard progressions, see how a capo feels and how alternative tunings work, and experiment with extended playing techniques such as palm-muting, harmonics, and percussive body slaps. You can learn more about these techniques and how they're notated in the complementary articles on how to write guitar sheet music.  

If you’re used to strumming with a plectrum, try playing without one. Finger-picking can transform your playing, just as it did for John Lennon - in the 1960s Donovan showed him a pattern that Lennon would use time and again, on tracks such as ‘Julia’, ‘Look at Me’ and ‘Dear Prudence’. González’s ‘Heartbeats’ also features some wonderful finger-picking, and he makes use of a really distinctive tuning, too. 

The most valuable thing you can do is go again. As with everything else in this world, the more you get into the habit of doing something, the more you improve at it. Assimilate everything you’ve learned up to here and use it to make your next song even better.

Access a digital library of guitar sheet music


As we alluded to, guitar practice doesn’t just concern enhancing your technical ability, but exposing yourself to the plethora of music for the instrument that’s out there - for research as well as for inspiration. Want to play the blues, for instance? Eric Clapton’s Unplugged is an absolute masterclass in blues guitar. Go and listen. Emulate, absorb, and develop your own sound.

nkoda could be your gateway to this guitar music. It offers an entire digital library for sheet music for the instrument, accessible anytime and anywhere. Whenever inspiration strikes, you can find, play and draw influence from some of the world’s finest songwriting achievements, and let them enrich your own artistry.

Bring it all within your grasp by downloading the app and starting a free trial today. See how nkoda can benefit your composition, your guitar-playing and your musicianship in general. 

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