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.