How to write guitar sheet music and compose a song

22.12.2021 Ben Maloney Guitar

It’s easy to let the amount of guitar music out there convince you that writing for the instrument is simple. It isn’t quite, but everyone has what it takes to write something. This guide will help you to do exactly that - develop guitar sheet music of your own.

In a previous article on how to write piano sheet music we explored some key aspects of composition, with an eye to writing for the keyboard. 

Many of those creative principles are universal, whether you’re writing music for the piano or the pocket trumpet. We’ll recap them briefly, but here we’re going to concentrate on the specific technical challenges of writing sheet music for the guitar. 

Like every instrument, there are unique things to consider. Soon you’ll understand how to deal with each one. Just follow the steps below and you’ll be looking at a fully realised piece of guitar sheet music in no time. 

If you’re not familiar with how guitar sheet music works, check out this piece on how to read guitar sheet music. It’s important to know what you’re working towards before you start composing.

Step 1: Develop your ideas

There are all sorts of ways to go about writing music, but there are two things that you should bear in mind. First, find and stick to the method that works best for you. Second, have faith in your ideas - it’s all too easy to become convinced that your work is no good. 

So when that initial inspiration comes, trust in its quality and potential. Work with the ideas, adapt them, and try to organically mould them from loose fragments to fully worked-out musical material.

And if you’re struggling to get inspired, don’t worry. Many musicians find it helpful to make creative decisions before they’ve even started thinking about specific musical ideas - the first thing that Igor Stravinsky decided on when composing was tempo.

Think about why you’re writing and who will be playing instead. Should the music evoke something? Should it engage with a certain genre or style? Is it for acoustic, electric or classical guitar? Answers to these questions can nudge you in the right direction.

Think of some classic patterns in guitar music to get you started. Experiment with chords, scales and arpeggios. Try to weave in some bass work as well as melodic material. Work with a tried and tested verse-chorus song structure. Try these easy guitar songs to get inspired if you’re struggling. 

If you have sheet music software, try to keep away from it at this stage. In general, composing with an instrument - guitar or not - is most conducive to nurturing ideas, expanding them, and bringing them together into an organic piece of music.  

Step 2: Make it playable

If you’re a guitarist yourself and you’re writing music that matches your skill level, then you’ll no doubt be playing what you’re writing. By playing as you write, you’ll be making sure it’s playable and in doing so, seeing to this step. 

If on the other hand you’re not a guitarist, or you’re writing music that’s beyond your skill level, then you might not be able to play what you’ve composed. If this is the case, you need to ensure that it’s possible to perform your music.

It’s easy to get carried away by a piece of music, to the point where it simply becomes unplayable. And even if it is still technically playable, you’ll still want to do performers favours wherever possible.

So, for instance, you’ll need to ensure that the player isn’t expected to traverse too big a gap between frets in too short a time, particularly when complicated fingerings are involved. 

It’s also easy to forget that the human hand only has four fingers. This means that chords can only involve four individual instances of stopping - though fingers can be barred across several strings. 

And it’s not uncommon to notate a chordal voicing that ends up being highly impractical to execute on the fretboard. All these considerations relate to the notion of ‘idiomatic writing’ - ensuring that your music is not only possible to play, but also suitable for the instrument. 

But it should be emphasised that it’s amazing what some guitarists are capable of. If you’re confident that what you’re writing can be realised - you can bet there are players out there who can and will pull it off. 

Step 3: Consider extended techniques

There are a range of extended techniques that are worth considering when composing music for guitar. These can be incorporated into your piece and specified with notation - the examples below use traditional staff notation. 

They shouldn’t be forced into your work just for the sake of it, but they can help you to achieve the particular sound you want, and make a composition more varied and interesting. 

  • Strings can be muted to create a percussive effect - this technique is especially prevalent in popular music. They can also be partially muted using the palm, which creates the same percussive effect, while still allowing the pitch of the fingered note to sound.
  • Bends are another technique prominent in popular music. They involve pulling the string to raise the pitch of a note, usually by either a semitone or a whole note.
  • Natural harmonics can also add real colour to a piece of music. By stopping the strings very lightly in certain positions on the fretboard, physics works its magic to produce bell-like tones.
  • Trills and tremolos can be played on many instruments, including the guitar. Trills involve quickly oscillating between two notes, while tremolos refer to fast repetition of a single note. They’re common techniques that easily enliven musical textures in a range of styles.

These are just a few examples of playing techniques that can broaden your creative scope. Hopefully some of them are a good fit in the context of a piece you’re working on.

Step 4: Proper presentation

Whether you’re planning to notate your music by hand or using notation software, it’s important to present your work correctly and clearly. It’s got to be understandable if a performer’s going to interpret it successfully and realise your music as you envisaged it.

That means going back over your music, maybe making an edit here and there. Space the bars and systems properly, ensure that accidentals have been suitably labelled, notes have been properly beamed, and so on. Housekeeping stuff.

There is one aspect of guitar sheet music that can be difficult to navigate, though, and it’s to do with how phrases are notated. Music that exploits the guitar’s ability to articulate several musical ideas at the same time can quickly become confusing when it’s written down.  

Take a look at the passage below - the notation isn’t necessarily wrong, but it’s not elegant. Swift and accurate interpretation of the instructions by the performer is hindered by messy notation.

The extract below depicts the same music, notated more economically and clearly. By splitting the texture into layers, it’s easier for the player to understand how the music is constructed - this is one of the most vital aspects of notating guitar music. With respect to composition as well as notation, this process is called voicing. 

It’s also important to remember that sheet music consists of more than just pitch and rhythm. Make sure that the tempo and time signature has been indicated, and dynamics added.

This is your chance to let the player know how they should articulate the music. Slurs in guitar music denote hammer-ons and pull-offs, creating a legato feel. Or use staccato dots to make it sound crisper. You can also instruct the player to slide between two notes, for example, or play a broken chord.

It's up to you whether you want to add fingering instructions to awkward passages. These come in the shape of numbers next to the notehead. '1' indicates that the player should use their index finger. '2' means they should use their middle finger, and so on - down to the pinky.  

If you like, you can specify which string a note should be played on as well. These instructions utilise numbers appearing inside circles - '1' for the 1st string (high E string) through to '6' for the 6th string (low E string). Roman numerals above the stave similarly indicate the fret at which the note is to be played. See this notation in action below.

The more specific your instructions - the easier your music is to read and perform. 

Step 5: Tab and chord diagrams

For those of you not working with standard music notation, this step relates to handling alternative notational methods used in guitar sheet music, namely tablature and chord diagrams. 

If you prefer to work with guitar tablature, steps 1 and 2 will be no less relevant. Principles outlined in steps 3 and 4 still apply as well, but the examples of notation given and the presentation guidelines will be of little use. 

Most extended techniques can be uniquely notated in tablature. Below you’ll find the musical examples offered in step 3 rewritten in guitar tab. 

Fortunately for tab-users, you don’t need to worry about things like accidentals, key signatures, or even splitting voices in the texture. Tablature’s inability to convey as much musical detail as standard notation might be a weakness, but it certainly makes things easier when you’re notating your music.

Bear in mind that if you're using tablature you'll have to indicate when the notation doesn't correspond to standard tuning. 

If you’re using chord diagrams to write, you’re going to be restricted to chordal writing. But, if you’re putting together, say, a rhythm-guitar part, then chord names and voicings might be all you need. In any case, there are a lot of songs out there that consist of a chord scheme only.

However, you might find yourself restricted to particular chord voicings. In this context, the advantage of hand-writing your diagrams is that you can come up with your own fingerings - just don’t forget to make sure it’s legible.

Check out this chord chart to see what's available. If you need a recap on interpreting the boxes, the top line represents the nut, the second horizontal line the 1st fret, the third line the 2nd fret, and so on. The vertical lines represent the strings, from low E on the left to high E on the right. 

For reminders on how to read staff notation and tablature, visit that article on how to read guitar sheet music mentioned above. 


Your next steps for guitar sheet music

Checking out examples of published sheet music for the guitar is a good way to not only get inspired, but also familiarise yourself with what guitar sheet music looks like.

The nkoda library is a great resource for this. Its diverse collection of guitar music contains everything from solo works to concertos and pop songs to classical studies. 

By surrounding yourself with a diversity of musical possibilities, you’ll open yourself up to a range of influences. Then it’ll be easier to find your creative voice and realise your own, unique musical potential.

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