If you’ve had enough of playing easy acoustic guitar songs and want to move on to writing your own, you’ve come to the right place. The songwriting process is very personal and unique to every person and the methods you use will be different to the next person. As you write songs more and more you will evolve into your own method and discover the best way of composing for you.
As a great starting point, we’ve put together this guide that will break down the basic essentials of songwriting. You could apply these points to electric guitar too, but we’ve written the music theory here with the acoustic guitar in mind. Each section will explain a different element of writing songs so you can put them all together as a sort of musical jigsaw.
By the time you’ve read through how to write a song on acoustic guitar, you will know how to compose chord progressions, how to pen lyrics and much more. Let’s get started!
For every song that’s ever been written, there is a set of minor chords and major chords that make up the basis of the piece. You can use hundreds in a song or just two or three. If you’re already reading this then you probably already have some knowledge of music theory and guitar chords so that’s a great starting point.
In all great songs, the chord progression is named by their Roman numeral counterpart. What this means is that each chord with its key is assigned a Roman numeral based on where it sits on a scale.
For a major key the chord progression is I – ii – iii – IV – V – vi – vii.
For a minor key the chord progression is I – ii – III – iv – v – VI – VII.
In the above chord progressions, the capital Roman numerals represent major chords and the lower case ones are minor chords. In a major key, the vii will be a diminished chord.
The first part of the songwriting process is to choose the key that you want to play in. Below we have listed some of the most common chord progression choices so that you can pick one for the main structure of your piece.
- I – IV – V – This is a popular choice that gives you a strong base for the song. It will suit an upbeat, pop style song.
- I – V – vi – IV – Much like the one above, this introduces a minor vi chord which gives you that extra layer for a more emotional piece.
- ii – V – I – This is the most common chord progression used in jazz music. You can use the progression for the whole song or put it in somewhere for a bit of a jazzy twist.
If you want something a bit different and want to write your own progression then you can follow these steps to do so.
- Only use four measures to be part of your progression.
- The first chord should be the I chord.
- Every progression has to end in an IV or V chord.
- The middle two measures can be any key from the chord. You can also repeat the same chord if you want to.
This is a simple and foolproof way of writing your own chord progression that sounds good too.
Structuring the Song
The structure of a song refers to the way the different parts are ordered. There are some genres of music that will use A sections and B sections which is a common thing in jazz music. Others will use terms such as verse and chorus which feature in pop and rock songs.
There are so many different ways that a song can be structured. You don’t have to follow the standard intro, solo, outro formation. However, most songs will include at least one verse and have a chorus that uses the same melody in each instance. Throw whatever sections you want into your song and order in a way that speaks to your creativity. We’ve included some examples of common strong structures in the videos below.
Here Comes the Sun by The Beatles
Fly Me to the Moon by Frank Sinatra
Sweet Child O’Mine by Guns N’ Roses
Melodies and Motifs
The melody is an integral part of songwriting. The melody is the part of a song that can really get stuck in your head so you want it to be catchy.
Once you’ve figured out the key for your song and the progression you want to use, it’s time to come up with the guitar and vocal melody. This is a single line of notes that sounds great when the chords are played. You can either sing it or play the notes on your guitar.
Melodies can either be super simple or really complex – it all depends on your personal preference and how you want the song to sound. Make sure that your melody is in the same key as you wrote your chord progression. That’s how you make a great song, otherwise it will sound off.
Notes for the Melody
If you are using a major key in your song then you will want to choose notes that are included in the same major scale to create your melody. The same rule applies to a song written in a minor key. Every scale has a root note and you can look at scale shapes and charts to find these out.
For every melody, there will be a collection of notes you can choose from which are included in the chord charts. There are so many notes you can use on your guitar in any given key so if you don’t want to use the standard ones, make sure to look online to find all of the notes that belong to your key.
Making it Interesting
You don’t want to just run up and down a scale of notes to make your melody. Mix it up so that the listener stays interested. You can use bigger leaps from different notes to do this. A great example of this is in the video below.
Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire
Rhythm and Strumming Patterns
The rhythm and the strumming pattern of a song is what can instantly make it recognizable and can really spice up the overall mood of the piece. There are three common strumming patterns you may want to use in your song which we’ve detailed below.
↓ ↓ ↓ ↓
1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &
↓ ↓ ↓ ↑ ↓ ↑
1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &
↓ ↓ ↑ ↑ ↓ ↑
1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &
You can play around with both the rhythm and strumming patterns to find what will suit the song and the mood the most.
Writing lyrics to a song is a very personal part of the creative process. Whether this is your first song or not, every songwriter will benefit from having a reliable way of writing lyrics. Below we have given you the steps to follow which will help you find the write the best lyrics for your song.
- Make sure you have written your melody first. Some songwriters will start out with the lyrics first but having the melody down is much more common. Find out what your melody is going to be before you start focusing on the themes and subject for the lyrics. Make sure to have that song structure sorted out to so that you can fit the lyrics into the pattern that your song follows.
- Rely on your consciousness as a guide. Once the basic melody is down or even as you’re writing it, try out some improvisation with some lyrics. They don’t have to make much sense and it certainly won’t be the final draft but it’s this stream of consciousness that can help you to understand what type of lyrics you want for your song. Feel the vibe of the music and then improvise with different phrases and rhyming couplets which could eventually lead to a great set of lyrics.
- Find phrases and vowel sounds that you like. As you work out a rough draft of lyrics, find the sounds and phrases that you like so that they can form the foundation of your song. You can then build on this to form all of the lyrics. The chorus will be the part that is repeated the most so you may want to start out by writing this one in full. Once the chorus has been worked out you can turn your attention to the verses and work your way through the rest of the song chronologically.
- Come up with a theme and subject. If you go into lyric writing with a point of view and subject in mind then you may find that your song comes out sounding too literal. Instead, you want to start out writing with an intuition and then refine this into a specific theme so that the song sounds more poetic.
- Finish off the lyrics. Once you’ve got the core of your lyrics down in the form of phrases, lines and the theme you can then fill in all the blanks. Go through the whole song step by step until you have an entire set of lyrics which will form your first rough draft.
- Give them some polish. Do any of your rhyme schemes seem forced? If you’re struggling with making your lyrics rhyme then you can always use a rhyming dictionary. Remember not every couplet featured in your song has to rhyme. Some of the greatest songs out there have no rhymes in them at all. Look through the lyrics to pick out words and phrases you can add a bit of punch too, but do this prudently. A song with good lyrics will have a natural flow to it. You’ll end up tweaking your lyrics a lot before you think the song is finished but that is perfectly normal for any musician.
- Pick your title. If you start out with your melody and then follow your stream of consciousness to write the first draft then your song will naturally tell you what it wants to be about. We would suggest you don’t pick a title until the song can fully present itself to you. The title should be servicing the song and not the other way around.
Writing a song on the acoustic guitar will differ from writing a piece on any other instrument such as the piano or electric guitar. When you choose to use an acoustic to write your song then you have a lot more options available to you. There are a lot more decisions you have to make besides the key, melody and chord progressions.
When you use standard tuning on a guitar you will be going from the lowest pitch to the highest one with a progression of notes on the strings which are E, A, D, G, B and E. However, because you are using a guitar you have alternate tunings you can use which will give you a different sound. Below we have listed these tunings so you can experiment with them.
- Drop D – DADGBE
- Open G – DGDGBD
- Open F – FACFCF
- Open E – EBEG#BE
- Open D – DADF#AD
- Open C – CGCGCE
- Open A – EAEAC#E
- Full Step Down – DGCFAD
There are so many more alternate tunings out there that you can use but the ones we have listed above are the most common if you want to use a different sound.
Using different fingerstyles on your guitar is a great way of making the song sound more interesting while still just strumming the chords. Instead of using a strumming pattern, finger the notes of the chords above by plucking each individual string that you think sounds good. The key here is repetition. You want to come up with a pattern that you will repeat so that the listener continues to be interested in the music. We have given you some fingerstyle guitar songs below as inspiration.
Grace is Gone by Dave Matthews Band
Let Her Go by Passenger
I Won’t Give Up by Jason Mraz
Stop this Train by John Mayer
All of the information we have included in this guide may seem like a lot to keep in your head during the songwriting process. But, the most important thing to do at the end of the day is to have some fun. Remember that this is about you and your creative juices flowing so don’t take it too seriously.
Write whatever you think sounds good and don’t bow down to what you think others might think sounds good. If you’re not happy with it, don’t write it and definitely don’t play. Writing a song that you don’t like will only end up stunning your creativity and will put you off writing any type of music in the future.
Songwriting should be treated like anything to do with music – the more you practice and do it, the better you will get at it. Try not to be discouraged if you find yourself stuck at any point during the process. Go back to the drawing board and find what works for your song.
With all of this advice ticking around in your mind it’s time to get off your phone or computer, pick up your instrument and start writing. We wish you plenty of luck on your musical adventure.