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If you have a story to tell, then you have something to say with your songwriting, and guitar is your backup instrument. In other words, use your guitar to support your singing. Write your story down and keep your lyric ideas in a folder or binder just for songs. Save them to a folder on your computer too.
Alex Alessandro, musical director for Mariah Carey, says of writing songs: “Not an easy thing to do — make it all new, yet still somehow familiar.” So how do you do it?
Step 1: Figure out what it is that you like about the songs that you love to sing and listen to every day. Why are they so good? What is the guitar’s role in the song? Is it supporting the piano and vocal? Does your song have a traditional chorus with a big payoff that gives you a lift? Personally, I think of the chorus as a nice payday. It’s where you hit your stride and really have a good time.
Step 2: Analyze the chord structures of your favorite songs. Are they verse, verse, chorus, and then bridge, or do they just repeat verses and choruses? Does the guitar make the song really come to life or does it need more? Trust your instinct about the song and let the guitar reveal its secrets as you play the song yourself. Follow your gut feelings and then use a family member or friend as a sounding board. Playing songs you love is a great way to learn how to write a song on guitar yourself.
Step 3: What is it that holds the structure of the song together? Is there an unforgettable hook for the guitar to play? As with many songs it may be a chord progression we all know, but, when you sing the song you make it your own. Does the song have a modulation where it goes up a whole step in key from A major to B major and then back to A major? What do you enjoy about the melody? Remember John Lennon told his son Julian: “If you can whistle it as you are walking away, then you know you’ve got something.”
Step 4: Look for the key the song is in if you haven’t already. Search for it on the guitar. This is good ear training. If you see something special is happening, make note of it. Would you sing it better if you transposed it to another key? Does it sound better on a 12-string guitar or a 6-string guitar?
Step 5: Now that you have figured out one of your favorite songs, you can most likely write one. Think of a song title — make it a good one. And allow for changes. Interesting titles can make a song stick in your head and the audience will love it. Great guitar playing will also be memorable.
Step 6: It is a given that you have to work at this — sometimes a song takes 10 minutes and other times a song takes 2 years to finish! Allow for that. Just be productive and keep creating and transcribing other people’s songs. As you develop your ear, it gets easier to do this. It will open up new areas for creative writing. And always have a guitar with you and your iPhone. You never know when inspiration will strike, and you use the recorder on your iPhone or smartphone to save it.
Step 7: Share your best songs with another writer who is a pal, or with your music teacher. Professional songwriter and guitar player Sheryl Crow formed a “Tuesday Night Songwriting Social Club.” You can too. I highly recommend this! It’s good to have ideas to bounce off one another. The benefits of having songwriting partners are too many to even list. A partner can make your song better in ways you may never think of in a million years, and if you’re lucky they may even help you write a #1 hit single.
Step 8: Let the song breathe — allow space so your listener can absorb the sounds and think and feel what you want them to — don’t fill up every last second with notes. Allow a place for the music to come to life. A famous singer-songwriter once said: “The music is really in the silence.” What does this mean? It means the music has a place to live and be structured, yet still breathe life into the melody.
Step 9: Keep playing your songs. They will reveal their secrets to you. You may be pleasantly surprised by this and delight in it. As time goes by, your craft of songwriting will improve and your income may just reflect that.
Step 10: Experiment. Put the song in an entirely different beat or key just to see if it will be better, Dance around the vocal and let the song grow. It may be the missing ingredient. As popular songs go, if you create one you love chances are others will love it, too. So dig in and have fun! Try it on electric and then on acoustic guitar. Try it out on a travel guitar, or even an 8-string guitar. You never know what you may find.
Writing a song on the guitar can put joy in your heart and bring something beautiful to the world. Conversely, it can evoke other emotions in people including anger, hope, denial, curiosity, love, hate, and everything in between. Music is about what we feel. Some folks write only ten great songs and loads of duds. Some write four huge ones that become hits and survive and thrive off the royalties. Regardless of the adventure in writing and in your “life in music” you can create a little gem if you keep at it. Your guitar is your BFF — Best Friend Forever. Always have it handy!
Rev Up Your Creative Engines…
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James W. teaches guitar, singing, and acting lessons in Jacksonville, FL. He specializes in teaching pop, rock, and modern country styles. James has been teaching for 10 years and joined the TakeLessons in 2010. Learn more about James here!