I'm a guitarist and bassist with over 35 years of experience as a musician.
You Can Write a Song!
For a guitar player, learning how to write a song is one of the most fulfilling parts of being a musician, but nobody ever said it was easy. Doubtless, thousands of songs are written around the world every day, but very few ever make it to the public ear.
Many people think of songwriting as a mystical ritual that only those tuned into some spiritual realm of inspiration can ever understand. Truthfully, it’s a skill anyone can learn. Anybody can write a song.
The question is, can you write a good song?
Yes, there is a lot of garbage out there. Listen to most pop radio stations and that's pretty easy to see. But there are also the gems, those musical creations so rare that they leave you in awe of the songwriter.
Listening to these masterpieces you may feel intimidated. The thing to remember is that every successful songwriter turns out a heaping pile of rubbish before the good stuff starts to flow. Like any art, the more you practice, and the more you fail, the better you get.
If you get good at it you may even end up with a lucrative music career due to your songwriting ability!
So, cast your fear behind you, grab your guitar, and take the plunge into the icy waters of songwriting. I promise you won’t drown, and you’ll probably even learn a thing or two about yourself if you’re not careful.
Beginning Songwriter's Poll
What Kind of Songwriter Will You Be?
For many guitarists, figuring out what kind of song to write will first involve a far more frightening prerequisite: Figuring out who you are as a musician. You probably already know what kind of music you like, and what style you wish you emulate.
The question is whether or not your current abilities match your ambition. There are two schools of thought on this, and I actually believe both can be correct:
1. Write to your current level of skill
If you only know five chords on the guitar and can’t yet play a solo you’re probably not going to turn out anything close to the progressive rock or jazz you’ve been listening to. You're going to need to work on your chops.
But that doesn’t mean you should wait until you get better before you start writing songs. There are many rock bands throughout history that did just fine with five chords, and other genres such as folk, punk, and country are even more accessible.
Starting out this way actually gives you a great creative jump. If you can write imaginative songs with five chords, think of what a great songwriter you’ll be once you actually learn to play the thing!
The downside is that you have to be sure you push yourself in other ways in order to develop as a musician since your songwriting will always be equal to your current ability.
2. Write beyond your skill level
Some forms of music, such as classical, jazz, metal and even blues, require some pretty impressive chops before you even consider putting ideas on paper. In these genres, sometimes you have to “fake it until you make it” as they say.
The upside of this is that you are always pushing yourself to get better. This is a good thing, of course, and a great way to get past songwriter's block. But there are a couple of bad angles to it, too.
For one, your music is going to sound kind of awful until you know what you’re doing. In genres that demand deep knowledge of musical theory and extreme technical proficiency you simply won’t yet have what it takes, and this can be disheartening.
The second negative point is that you may end up practicing bad habits in an effort to play beyond your abilities. Mentally and physically, what you practice you improve. If you continually practice bad habits you will get better at those bad habits.
Slash Talks About Inspiration
Other Types of Songwriters
Maybe you fit neither of those scenarios. Perhaps you’re an excellent musician, but just a little baffled by the songwriting part.
In that case, your journey is much more philosophical. You already know how to play, and you probably have a lot of experience under your belt. You need to ask yourself who you want to be as a musician.
It sounds cliché, but for you when it comes to figuring out what kind of song you’ll write, you have to follow your heart. You really have no limitations.
What if a few chords are all you want to know about the guitar, and you really just want to strum and sing along? You are a lyricist, a singer-songwriter, and there is nothing wrong with that. You may hold the romanticized notion of filling notebook after notebook with songs and lyrics until you eventually find a band or some other outlet for getting it all to the masses.
It’s actually a great idea to have as many thoughts on paper as possible. However, as a musician, to me the scariest thing in a band situation has always been a singer who has never played an instrument. They have an idea in their head of how they want the music to sound, but they can’t really put it into words, and they can’t show you.
Even if you just want to sing and write songs, it’s not a bad idea to keep practicing the guitar so you can better convey your ideas to your bandmates.
The Basic Components of a Song
Songs have structure. Even jam bands who noodle away for twenty minutes at a time still have a general idea of where they are going with a piece.
The basic components of a song are:
This can be anything that builds up the beginning of your piece, and may or may not flow into the rest of the song. Usually, it’s an instrumental section that sets the tone for the rest of the song.
Some styles of music employ instrumental intros more than others. Progressive rock and metal are known for lengthy intros.
Here come the words! The verse of a song tells the story, and most songs contain three or four of them. They can be only a couple of lines each, or they can be quite elaborate. Longer verses with good content give the song a more epic feel.
Shorter verses make a song more “pop” sounding. Each verse is usually unique and repeated only once through the song, but sometimes songwriters will recycle a verse used earlier in the song and add it to the end.
The bridge section of a song fills the gap between the verse and the chorus. Some songs don’t employ them at all, and in others, they work very well. The chorus of a song is usually a very melodic “sing-along” section, while the verse is more like a poem. The bridge makes for a smooth transition between those two different sections.
A bridge can be very melodic like a chorus or can be another phase of the verse. A bridge may be repeated each time it’s used in the song, or it may be original in each implementation.
When someone asks you how a certain song goes, the chorus is usually what you think of. This is the main section of the song. The reason it is so memorable is that it’s usually very melodic and pleasant. It’s usually (but not always) repeated several times throughout the song.
Many songwriters seek to employ the magical “hook” in their chorus section. Songs with great hooks are those that greatly move the listener with their lyrical and compositional style. These are the songs that get stuck in your head!
Instrumental and/or solo
Usually in the middle of a song, but sometimes in other places, many bands feature a guitar solo or other instrumental. This can be completely different from the rest of the song (see “middle” below) or it may use the same chord structure as other sections of the song. Some bands don’t use this section at all.
Others, such as jazz and progressive rock bands, really go wild with the instrumental elements of their music. The decision is up to the songwriter. The instrumental or solo section may feature its own bridge beforehand, building up the intensity and preparing the listener.
Some songs go off on tangents in the middle and then come back to the original verse/bridge/chorus format later. These middle sections can be instrumental, as stated above, or they may have their own verse/chorus or verse/verse format. Again, the artistic license is in the hands of the songwriter.
The song has to end sometime! The outro is the composition that makes up the end of a song. Sometimes bands use instrumentals to end a song. Sometimes they repeat the chorus several times before ending.
Remember that, even though on recordings you sometimes hear a song fade off into nothing, in real life you have to come up with a way to end your song. Go out with a bang!
Putting it All Together
When it comes time to write your song there are two ways to go about it. The first, which many musicians employ, is to build from fragments of music or lyrics already written, and assemble them into something that seems like a song.
Or, some musicians will sit with their instrument and think, waiting and hoping that some idea comes to them. I believe this is approach is a mistake, and probably leads to a lot of new songwriters quitting when great ideas don’t strike them out of the blue.
Another way, and the method I have always favored, is to create an outline of your song before you even begin to write music. It may sound robotic, but I believe the outline of your piece is part of the creative process.
Remember, as a songwriter you are not just composing you are arranging, and that is as important as anything else to the outcome of your piece.
While you are creating this outline, you are answering questions about the essence of your song. That, in turn, helps you to imagine the topic and the musical composition and jump-starts your lyric writing.
Most musicians label the sections of their songs. The classic way is the “ABC” method, where you label the verse “A”, the bridge “B”, the chorus “C”, etc. Therefore, a very basic outline for a song may look like this:
Basic Song Outline for Beginners
Songwriting Exercise #1
Grab a notebook and pen and a CD by your favorite band. Listen to a track from the CD, and identify which sections are the intro, verse, bridge, chorus, middle, etc. Create an outline like the one above.
How does this artist employ typical song elements? Are there any unexpected sections that don’t fit into the definitions above? Do the sections flow together well, or do any of the changes seem clumsy? What would you have done differently if you were writing this song?
Try this with a few songs from different bands and see what you can learn about their songwriting styles.
Writing More Advanced Songs
You don’t have to be so predictable. Mix it up by delaying the chorus, putting in multiple guitar solos, or adding a section with some different lyrics:
Advanced Songwriting Advice from Paul Gilbert
A More Advanced Song Outline
Songwriting Exercise #2
Write a song! I’ve said repeatedly in this article that the only way to get better is to practice, and there is no time like the present! Create your outline, as simple as it needs to be.
You may want to start with an easy ABC, ABC, ABC format. Come up with a topic for your song. I sometimes feel like it helps to come up with a good title first, as the title really sets the mood for the music. For an ABC format song, you’ll need verse, bridge and chorus lyrics, and three pieces of music that logically flow together.
Get cracking and let me know how it turns out in the comments below. After you’re done with this song, write another. It’s the only way to get better.
Start Making Music!
Now that you know the basics you can get out there and create! There are truly no limits to what you can accomplish, and you may find yourself off on a career in music.
Remember, not all songwriters become famous. Some make outstanding money writing the music for the superstars who look pretty but have no real talent. It is the songwriters who make these people look good. The typical pop or rock star may have a brief period of success during their career if they are lucky, whereas a good songwriter can be in demand for decades.
Even if you never decide to do anything with your talent, songwriting is still a rewarding endeavor. The song you write today is an original creation, made by you, and it will be around forever. Good luck, and I hope you now have a better idea of how to write a song.
Michael James (author) on June 22, 2019:
@Stephen - Thanks for another great comment! Truthfully, when writing a song I rarely call the different parts anything. I simply label them with letters, as in the diagram above. I only need to know that "this part is the same as that part". Every new part gets a new letter. Sometimes I go through a lot of letters! Obviously there is logical repetition and sections that can be called verse and chorus and bridge, etc, but beyond that I just want everything to work together well.
I know there is a formula to songwriting that pop-oriented writers like to use. I have always felt that approach stifled creativity.
Stephen Wendt on June 22, 2019:
So true Mr. Gopher! Hahaha. Songwriting is at it's best when it is not emcumbered by silly rules that supposedly "make it good". And structure is at it's best when it helps you lay a song groundwork, in an easily accesible way to expand your thoughts. Not when it becomes restrictive and bothersome!
I was mainly detailing what I did because I was confused about your use of terminology-- and whether it was correct or not from some other school of thinking rather than mine. And also, to confirm it was not indeed me who was incorrect and confused!
It's seems we may both be correct, and I am just from a different school of thought when it comes to songwriting. It actually does make sense a Prog songwriter would have some more expansive song structures and extra terms. I have always felt in many of my longer, prog inspired numbers, song structure names failed me. When you have very long songs with many different parts, including parts that don't really repeat very much, my type of structure naming doesn't seem to be able to really describe my longer type of songwriting, without just going "verse 3, verse 4, bridge 3, bridge 4" etcetera hahahaha. And it makes no sense to use verse and chorus much more than once bc the parts were often totally different with different chords, words, etc... Of course there is no rule that says a chorus always has to be the same... Especially if it had a different number attached to it...
But you get used to these structural things that songs you're familiar with do, and what terms mean, and when you start to depart, but still use the same terms, you start to ask yourself "Wait a minute... This isn't right... Is it?" It got to the point several times where I started just putting down "bridge other extra thing?" "Bridge again I guess?" And other crazy things. And "verse prime"- a term of my dad's creation-- for the times I would have my second verse be a verse-- but completely different than the first!! Which is pretty uncommon in a lot of music.
But indeed, it could not be truer that there is no WRONG way to write a song... Only ways that can help you make it easier... Which themselves can become restrictive and bothersome if forced upon us!! We must truly feel free to follow our inspiration as songwriters so that music does not become an authoritarian regime or simply unenjoyable obligation that is continually tainted by nonsensical rules.
Rock on Prog-Gopher!
Michael James (author) on June 20, 2019:
@ Tom: There are a lot of articles out there about how to network and submit songs. However, these days I would suggest that social media and especially YouTube are hugely important for getting yourself noticed as a songwriter. If you set yourself up as a professional songwriter with a quality website, then establish a strong presence on YouTube showcasing your music, you are off to a great start.
Of course that's easier said than done. There are thousands of voices online and you have to find a way to make yours unique. Likewise, there are thousands of songs for artists to consider. Not only do yours have be as good or better, but you need to establish yourself as a professional person who is easy to work with.
Good luck! It's a tough road, but writing music is a lot of fun.
Tom on June 19, 2019:
How does one get their songs to the right person or persons?
Michael James (author) on June 14, 2019:
Hi Stephen! Thanks for the kind words. I suspect the difference here is due to a bias toward the types of songs I have most often written, which are certainly more prog oriented, at least in structure. I am tempted to say we are using the terms synonymously, and I suppose some people do, but I don't think that is exactly correct.
I refer to a bridge as a significant piece of music that connects other parts of the song, in most cases verse and chorus, but it could connect other parts as well. A pre-chorus I would think of as shorter section that ramps up to the chorus. The function of the pre-chorus is to set up the chorus. The bridge, while it obviously needs to fit in with the rest of the song, ought to stand on its own. I do think I need to go back eventually and include an explanation of the pre-chorus.
I think the outline you presented makes sense, as does your example of how to use a bridge. But one thing I tried to convey in this article is not to get too bogged down with restraints and rules. You can do whatever you want to do.
Stephen Wendt on June 14, 2019:
Hi there. Great article!! I really enjoyed reading it... So many things I do or have done as a songwriter, a ton of good advice all put into one place for people. A really well written and arranged, informed article, no question about it.
I have a couple questions.
First, why did you call what seems to be a "Pre-Chorus" a "Bridge"?
Second, why did you then leave out talking about what I know to be an actual "Bridge" entirely, a critical and large part of songwriting?
Surely, there must be "a method to your madness". You are not inexperienced.
That part that usually comes after the verse and builds into a chorus... Yeah, I usually call that a Pre-Chorus.
That part that usually comes after the second chorus, and is a totally new extra song section? Yeah, I usually call that a Bridge.
I'm very confused by this. Surely it must be a simple difference in terminology.
Simple song structure, from my knowledge, goes like:
Pre-Chorus (Very optional, more so than other song parts. Usually used if you want to really build into the chorus.)
Bridge (totally new song section! New melodic statement and probably chords)
Chorus (possibly 2 times)
The type of bridge I am talking about seems unusually absent from this article, and I'm confused about that. I am also totally unfamiliar with calling a Pre-Chorus a "bridge" or any section at all a "middle". The closest thing to this type of bridge I'm talking about that you mention is the "Middle", but from your description of a Middle, it doesn't really fit what I'm thinking of.
The type of Bridge I'm familar with doesn't go on any random tangents or new verse/chorus structure, unless maybe you're a prog band. And it's usually NOT a guitar solo. It's just a whole new song section of it's own that livens up the song after you've heard the verse and chorus a couple times, and then usually goes straight into or builds into the Chorus again.
Thank you for your time, and again, amazing article, I really really enjoyed it.
Michael James (author) on June 07, 2018:
@Adam - Write songs about anything. A girl you know. A feeling you have. A historical event. Anything. Every song doesn't have to be perfect, and many of them might be pretty bad. But if you keep writing you'll get better and eventually you'll turn out some good tunes.
People don't get writer's block because they lack talent. They get it because they put too much pressure on themselves. Just write, man, and try to have some fun doing it.
Adam on June 06, 2018:
What if I can't think of a topic for my song?
Michael James (author) on February 28, 2017:
I'm afraid I'm not following your meaning, Kailfroggy. Could you clarify "5 chord guitar". Do you mean write a county song using 5 chords?
Kaifroggy11 on February 27, 2017:
Hey how do you play a song on a five chord guitar and actually make a country song?
Michael James (author) on November 23, 2013:
Marc Hubs from United Kingdom on November 22, 2013:
Excellent hub with some real good information and tips for the aspiring musician.