Beginning Songwriting

People have asked me about how I write songs and it's impossible to explain something like that or to teach it. And I don't think I'm an authority on the matter by any means. But there are things that I think may help some people. Some things I will explain are painfully obvious, but I'm trying to explain as best I can so I'm assuming everybody reading this knows very little about writing songs.

There is no proper way to write a song. Some songs may start their life as a melody or some with a chord progression, or perhaps some with lyrics. Some songs may be inspired by events or people in the songwriters life, or by a movie they may have seen. For me, I always like to have a theme in mind when I start to compose a piece.

I will think of something that inspires me as I write.Sometimes the ideas flow and sometimes they are nowhere to be heard. But the good thing about writing songs is you don't have to be an amazing musician to write a good song. In fact, you could suck as a player, yet write a great tune. With guitarists the problem I feel is that when they go about writing songs they begin with the thought of impressing other guitarists with their chops. I don't know this for sure, but I could safely bet that is the the way in most cases. I know some people love to listen to quick flurrys of notes over and over and over and over. And there is nothing to to say that that is wrong. Musical taste is personal opinion after all. And whatever gets you off is all that matters.

But for me, I like to listen to songs that have melody in there somewhere, and that lead somewhere and tell a story. Songs with feeling, be it happiness, sadness, or anger, etc. It's more than possible to throw demonic licks melodically and tastefully into a song. Just listen to Jason Becker or Shawn Lane. When a student plays a piece they have written, it gives me a far better buzz than listening to some monster piece they learned how to play. So many people can play well, it means nothing anymore. But how many can write good tunes? Obviously all of your guitar heroes write their own tunes or they wouldn't be your heroes to start with. You play any cover song and a billion people can play it with you but play your own piece of music and you can play it alone! And the greatest thing is, nobody can say what you're playing is wrong.

For me a good way of starting to write a song is to begin with figuring out whether you want it to have a happy feel or a sad feel. Then I decide on a key. Depending on the ideas I come up with will determine the tempo and the groove. And of course things change all the time as you write and a sad piece might quickly turn into a happy metal number by the time your finished and of course you can have happy sections in a sad song and vice versa.

The main rule is there are no rules! But I think it's important to make an effort to break the general rules. Only then can you develop your own unique style.

There are a few things everybody should work at to help their songwriting skills. Developing a good chord repetoire. Learning some unusual chords breaking the mold from the typical minor, major and 7ths. And being able to know all the chords in a particular key.

Especially once you have come to rest on a certain key for a song you've begun to write, it's important that you should be aware of all the chords in that key and wheter it should be a minor or major type of chord on a particular root note. From there you can substitute some of the basic chords with melodic or wacky chords but it's important have the root of each chord established correctly. And again there are no rules, but if you know how to break the given rules (and especially when to break them) your songs will be the better for it.

To start I'm going to give you some tips on writing progressions. All of the examples i will explain will be in the key of Em and follow the Em Em C D structure but I'm keeping it to one key to help explain things a little easier.

It's important you don't write all your songs in the same key. Different keys do actually lend themselves to slightly different feels, believe it or not. Experiment on that to see if you can see what I'm talking about.

We will begin by exploring some ideas for chord progressions. The first thing is to experiment with changing some or all of the chords in a given progression to see if they add a little spice to your song.

Example 1 is our starting point.

  Em                                  C                 D
  E E E E E E E E   E E E E E E E E   E E E E E E E E   E E E E E E E E

We arrive at Example 2 if we just simply change each chord to an add9 chord. Major add9 - 1 3 5 9 minor add9-1 b3 5 9

  Emadd9                                  Cadd9             Dadd9
  E E  E E E E  E E   E E  E E E E  E E   E E E E E E E E   E E E E E E E E

Of course, you don't have to change all of the chords - maybe just the C and the D chord, or maybe just the Em. As always, experiment and go with what you feel sounds best and gives the right feelin to what your actually feeling or hearing in your head.

Also, while you're playing your progression you should try and hum a melody as you play it and you might come upon your melody for this progression there and then. Often you will find the melody within the notes of the chords you play. Or of course you could just let the progression play without a melody over it. Again experiment!

Example 3 is basically the same as Example 2 but with the Sus2 chords (1 2 5).

  Esus2                               Csus2             Dsus2
  E E E E E E E E   E E E E E E E E   E E E E E E E E   E E E E E E E E

Each example, even though very similar in tone, has a slightly different feel due to the different chords. Again experiment with combining all chords till you get what you want. Example 4 comines all of the chords. Also try different ways to arpeggiate the chords. The given examples are apreggiated in such a way as to help with understanding what I'm trying to get across.

  Emadd9              Em                Cadd9             Dsus2
  E E  E E E E  E E   E E E E E E E E   E E E E E E E E   E E E E E E E E

Of course there are many other chords you can experiment with. If you dont know any, just make them up but keep the root notes. Another great thing to do is to put what we have talked about into practice with the open chords as in Example 5. In this example we almost had to have a different arpeggiated pattern for each chord as each chord had a different amount of strings to which we can play. I just made sure that there were an equal amount of notes chosen for each chord as to hold the balance.

  Em                                  C                 D
  E E E E E E E E   E E E E E E E E   E E E E E E E E   E E E E E E E E

Another thing you can do to help and which can sound even better is to hold certain notes longer than others. See Example 6. Here i just let some notes ring out for the duration of two picked notes.

  Em                                  C                D
  E E E E E E E E   E E E E E E E E   E E E E  E E E   E E E E  E E E

In Example 7 we are just appyling our experiments with the add9s and sus chords. But what works really well between all of these chords is the note they all have in common - the open high E string. It helps the chords blend together more smoothly and gives a great sound.

  Emadd9open                          Cadd9open         Dsus2open
  E E E E E E E E   E E E E E E E E   E E E E E E E E   E E E E E E E E

In Example 8, I just use the Em9 chord, and when changing to the C chord I hold the shape of the Em9 chord but just change the bass note/root note, therefore getting a slash chord.Em9/C. Which basically means it's an Em9 chord with a C Bass note. Then I do the same for the change to D. But the result is ballad heaven. Now of course you can (and probably to some degree should) add fills or melodies to your chords to add a little color if it's needed. Some hammer on and pull off notes on the chords and also to let some notes ring longer than others. You can also try to use passing notes. There is no end to it once you start. We won't get too much into all of that right now. We are just looking for the main frame of a progression to start exploring melodies and construct solos.

  Em9                                 Em9/C             Em9/D
  E E E E E E E E   E E E E E E E E   E E E E E E E E   E E E E E E E E

With progressions in songs, I'm not a massive fan of the key change. Sometimes it works, but sometimes it ruins the flow of a song. o unless you feel one coming on, don't put one in just for the sake of having one. They can ruin the flow of a melody.

Now for more ideas. Say for example we have these chords in the key of Em: Em F#mb5 G Am Bm C D. It's very easy to get a decent progression by simply chopping them round. Say in our examples we had Em Em C D. To bring the song somewhere, try to bring a new melody in on C D Em Em. And then Am Am Em Em. Then G Bm Em Em. The chorus of your song should be the catchiest bit so make sure your chords under your chorus are also the catchiest progression-wise. Remember a solo is only as good as the music behind it.

I think if you have a different progression for your chorus than any section that went before it, it can bring a chorus to life. For example, in relation to our above progressions, a good chorus might be Em C G D. Don't forget to experiment with passing chords. Sometimes the right passing chord in a progression will serve far better than a key change to take a song somewhere.

Take a look at Example 9. D/F# works great between the Em and G chords in the Key of Em. If between the Relative Major and Relative minor chord in any key you build a slash chord it works great. In a major key it would be the fifth chord with the 7th note as the root. I have given the shapes in Example 10. Basically they are a D chord with an F# bass note. I use this chord as the 7th chord in the major progression.

  Em                Em        D/F#      G
  E E E E E E E E   E E E E   E E E E   E E E E E E E E   E E E E E E E E
  E  E  E   E   E   E

That should be enough to give you a few ideas on progressions. I encourage you to learn as many chords as you can. Think of them as ammo for your arsenal. The more ammo you have, the more impact you're going to have. Experiment with modulation and even some atonal progressions. But in my opinion melody flourishes best over a simple progression. Remember, there are no rules! And if you're given any, break them!

Next time we will be having a look at how to construct melodies and solos.

Alan Lennon is a guitarist from Ireland who has always tried to put songs ahead of technique and flash.

His debut CD, "Heaven's Call", is an album featuring melodic shred and atmospheric hard rock that is an inspirational listen.

Alan Lennon