Guitar 101: The Guitar Playing Songwriter Curriculum

Mixed race woman playing guitar on bed


This time of year, I’m always reminded of my first semester in college with thoughts of alarm clocks, buring hot coffee, brisk morning breezes, pretty girls in sweaters, falling leaves on the quadrangle, people from other states (how exotic!) and other bio-geometric parabolas. No computers. No cell phones. No Starbucks. You know, “The Stone Age.” The word “curriculum” comes to mind. The dictionary calls it “…a particular course of study.”

So if what we’re studying is how to use the guitar as a songwriting tool (which we are) and how to use the guitar to accompany oneself while performing these original songs (which we are), then there should be some kind of course of study that outlines what to learn and what order in which to learn it. I’ve given a lot of thought to this particular topic and have formed definite opinions, which I’m sure, will conflict with others’ opinions, so I’ll just lay ‘em out there for you to judge for yourself.

Let’s assume you already have a playable guitar and know how to tune it. That’s an article in itself, but I’ve already done that one.

What’s the most important thing for a songwriter to learn first? The Frisbian mode? That one was big in the 1960s. Here’s what I think: CHORDS. Why? Because most songwriters “make up” the melodies in their heads. Maybe the Gershwin’s plunked out melodies on the piano, but most songwriters don’t do that. Most people who start writing songs don’t have formal music training.

Guitar methods that start with reading notation and playing single notes don’t make any sense for songwriters. You’re usually singing the melodies you make up, not playing them on the guitar. So you need some chords to go with the melody that you’re making up in your head. Sometimes you play a few chords, and the chords “suggest” a melody. How do you decide which chords to learn first? You need to learn chords that “go together.” The worst way to learn chords is a “chord dictionary.” That’s like buying an Italian dictionary to learn the language. If you start with a chord dictionary, or one of those ridiculous laminated chord charts you buy at the local music store and proceed without further guidance, you’re in big trouble.

Chords that “go together” are in the same key…usually. So what key do you start with? C? It doesn’t have any sharps or flats. That’s good for piano, but not guitar. Why? Because the 3rd most common chord in that key is F. OK, hold up your hand if you love to play an F chord. What? I don’t see any. Why start your course of guitar study with the most frustrating friggin’ chord of all? The alternate course of this article could be “Why Most Guitar Methods Don’t Make Any Sense to Me.” Maybe they’re just not made for songwriters. Here are four basic steps for beginners.

I. The easiest key to start with is the key of G. All of the most common chords in the key of G are easy to make. They are: G, D7, C, D, Em, Am (in order of “commonality”) and, last but not least, Bm. You can play many songs with just G and D7, and thousands more with G, C and D7. Learn Bm first as a four finger non-bar chord. It’ll sound better as a bar (barre) chord, but I recommend learning lots of open chords before you get to bar chords.

One good thing to know about a chord progression is that the simplest chord progression involves only two chords. In the key of G, those chords would be G and D7. “Tulsa Time,” “Achy-Breaky Heart” and “Jambalaya,” are examples of 2-chord songs. Next most common is C. Next is D, then Em, Am, Bm. OK, that’s the key of G.

II. Learn a simple strumming pattern with a pick. The simplest one is strumming down with the pick on every beat. Usually, it’s 1, 2, 3, 4. Since most popular music is in 4/4 time, there are 4 beats to a bar (measure). Then try strumming up on the “ands” or up beats. 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and, which pick-wise is down/up down/up down/up down/up . Then leave off the last upstroke. Then leave off all the ups except the third one. Then get a metronome and start playing with it at a slow tempo.

III. The next two “guitar-friendly keys” are C and D. If you learn the basic seven chords in either G and D, or G and C, and learn how to use your capo to transpose to other keys (which takes about one guitar lesson to understand) you can play MILLIONS of songs in all 12 keys. (See my previous article about using your capo.) The seven common chords in the key of C are C, F (sorry), G7, G, Am, Dm, and Em. The three most common are C, F and G7.

The chords in the key of D are D, G, A7, A, Bm, Em and F#m with the first 3 being the most common. The chords in the key of A are A, E7, D, E, F#m, Bm and C#m, in order of commonality again. The key of E is E, B7, A, B, C#m and F#m. Those are your five “Guitar-Friendly Keys.”

IV. There are 2 fairly common chords in every key that really aren’t technically in the family (key). I call them “Next-door neighbor chords.” They play in the yard, but they don’t sleep in the house. Here they are:

Key of G: F and A7. The F chord usually goes back to the G or to the C. The A7 usually leads to the D7 chord, which leads back to the G.

Key of C: Bb and D7. The Bb usually goes either to the F or to the C. The D7 usually leads to the G7, which leads back to the C.

Key of D: C and E7. The C usually goes before G or D. E7 usually leads to A7, which leads to D.

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  1. Thank you from Spain. You make easy play guitar. In my country all the music studies center forgot the important of the songwriter (“cantautor” in spanish) in the modern music. Thank you.

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