Songwriter U: Guitar Songwriting Tips and Techniques

Written by Shawn Leonhardt for Guitar Tricks and 30 Day Singer

Videos by American Songwriter

If you are looking to try your hand at songwriting, the guitar is a great instrument to start with. It allows you to play guitar chords and their progressions, which happen to be the backbone of most popular songs. In this article, we will go over some basic tips and techniques to help you write great songs on the guitar.

Chord Progressions for the Song Structure

Have you ever wondered how jazz musicians can play along to a new song that they have never heard? It is all thanks to chord progressions. And there are only about 10-20 of those that musicians use repeatedly. One such chord progression is I-V-vi-IV, this progression is so popular there is a band that only plays songs made of it.

The Roman Numerals are simply symbolic of which scale degree we are on. Below is a chart of all 12 keys and their major scale degrees. It is also referred to as the Nashville Number system, which uses Arabic Numerals. It is honestly better to use the Roman as it helps later when you start extending the chords. 

TonicSuper TonicMediantSub-DominantDominantSub-MediantLeading Tone Sub-Tonic

In the key of C, our I-V-vi-IV progression would be the chords C-G-Am-F. In the key of G, it would be G-D-Em-C. You simply take the progression and apply the necessary chords. In this case pick the key you sing best in or stick to the easier keys of C and G. If you aren’t sure, grab a chromatic tuner and start singing! See what notes suit you best.

The most popular beginner progressions are below, and they really do make up the bulk of songs. Music is not as creative and unique as many people think it is. If you look closely you will find a lot of songs that fall under these.

  • I-IV-V
  • I-IV-I-V
  • I-V-vi-I 
  • I-vi-IV-V 
  • vi-IV-I-V
  • I-iii-IV-V
  • ii-V-I
  • I-bVII-IV
  • I-II-IV
  • I-vi-ii-V

Once your chord progressions get boring, start extending the chords. In early blues and rock instead of playing an I-IV-V, they would make it an I-IV-V7 (C-F-G7). The added 7th creates more tension and is the basis of most R&B. You can create a new song by adding more flavor to the standard chords.

Scales for the Song Melody

Now you may wonder how is it legal for every songwriter to use the same progression? If you play different songs of the same chord progression they will still sound different because they have a unique melody. The chord sequences can be used by anybody, but the main melody of the song is what can be copyrighted.

You can either build a melody from a chord progression or take a melody you have created and build chords around it. Choose the process that works best for you. If you know your chords you can look up guitar scales that suit them to refine your melody. Working from a melody may take longer as you must find the scale you are in and then create chords. You can always use a scale finder to help.

It is possible to do this all by ear and just go by what sounds good. But knowing which chords and scales mix is very helpful. Along with picking the right scale here are a few tips on melody writing.

  • As you play chords on the guitar, match the notes you are singing and write them down. A chromatic tuner helps. 
  • Stay within the scale if you want a strong melody. Venture out if you want exotic.
  • Make sure it follows the same patterns set for each section of the song. When we want to invoke a strong change or emotion we alter that pattern or change the key.
  • Use software. There are many different scale and melody generators out there. If you do not feel inspired, just have it randomly chosen! 

Rhythmic Patterns 

Just like chord progressions, rhythmic patterns and drumming cannot be copyrighted. The basic groove of the song, or the drums and bass, can be shared. And that’s because there are only so many. When playing guitar we change our rhythmic patterns by picking and strumming in different ways.

We can start out easy with simple down (D)  and up (U) strumming and depending on your level various picking styles. Remember to keep the proper pattern for each section so it is cohesive and not random. 

  • DDDD and DUDU try these in different orders and with 1/8th and 1/16th notes
  • Travis Picking is great for country tunes
  • Muted Strums are excellent for a funk song
  • Play arpeggios on each chord instead of strumming

One of the best ways to write a song is to use drum machine apps or software. Turn on a backing groove in 4/4 or 3/4 and just start playing a chord progression. Just play along and the ideas will come. 

Song Format

The main parts of a modern song are the verse (A), chorus (B), and bridge (C). Some songs use all three and some keep it very simple. In some cases, songs are only the same chord progression in every section.

  • AAAA
  • ABAB
  • AABA

These are often one chord progression per section and divided up 8 measures at a time, but that can be up to the writer. And there are more parts to a song like an intro, outro, pre-chorus, and even a solo section for some. These parts are often composed after the main A, B, and C sections. If you have a strong guitar riff or hook in the song you may want that to start it out. 

For your first song try this ABABCB (example in the key of C).

Verse I-V-vi-IV C-G-Am-F

Chorus I-IV-V C-F-G

Bridge iii-vi Em-Am

The verse is uplifting, but not too much with the minor added. The chorus then moves to all major, so it sets it apart and elevates it. And the bridge we take it all into the minor before ending all on an uplifting chorus. Of course, there are many combinations to make with the progressions above, use the chords that fit the emotions you need.


Sometimes songs are built around specific lyrics or a hook, other times they are composed, and no topic exists. If you need help with ideas it is always best to go to Wikipedia and put it on random. Just roll the dice a few times and pick a topic. Otherwise, the rest is up to you. If you want the song to be understood, use clear language, or just mumble poetically like Bob Dylan or Billie Eilish.

  • Always write down lyric ideas or you will forget
  • It helps to make your chord changes at the start of new words
  • Don’t cram too many syllables into each measure
  • Being shocking, strange, and deep always gives the song potential

If you still are at a loss for writing a song on the guitar, just go and learn your favorite songs inside and out. Break every musical aspect down like the chords, melody, rhythm, format, and lyrics. The more songs you analyze the more the process will sink in. Songwriting on the guitar is very easy, that is why it is so common and like any skill, it just takes regular practice to master.

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