The guitar is a chordophone, which means it can handle both single-note melodies and backing chords. Whether you start with chord progressions or lyrics your ultimate goal as a songwriter is to create some unique and memorable lead melodies. In this article, we will show you some tips and techniques for writing great melodies on your guitar, even if you’re only taking beginner guitar lessons.
Know the Intervals, Scales, and Music Theory
The most important aspect to study in melody writing is probably your intervals. In Western music, we use 12 notes in semitone intervals, in other cultures they have quarter tones and microtonal spaces. It is the sound between the spaces that makes all the difference, a note or even a beat has no meaning until they are led or followed by another.
Focus on your semitone difference in the 12 western notes and listen to famous examples of both descending and ascending intervals in the chromatic scale. You will notice how common perfect intervals are, as they are consonant and pleasant sounding. While the minors and tritones have more tension and are heavily used in jazz, blues, rock, and dance. Memorize every interval!
Our intervals become guitar scales and they keep the same attributes; a blues scale uses chromaticism in the scale and tritones, so it gives it that “blues” vibe. A major scale formula is simply 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 and our Circle of Fifths gives us every major formula. Try others for new melody ideas.
Major Pentatonic 1 2 3 5 6
Minor 1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7
Blues 1 b3 4 #4 5 b7
Phrygian Dominant 1 b2 3 4 5 b6 b7
There are many more scale formulas, when you play new ones be sure to pay attention to the intervals and overall feelings. Or you can just take a major scale in any key and start experimenting with raising and lowering scale degrees to create your own sequence for the vibe you want.
Chords and Progressions
Guitar music is mostly centered around a handful of guitar chords and progressions that are used repeatedly. Sometimes the whole song uses the same progression, other times it switches up between verse, chorus, and bridge. These are some common ones you will see, use a Nashville Number guitar chord chart to play them in any key you like.
Even if you are not advanced in music theory you can look up what chord progressions and scales fit well together. This is the key to our melody writing, trying different scales, extended chords, and progressions.
Know the Rhythms and Structures
Meters and Rhythms
Knowing the different rhythms and time signatures used in each genre is essential. One of the best ways to practice melody writing is to have a drum machine, drummer, or some rhythm accompaniment. Even if you only have a looper pedal it helps to play a chord progression or beat and then riff over it with different scales and intervals.
Pay attention to the structures of the songs you are aiming to write for, as in how many measures and how the sections divide. You want to make sure the melody you are writing will fit and sound appropriate. And we usually want the melody of each section to repeat as necessary unless our goal is more progressive genres or less pop-like.
Study the Guitar Fretboard
Know Your Key
If you are writing a song for yourself, know which chords and note ranges suit you. Use the Circle of Fifths and some chord progressions above and try playing in different keys. Keys like G, C, A, and D are very easy on the guitar and excellent if you can sing in. If you are more suited to tougher guitar chords you can always use a capo, or simply take the time to learn the harder Ab, Eb, and Bb.
Know the Guitar Fretboard
When changing intervals and adding in extended chords it helps to know our barre chords. Learn the basic major and minor chords and then from there we simply add the other intervals when necessary. Chord inversions occur when we stack our notes in different orders, and it is common to see slash bass chords in our guitar playing. Use these inversions and barre chords to play bass lines and melodies added in with the chords across the fretboard. A capo should only be used for quick key changes and easier singing, but never to avoid learning the fretboard!
Use Backing Track Apps and Chord Progression Generators
First make sure you understand some of these basic music theories and playing principles on your guitar, after that let technology help you as much as possible. There are DAWs, apps, and other software that provide backing tracks, drum rhythms, bass lines, and randomized chord progressions. Let these devices and libraries help you build quick song skeletons so you can focus on melody experimentation.
Effects and New Sounds
If you have an electric guitar, acoustic-electric, or even a great mic you can use software and apps to help with new sounds. And of course, guitar pedals and amps come in analog versions for those players that prefer a real stomp box. Either way, effects are an excellent way to find new melody ideas and riffs. Sometimes those same intervals and scales are boring until they are fed through reverb, delay, distortion, and all sorts of signal manipulations.
Keep Lyrics in Mind
Many songwriters create melodies with lyrics in mind, making sure the notes and intervals are capable of being sung by you or another person. Often we realize that we cannot fit as many syllables into 2 measures as our notes suggest! Make sure the melody that you play and write will sound pleasant or even distorted when sung, depending on your genre preference.
If you have trouble with lyric ideas, try places like the random generator on Wikipedia or pick any topic on the news or trends. If you must, it is even ok to use scat-like or nonsense lyrics to keep a melody in mind. And always be sure to write it down and record the sample or it will be forgotten. When creativity strikes don’t miss the opportunity!
Copy Other Songs, Sort of!
Besides active listening and ear training, copying other songs is some of the best music advice out there. Many of the most famous songs in every genre were heavily inspired by past music. Of course, you can’t take all the notes, rhythms, accents, and more details of the melody and just steal it. But many songwriters and musicians take other ideas and give them slight tweaks.
The word “take” isn’t even the proper term, in our society we legally see musical note arrangements as property. This is ridiculous as there is no owning of notes, the artist simply has their interpretation. Most guitarists and other instrumentalists play what they like and build it into something more personal, their interpretation.
Know your music theory, and the guitar fretboard, and practice other songs often and you will do a better job when writing song melodies. It is just like any other art or craft, know your rules and patterns and it becomes an easy process. You will not need the right emotion or feeling as you will know exactly which notes create which vibes. Practice your songwriting as much as your technique and it will soon be an easier process!