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Acoustic Guitar Songwriting

Interested in writing your own music? The acoustic guitar is, in my opinion, the premier instrument for writing music. Check out our articles below on songwriting on the acoustic guitar. We’ll be adding more in the not-too-distant future.

This guide is part of a longer series of articles on acoustic guitar songwriting, including the following:

Why is the Acoustic Guitar so well suited for Songwriting

For one, it’s versatile. Writing music on the acoustic guitar won’t limit you creatively. It’s an instrument found in all walks of musical life from delta blues to rock, through to jazz and classical music. In the hands of an accomplished technician such as Mike Dawes or Tommy Emmanuel it’s capable of great complexity but in the hands of a renowned singer/songwriter such as Bob Dylan, plays a crucial supporting role, never getting in the way of what really matters, the song.

It’s also portable, you can take it anywhere. As it’s an instrument that doesn’t require electricity or accessories it’s a far more accessible instrument for improvisation or if you suddenly find inspiration strikes while sitting around a campfire.

So, how does one get started writing music on the acoustic guitar?

Consider the following:

What are you trying to do?

Confused Songwriter

Are you writing for yourself or a band you are involved with? writing in the hope of selling your music, or writing for other forms of media such as television or movies?

Each goal will have a different set of rules to follow, and it helps to know what you are aiming for, rather than just noodling on the guitar and hoping for inspiration to strike.

E.g. If you want to write for a specific genre make your music more focused, use reference material, and immerse yourself in the genre you are targetting. E.g. listen to the kind of strumming patterns, voicings, and techniques being used in that genre.


Self Belief

Confident Guitarist/Songwriter

Understand what’s possible. The story of Paul McCartney writing Yesterday is a good example (and just happens to be one of the finest songs ever written). He woke up with the melody, and as described by McCartney himself, said he felt like he was merely putting together a puzzle.

This is huge. At the end of the day, great songs are just a combination of melody, rhythm, and harmony. If you write enough songs you are bound to come across some great ideas, just be open to hearing them.

And….Be Hard on Yourself

Push yourself. Just because it’s music doesn’t mean we don’t work hard. Be ridiculously fussy with your material. If you think it’s just OK, toss it. Only work on ‘great’ ideas. Sure, sometimes those ideas may not become what you had hoped in your head, and sometimes average ideas can turn out great, but honestly, if you are not feeling it in the initial stages, chances are it’s not going to happen.


Listen to lots of music, lots

Listening to music and playing air guitar

I personally believe to write songs that resonate with people you have to listen to a lot of great music. It’s great to go back and revisit old albums you maybe haven’t given enough time to, but definitely focus on new music.

I know personally whenever I discover a new artist or band, I always seem to be more productive musically around that time or shortly after. It’s part inspiration and part rewiring your brain as to what your expectations of a great song are.

They say innovation is often the result of introducing something new from another area to an existing one. For example, automation being brought to factories resulted in faster and more efficient production. The lesson we can take from this for songwriting is to get out of your comfort zone or you will end up doing the same things repeatedly.

Listen to everything. Classical music is great if you haven’t listened to it much before. Don’t limit yourself. Otherwise, you will find yourself boxed in, limited, and unable to grow as a songwriter.


Develop a process

Writing music on acoustic guitar

Your approach to songwriting might develop over time but have some structure to what you are doing e.g. aim for a reliable, repeatable process. This can help defeat self-doubt by building a habitual method of writing and a process you can trust has worked for you in the past.

As musicians, we often like to think inspiration comes from somewhere unknown and if we analyze it too much or overthink it we can lose that sense of mystery, that magic. And in some cases, sparks of inspiration will just fall in your lap but even then having a reliable and repeatable process for advancing the song can be important. E.g. find a tempo, add a drum loop, add a line, build a song structure.


Be guitar-centric

Recording Music at Computer

Writing on guitar is different from writing on the piano. For one the interface is laid out completely differently and that opens the door to numerous directions and possibilities.

So how does one write music in a guitar-centric manner? just know how to use the guitar as an effective tool for songwriting, not your guitar skills, what we’re really trying to do is promote a melody as discussed above.

Use the guitar to convey dynamics. A great song, regardless of how sophisticated it is, if stripped back should still sound great on an acoustic guitar around a campfire.


Support the melody

Unless you primarily play instrumental music consider using the guitar to promote the hook of the song which is usually the melody. Use the guitar to provide texture e.g. you need the dark to see the light, make the guitar help the melody shine. This often involves simplifying what you are playing.

Arrangement is Important

Everything counts, your song structure needs to be deliberate. Don’t just fill in to get to the strongest part of the song. Make each vs different, make each chorus different. Use dynamics, harmonies, staccato, and sustain.

Is the Arrangement Too Complex?

And consider if the song is too complex. Can you make it simpler while still conveying the essence of the song?


Techniques for Writing Songs on the Acoustic Guitar

Man holding acoustic guitar

Start with your hook

In the written word it is said an opening statement (usually the first sentence) in an essay should attempt to grab the reader’s attention so that they want to read on. This can relate to music as the opening bar of your song, use it to draw the listener in. Use the strongest part of your song. Hooks grab attention, they grab the ear.

Chord Voicings

Chord voicings can help convey emotions, be it open chords, barre chords, power chords, or single-note lines

They can also help you break out of a rut.

Chord voicings are important. We need to match the voicing to the vocalist. e.g. big open chords suit big voices. Choked open chords suit more intimate vocalists. Remember, keep the vocals front and center. The melody is what matters and the guitar should accentuate it.

Strumming and Dynamics

Strumming pattern changes can indicate the song has a change coming e.g. builds anticipation. Strumming can be transitional e.g. it changes to indicate different things in the song e.g. building dynamics.

Accents

Similar to dynamics, accenting specific parts of your song e.g. e.g. palm-muting over a lyric can help emphasize an important line or strong part of a melody. Percussive strumming can be great for building up a song to the chorus e.g. the chorus chords open up, the verses are muted.

Timing

There are many ways to count to a beat e.g. 1, 2, 3, 4 or 1 and 2 and 3 and 4. Find the spaces in your music and look for creative ways to fill them.

Don’t do it just for the sake of it, use the guitar to promote the hook or vocal melody. You can also create gaps, e.g. let a strum ring out, this can help emphasize a lyric.


Summary

The acoustic guitar is a brutally honest instrument. Let’s face it, the best songwriters leave themselves open. Stripping things back on the acoustic guitar removes distraction and highlights the central theme of a song.

There’s nowhere to hide a lack of musical prowess or an uninspiring melody if relying on just your voice and the accompaniment of an acoustic guitar. This isn’t a bad thing, consider some of the finest songwriters in the world, artists such as Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Lennon, and McCartney, Springsteen, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and Chris Cornell. They all predominantly play and write on acoustic guitar for this very reason.

About Marty

My name's Marty, I've been into guitars for over 30 years. Theacousticguitarist.com is my blog where I write about acoustic guitars, music, and home recording.