3 Things That Keep You From Writing Guitar Music That Rocks

This article points out 3 of the most frequent limitations that musicians put on themselves when writing guitar music (and how you can avoid/overcome them).

Ultimate Guitar

Does your guitar music not sound the way you want it to? Do you feel frustrated while writing songs because you quickly run out of ideas? If so, you have a lot in common with many guitarists/songwriters. The fact is, no matter who you are, you have the potential to come up with many great ideas for your guitar music; it's your current songwriting 'approach' that is the major factor that keeps you from writing highly creative and satisfying music.

In order to write guitar music that sounds really good, you will need to combine together several creative songwriting methods. As you add more depth into your songwriting overall approach, you will gain more options and it will become less difficult to come up with great ideas on a continual basis. To help you begin developing your overall guitar songwriting approach, I have written this article to point out 3 of the most frequent limitations that musicians put on themselves when writing guitar music (and how you can avoid/overcome them). After reading through the rest of this article and studying each point, you will have the tools you need to start writing much more creative guitar music.

1. Only Writing Music Through Improvisation On Guitar, Without Planning Anything Ahead Of Time

The overwhelming majority of guitarists create their music without spending much time at all to actually think about what they want to write about. Instead, they use the approach of grabbing their guitar and playing through familiar patterns or licks until something starts to sound good. The truth is, if you are using this as your only approach for songwriting, the chances that you will NOT be able to think of great ideas increases significantly. Why is this? The reason for this is that such an approach for writing guitar songs is actually counter-intuitive to the way the natural songwriting process works. To illustrate my point, imagine that you were going to make a painting. If you wanted to pain a great portrait of someone, would you tell them to stay home while you tried to guess what they look like by randomly moving your brush around on the canvas until something resembles a face? Of course you wouldn't. Instead, you would invite the person you are trying to paint to come to your studio, have them sit in a chair, observe the way the light hits their face and carefully paint until you have expressed your idea on the canvas as accurately as possible. This same concept rings true in music. The better you understand what you are trying to achieve with your music ahead of time, the more likely you will be to accurately convey this idea in the songs you write.

To improve your ability to accurately express yourself in the songs you write on guitar, resist picking up your guitar for about half an hour. Use this time to focus on clearly identifying what it is that you want to express in your music. Pull out a piece of paper (or use a text file on your computer) and write down as many interesting ideas, thoughts or feelings that you can think of. After you do this, select a few of the items you wrote down to use together in a song. Next, start brainstorming about how you can express these things using the various elements of music. For instance, think about how a progression of chords can express an idea, what kind of rhythm conveys certain emotions or how you can use loudness or softness to connect an idea to your music. You could even go as far as to map out the different parts of your song so that the way you write your music helps unify and connect your ideas into a complex story.

2. Only Using Your Guitar To Write Songs While Neglecting Other Instruments

This common songwriting approach used by guitarists is by far one of the most limiting. If you write your songs by using this approach, your musical ideas will be restricted exclusively to the patterns and techniques that come from your guitar playing habits. This means that each time you write a song, it will be made of similar ideas, note rhythms, scale patterns and other things that you usually play on guitar. This will cause you to run out of ideas fast and your songwriting will become repetitive over time. That said, of course you DO want to write guitar music (as a guitarist), but even so, most music that contains guitar also contains bass guitar, drums, vocals, keyboards or various other instruments. In order to write great parts for these instruments, it will be beneficial to not restrict yourself to guitar only during your writing process. By writing your music using a combination of different instruments, you will open up many new possibilities for your songwriting and the overall quality of your music will increase greatly.

To practice using this concept in your music, focus on writing your next 5 songs (or musical ideas at least) using any instrument other than guitar as your main songwriting tool. Some different ways you could do this include using percussion instruments to come up with catchy rhythms, using the keyboard to put together a smooth series of chords or singing melodies too come up with interesting melodies. Later after you have used this approach to come up with some good ideas, integrate the other instruments (this includes guitar) into your music. This songwriting approach may be challenging at first, but in the long run it will help you to more easily come up with high quality, creative songs.

3. Overlooking The Significance Of Each Note You Use In Your Music

Every great songwriter consistently looks to get the most out of every note he/she uses to create music. As you write music with guitar, it is important for you to use this mindset as well. For instance, in many cases, guitar players overlook the finer details in their music while using 'chords'. In the mind of these guitarists, chords are simply big chunks that serve the sole purpose of being placed below the melody line as a part of "natural song structure".

However, the truth is that chords have a lot more to them than that. A chord is not merely a large chunk of notes; but a potential grouping of several individual melodies. If you want to make your guitar music sound much more high quality and smooth, it is important for you to treat the notes in each chord as separate 'melodies', each with its own purpose and direction. The better you can lead a note from one chord to the next, the more smooth your music will feel as a whole. Here are a few ways you can achieve this while writing songs on guitar:

  • If you are using chords that contain one or more notes in common, retain these notes while transitioning from one chord to the next.

  • Give yourself more options for creating different "melodies" within your chords by using different chord positions on the fret board to play the same chord. Try to identify at least three different positions to play the same chord and take advantage of "slash" chords that rearrange the same chord with new notes in the bass.

  • Begin by writing a nice bass line. Next, start adding more and more notes over this line until you have made a chord with at least 3 unique notes. Use this process to complete a progression of chords that contain individual notes moving by or whole step from each note to the next note after it.

    In addition, here are some more aspects of guitar songwriting to consider as you create music:

  • Don't use the same positions on the guitar all the time while playing a certain note. You can give yourself many more options in terms of creating great 'tone' by playing the same note in different positions. For instance, instead of always playing the 2nd fret of the high "e" string, try using the 11th fret of the "g" string.

  • While writing guitar music, utilize different picking styles. Many guitarists only use a pick while writing guitar music, which limits their options when it comes to tone. Try adding an entirely different sound to your music by utilizing finger style parts in your music. For example, rather than using a pick to play the notes of a clean (no distortion) arpeggio, use your fingers to add a distinct, soft dynamic to your music.

    Becoming a great songwriter will take time; however, by avoiding the common limitations most guitarists place on themselves, you will be able to quickly improve your ability to write creative music. I encourage you now to get started writing music with the various songwriting ideas mentioned in this article. The more you practice, the faster you can progress and begin writing great music!

    About The Author: Ryan Buckner is a songwriter, shred guitarist and guitar teacher in the Oklahoma City area. Start writing better guitar music right now by checking out this free songwriting guide on how to write guitar riffs.

  • 23 comments sorted by best / new / date

      This was actually pretty helpful. Especially the 2nd and 3rd points.
      I'll be using Point 1!
      Damn, I hate when I improvise with my bass/guitar and can't write anything good, but get cool ideas only before falling asleep or going to the studies
      I've always valued quality over quantity, so #3 is no issue for me, but I am guilty as hell of #1&2
      Glad you found it helpful and thanks for reading! If anyone has any questions about the article or songwriting in general, feel free to ask and I'll do my best to give you a great answer. If you have any feedback for me, please also share it with me so I can write better articles for you guys in the future. Ryan Buckner
      Hey man, nice article! I'll definitely try these points out! I have a question though; I have a few riffs and ideas, but I can't seem to be able to continue them. For example, I have beginning of a song that has a lot of hammer-ons and pull-offs, so the feel of the song is a bit groovy. I've managed to come up with an pre-chorus/chorus riff, but after that, it kind of stops. I can't seem to continue it. Any advice? Thanks!
      Thanks for reading Sure, here are a couple of things to consider: Keep point 1 in mind from above. Do you have something specific you are trying to express in your song? I've found that a lack of musical ideas can often come from a lack of non-musical ideas that you are trying to express. You don't always need to map things out ahead of time, but when you do this you will naturally start looking for ways to express your ideas once you have your guitar in hand, this will give a spark in times where the approach of just looking for cool riffs isn't bringing results. Also consider the structure of your song. From what you are saying here, it sounds to me like you have a cool riff and a pre-chorus/chorus idea. One good thing about mapping out your song structure (such as verse-chorus-break-solosection-chorus...etc.) is that you give yourself direction and it makes writing your song less overwhelming. You can then tackle each section on its own rather than thinking to yourself "Oh man I have to write the WHOLE thing and I don't have any ideas!" Once you write a single section you can also start finding ways to connect each section together through similar rhythms, key, melody and so forth. Also, as a side note, if you are having problems writing the actual riffs themselves, I made an eBook about this that I think you would get a lot out of: http://songwritinglessonsonline.com/guit... It was actually supposed to be linked in the article above, but got left out by the editor for some reason it seems (also it's free ) Let me know if this is helpful. Thanks again for reading!
      Though I like keeping the structure of my songs in mind, I quite often like to break out of the "verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/chorus" structure. I think I actually only have one song that follows that structure. I seem to prefer my solos at the end of songs rather than the middle.
      Yes, there are certainly nearly endless possibilities when it comes to song structure. The verse/chorus/etc structure is only one of the most common (yet very effective nonetheless). A good solo section at the end of a song can be a very interesting way to bring the music to a close. Cool idea
      Just to let you know bro, In the rules of posting, it says not to advertise for other websites here. I dont consider that advertisement personally but that might be why he left it out. Great article though. really helpful!
      this is almost so obvious but many people usually don't write music like this. I just started using these methods and worked out a riff in my head and expanded on it; its not a magic pill or anything but it gets the music flowing easier and the results are better than if I were to just do some random improv without first having this foundation. Good man I will take this to my drums too.
      Point number 2 is spot on. I'm not that good at piano, but can play chords and a few basic songs. But even with that limitation, if I fool around on piano sometimes I come up with some chord progressions, songs, etc that I wouldn't have thought of on guitar. Even fooling around on bass has helped me write a few riffs that I never seemed to come up with on guitar. The approach with number two unlocks different ideas AND helps you get better at another instrument. Nice win-win.
      I used to be guilty of the first two, but I've been writing almost exclusively on keyboards lately, and planning out my songs. It's vastly improved my songwriting. Though there are still things to be said for improvisation. One of my best recent pieces came about as a result of an improvisation.
      I usually figure out chords and stuff on a keyboard, and then do the whole song arrangement in midi. I find that keeps me away from any repetitive tricks and such the most. Although I'll still base stuff off a simple melody or riff I come up with on an instrument I'm more familiar with.
      For sure, both planning ahead and improvisation have their pros and cons. I think improvising is a great way to grab onto a spark in the moment and go off of your gut feeling. Thanks for the thoughts!
      fantastic list, i must admit im guilty of the 1. , but i figured it was my greatest flaw, 3 is also a great point
      I don't agree with the first point. It's probably because I improvise everything, but if you really think that improvisation sounds the same every time,it's not really improvisation. Improvisation is like writing music on the spot. Not just using the same licks over and over..... If you think that all improvisation does sound the same, listen to my songs, all my soloing is improvised.
      I see what you mean and I agree that improvising is very important in songwriting too, but I think for a lot of guitarists, myself included, 'improvising' is largely just moving the same licks/riffs around on the neckboard. Sure they sound different, but they're very similar in structure and feel.
      IMHO I don't think #1 is a problem - some of the best riffs, licks, and progressions ever made, are the spawn of random improvisation. All my songs are created through random ideas, simple guitar noodling until I hear even a little section that won't leave my head. Such a procedure has just today helped me create a theme, and vocal melody over a jazzprogression (that I'll admit was born out of inspiration of listning to Tim Christensen). My point is that 1# is not nessecarily a bad way. Everyone has different ways of writing songs, and there is no, and never will be an universal guide to songwriting, since that everyone has a different approach that suits them. From that point alone there might be people who will find the path to express their ideas that they couldn't before, there will be people who allready write good songs out of improvisation, but will find inspiration within a different approach, and there will be people who simply can't plan ahead, and won't find, this usefull at all. Still, that's just my humble opinion.
      i agree with you that sometimes the best ideas come about by tooling around untill you stumble upon something that inspires you - but i think the point he was trying to make in the article was that using this method exclusively is quite limiting and that his suggestions would hopefully help you break free of anything that would likit you or get you stuck in a rut. cool article- good suggestions.