How To Write Rock

Why you can never seem to write that rock classic? Maybe you have too many ideas? Or maybe, like me, you just never realized how simple rock was and have been trying too hard for years. Rock is a very simple form, and this article explains how it works.

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Step One: The Hook

What's the first rock song you ever learned on guitar? Well if you're like me it was Surfing With The Alien (not really), but most folks pick up their very first Strat Pack Squier and jam on that timeless classic we all know and...love?...Smoke On The Water by Deep Purple. Of course! That's the one. Either that or Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana. Either way, these are great examples of rock songs, and perfect tools for us to learn how to write one. It's very easy. The main ingredient you need is a good hook. I can't tell you how to write a good hook, but I will advise you that unless you are Opeth or Dream Theater following one simple rule will generally help you reach your listener: KISS, or Keep It Simple Stupid. That's a good thing to know, and in fact the two aforementioned bands both face criticism for not reaching the listener, at least not the average one. Sure if you are obsessed with Swedish Melodic Death Metal it's okay to write a riff that lasts 15 and a half measures, but if you want average people, like your buddies at school and your girlfriend, to like your brand spanking new song then K.I.S.S. - write a short, simple hook that will grab the attention of your audience. Now simplicity is not necessarily the mark of an untalented guitarist. In fact, the use of simple motifs is common to almost all of the better-known composers throughout history. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Dimebag Darrell... They all realized that complexity is wonderful, speed and virtuosity are great, but great music is founded upon simple, effective motifs. Minuet in G Major, Ode to Joy or Mouth for War - all incredibly simple melodies that work incredibly well. And that, friends, is what a hook is. It's a melody that works incredibly well. Now the hook need not be simple, but you will have more luck with the incredibly effective part if it is. Keep an open mind, though. Sometimes listeners are willing to listen to an ever-changing cacophony of death for twenty minutes. But most of them already own Opeth's Morningrise. There is another reason for writing a simple motif: it keeps your options open. See, other genres can lend us insight when writing rock, and here I will borrow an idea from jazz to explain my thinking. Simple chords, like A5, allow us to explore almost every mode and scale imaginable when improvising. As long as we choose a scale with a perfect fifth, we're okay. This is why power chords work so well in heavy metal - the lead man can pick from a cornocopia of scales when shredding through his teeth-kicking, eye-gouging solo. Using a chord like Gm7b9 is great, but it limits you. So in rock, the motif should generally be based around something harmonically simple. As always there are exceptions to the rule, but keeping it simple, stupid, will make it easier to write vocals, bass lines, keyboards, etc.

Step Two: Building On The Foundation

Unlike classical music where melodies work against each other to create a spacious soundscape, rock is based upon strength. Hence its name? I don't know. Actually it's probably called rock because the rhythm makes you want to rock back and forth, but I'm probably pulling that out of my behind, too. But it is focused on the strength of the sound. Where in classical the bass and violins would play alternate melodies that would counterpoint or build ever-changing chords, rock generally uses a lot of unison to strengthen the impact of the motif. That's why there are two guitars a lot of times - twice the sonic impact of one guitar. The bass may or may not duplicate the guitar motif, but one thing it almost certainly will do is hit heavy on the one beat. BOOM - bam - bam - bam. This is not always the case, but rock is rock because, well, it rocks!! To rock, the rhythm must be very strong, and the bass is there to provide the force. So you have your hook, your devastatingly simple motif, and you have these other guys staring at you like, "okay, what do we do?" Well, if you're singing, most of the time the answer is "exactly what I'm doing." The drums, like the bass, drive the rhythm with great force - again so the music rocks. The vocals tell a story, and again this is usually a simple story. Guy meets girl, girl and guy exchange rings, guy is at party, girl shows up at party with other guy, first guy pulls out a desert eagle and pumps bullets into other guy leaving him face down in a pool of... Okay scratch the last part, but you get the idea. Love girl, can't be with her for some reason. Or love girl, she's cheating on you. Or love girl and she died. Etc. Love girl and...something bad. That's pretty much the idea. But not always. Again there are exceptions to the rule, but rock music is so "love girl..." based because girls evoke a lot of emotion. Love, attraction, sex, all of that amounts to a lot of impact. If rock were about victorian furniture or the life cycle of grass it would not rock. So it's about sex, love, breakups, cheating, drugs, anything that is interesting to sing about, really.

Step Three: Your Song Structure

So you've got a motif, and you've got words. That's really all you need for a good rock song, or is it? You can write a great song that way, and many in fact have nothing more than those two simple ingredients. But a lot of songs have a chorus. Well, what's a chorus? That's the "smoke on the wa-ter" part. The part everyone screams along with and pumps their fist from the audience. The chorus is even simpler than the hook. Why? Well all the no-talent slobs in the crowd have to bang their heads to it, that's why! But that doesn't mean it should suck. Oh no, no, no! A good chorus is almost always built around a chord progression. The most effective again are the simplest. If we number the chords in a key using roman numerals we pick a handful and arrange them in groups of four (three works, too), and go.
  • Key of C: C = I D = ii E = iii F = IV G = V A = vi B = vii The capital ones are Major, the lowercase ones are minor except for vii, which is always diminished (you will probably not use it in rock.) Here are some common rock progressions to try: I-IV-I-V I-vi-IV-V vi-I-V-IV (Under the Bridge chorus, in case you're wondering) IV-IV-I-V ..and so on. As you can see, I, IV and V are the most common, also the minor vi. Others pop up, too, but it's not that common. So find a combination of those chords (which happen to be the strongest most rocking chords) and sing something memorable over it. Try the song title, that usually works. To finish step three, we need to explain the overall structure. It usually works like this: Verse - Chorus - Verse - Chorus That can alternate all day. Occasionally there is a third motif, which is often more musically explorative. Note Symptom Of The Universe by Black Sabbath, or the Metallica cover of Breadfan. This can be called the "breakdown" or "interlude", but it's usually where the band gets its chance to have some fun. The bass can get a little more creative, the drummer can add some fills, and the lead guitarist can do some leads. I stress leads for a reason as these differ from the solo, which we will cover next. Leads are just noodly bits on the guitar that sort of explore the stronger notes in the key. They aren't particularly noticeable or amazing, just fun, short and...well, noodly. So to play leads, noodle around a bit. That's what most rock bands do. So you normally do two verses and two choruses: V-C-V-C and then something else. That "something else" is up to you. It can be an interlude/breakdown (third, more musical motif) or it can be a solo. That's our next step.

    Step Four: The Solo!!

    The solo normally takes the place of a verse, so the band plays the verse music underneath the solo. If you take a simple structure like V-C-V-C-V, the solo happens over that last verse. Pretty simple, eh? Rock is fun to solo over because, as I said, the motifs are pretty simple giving the lead player a ton of creative freedom. Jazz players need to worry about harmony when they encounter chords with 4, 5, 6 or more notes in them. In that sense, the chord and the scale are almost indistinguishable. But in rock, the two or three note chords you're working with allow you unimaginable freedom in your solos, which is a good thing and a bad thing. Where a jazz player can rely upon the harmonic structure of the song to determine which scale to play, or which notes are the juicy ones or the sour ones or the blue ones, a rock player has to use his creative freedom effectively, which means he's got to reign himself in a bit. Freepower wrote a great article on phrasing, which you should read. In that article he compares phrasing to speaking, which is exactly right. When writing this article I break my ideas into steps, paragraphs, sentences and further into discreet ideas with commas, periods and other punctuation. As a soloist, you must do this also, or you will sound terrible. Reigning yourself in doesn't mean you can't play fast or amazing stuff. It just means you need to consider what you're doing and why. Why am I sweep picking this 4 octave arpeggio? If your answer is "I have no idea" then don't do it. But if your answer is "because the sick arpreggio fits perfectly into the dynamic flow of the song, creating the perfect climax before the last chorus!" then sweep away, young shredder. That brings us to our next topic, dynamics.

    Not A Step: Dynamics

    Rock songs can be very straightforward dynamically. The level of musical or emotional intensity stays pretty constant and the song ends nicely. This is a good technique for writing catchy, memorable songs like Yesterday by the Beatles. There is no buildup to a blazing solo, no unholy climax of screaming harmonics bent until the neighborhood dogs are barking uncontrollably. It's just a nice, comforting song with beautiful words. It comes, it goes, it's nice. That's one extreme. Then you have the other extreme. Nice acoustic intro, beautiful little classical bits fading into distortion, then the drums kick in, the bass and finally the vocals. It all builds and builds until finally the solo happens and you are blasted with 250 notes per second of blinding, blazing shred. You can go either way, or anywhere in between. Rock doesn't need dynamics, but it is one way you can make it more interesting, different and original. Now Yesterday is quite original and it's a great tune, but not every rock song in the history of the universe can be a Yesterday. So play with dynamics a bit. See if it works. Finally, end the thing. You can end on a chorus or a verse, heck you can let it crash into a brick wall in the middle of a measure. It's up to you with rock. Generally, though, there is some kind of decrescendo. It can be fast or slow, long or short. Some songs just fade out on the last chord of the chorus. Bling! Others hang on that chord for ever and ever, the drums hit every skin possible, and all the cymbals, the bass rumbles away and it all ends in a cymbal catch. Or something like that. But rock songs always end. How they end can be just as important as the motif itself. For instance in Big Trucks = Flat Me, a song I wrote about a squirrel getting splatted by a semi, the song ends on a cymbal catch with a bass bomb, which of course represents the splat. That's important to the song and works, I would say. So pick an end that fits. And don't forget to make it ROCK!!!! (otherwise it's just plain old roll)
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    147 comments sorted by best / new / date

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      MCRrocks
      not bad not bad! 8 for you sir! p.s, first!, sorry, i haven't been first before so i just had to say that.
      yan_kong
      Nice... The part about chord progression is called cadence... V to I is a perfect cadence IV to I is a plagal cadence I to V and IV to V are imperfect cadence If you study songs carefully, you're find out that many uses cadence... Actually it's in grade 5 in ABRSM exams Check is out... Plagal and perfect cadence USUALLY means that the song is ending or pausing. Like a full stop Imperfect USUALLY means that there is more to come in the song... They are great to use in song composing..
      EV0L
      I dont say this often at all but that was a stellar article!
      jeeba jaba
      Very well done sir. Not only does this offer tons of information on the matter, it's also written very well, in that it keeps the reader entertained. Great article, keep up the good work.
      November_Rain88
      what if people like experimental and progressive style music? You said how to write a rock song, not how to write a catchy pop rock song.
      sellars
      dont take the mickey out of dimebag darrell man HE IS A LEGEND!!!! LIKE TO SEE YOU PLAY BETTER DICKHEAD
      sellars
      dont take the mickey out of dimebag darrell he's a legend!! LIKE TO SEE U PLAY BETTER DICKHEAD
      timdowland
      Useless! I thought you were giving us something a little more in depth. How Do you expect us to write a song with this Crap. You should have called the article How to get a bunch of ideots to waste their time reading my crappy article that teaches nothing. I would have went with that one.
      TheBassEffect
      dear timdowland: i think what he was trying to do is layout a basic table for inexperienced musicians....not "professionals" such as your self....its not always the notes played in the song that grabs the listeners attention, but the order of "play"... if you not mixing it up at all then its just like all other generic pices of absolute crap that play in the same order: generic song after generic song... so h/f and dont hurt urself by expecting EVERY FRICKIN ARTICLE TO BE WRITTEN FOR YOU!! yours truley: TheBassEffect
      evilmetalboy
      dark_destiny wrote: good article. hope sum1 does a how to write metal
      i agree with this dude.
      junkhead35
      good article,timdowland get the stick out of youre ass and shove it down youre thoght.
      Sun of a Studio
      timarmstrong19: B ach, Mozart, Beethoven, Dimebag Darrell... Are you out of your damn mind... Dimebag Darrell... lets think... those others have been remembered for wicked years... Dimebag Darrel wont be remembered in 20 years... not even close.
      I agree. He's not on the same level as the prior three. Sure most rejects on this site might cream their jeans whenever the name is mentioned but there is no comparison. He may have been good or whatever but anyone who plays for long enough eventually learns something or two.
      cdk4bls
      Jonno: sorry dude but this article sucks, and anyone that thinks differently is a faker, a wannebe and a loser
      Well, so much for disagreeing with the idea rather than the person. Other than that, I agree with most of what you said, Jonno. And 7/10 for the article.
      zeebie
      mrbounce: I have way more trouble trying to come up with a good melody/hook/whatever find something that inspires you: other music, a movie, drugs... doesnt matter as long as it makes you think outside the box. Just remember, whatever you make up, make sure its not inspired by your wallet, and never let it be.
      joerick
      i know that if you're reading this comment then you must be waaaaay too bored.... but.. great article 10/10. love the writing style. you convey an intelligent understanding of simple rock without being patronising. ok just a little patronising! Write another!
      blue_white_bass
      Jonno, yes expresing, but rules can help alot with your expression, that's why most post-modern poets are bringing back classical poem forms, and so on. Yes you can express yourself freely, but if you just play random notes I don't think you are expressing yourself, but playing with theory and being able to transmit that tune in your head to your guitar (a lot of times you need rules for that) that's expressing.
      ExtraG
      Nice work, man. All things you wrote are true and not too hard to realize, but when someone (like me ) can read it in this form, it's really helpful. Thanks!
      rafaga
      Great! Im from a rock-pop band in spain and I think this article s incredible. It will help me with my songs, specialy the step 4: cause Ive got a lot of problems with my solos. Thank you very much and greetings from Espaa (forgive me for my poor english)
      RedburN
      very well written. didn't KISS stand for Knights In Satan's Servive ?
      danno89
      I thought this was a fantastic article, yes there have been quite a lot of this kind "how to write a song" but really, honestly and truthfully i am ridiculously, hoplessly crappyily, suckyily shit at writing songs. This is the only one that has helped, and the only one that i understand. I gave it a ten. Well dun m8, you seem quite funny, it has inspired me to write a song, except im crap at them(ill print the article) also it has let me know that my only good song is actually somwhere near correct...i think....yours Danno p.s...if in doubt use backspin.
      bigrd15132
      Nah, sorry dude but you're completely wrong... Inversions do not affect cadence. V to I will always be a perfect cadence whatever inversion any of them may be... What factors affect cadence? Inversion for sure do not affect cadence!!! I to V is an imperfect cadence. There was an alternate naming to it but I did not pay attention to it. You may be right by saying half cadence
      Actually, inversions do affect the time of cadence. This article wasn't great. The Hook and the chorus are the same thing, generally. If not, the hook happens in the bridge, not the verses. As for your topics...most good rock songs aren't about girls at all. Look at Rush, Metallica, Def Leppard, and...well, those aren't great examples. It makes it seem like I'm stuck in the 80's. Anyway, the article was alright, but a lot of yuor ideas were limited and some of your terminology was off. I'll give it a 6/10.
      mrbounce
      I have way more trouble trying to come up with a good melody/hook/whatever you want to call it then what this article dealt with. Still, clearly outlined and useful.
      Jonno
      If you are playing random notes and it is expressing yourself then thats great. You don't need other people to like what you're playing - you do!. I am not talking about basic theory and musical rules that help you get it from your head to the guitar, obviously you need that but creating generic crap songs isn't good. the classics were good and creative back then and thats why we need them. But don't recreate them now just cause you can't be bothered to think for yourself!!
      Puddinkid
      I havent heard opeth... sorry but hes not making fun of them or bashing them hes saying they dont follow a simple rule thats all... by the way good article im sure it will help me, and redburn knights in satans service was a rumour not true
      Buckan
      ACtually, the chord progression in Under the bridge during the chorus is A-Am-G-F, not A-C-G-F
      mikeofthechimps
      vi-I-V-VI (in C am-C-G-F) still rocks. besides, under the bridge is actualy A-Am7-G6-Fmaj7 which I think u'll find can be interpreted as VI-I-V-IV - its just a variation on vi-I-V-IV so the author was more or less right - and considering u read that as A-C-G-F u hav no right to criticise. Great article btw.
      Disturbed42
      I read about a sentence and a half before I got bored and stoped reading. From what I read it kinda sucked
      lp_guitar_girl
      yan_kong wrote: Nice... The part about chord progression is called cadence... V to I is a perfect cadence IV to I is a plagal cadence I to V and IV to V are imperfect cadence If you study songs carefully, you're find out that many uses cadence... Actually it's in grade 5 in ABRSM exams Check is out... Plagal and perfect cadence USUALLY means that the song is ending or pausing. Like a full stop Imperfect USUALLY means that there is more to come in the song... They are great to use in song composing..
      ah!!! theory overload!!! but good atricle nonetheless and what if a girl wants to write rock???
      moneyshoes
      archangels666 wrote: Awesome. Except the thing about rock always being about love or a girl...don't agree with that part.
      Well actually, Rock N' Roll, back when it was first named a genre, Rock N' roll literally means sex. So, technically, it should be about girls and love.
      IronMan425
      sellars wrote: dont take the mickey out of dimebag darrell man HE IS A LEGEND!!!! LIKE TO SEE YOU PLAY BETTER :grrICKHEAD
      KingGohma wrote: ]xQuitEveryGamex wrote: I found this response to be amuzing. timdowland : Useless! I thought you were giving us something a little more in depth. How Do you expect us to write a song with this Crap. You should have called the article How to get a bunch of ideots to waste their time reading my crappy article that teaches nothing. I would have went with that one. I would like to shed some light on the word "ideots". Need I say more? (great artcle!) I would like to shed some light on the word "artcle". Need I say more? (Love the article, man)
      I would like to shed some light on the incorrect placement of the period when putting the incorrectly spelled "artcle" in quotation marks. The period is to go inside the quote if it's at the end of a sentence. Need I say more? (I didn't like the article, man. I just wanted to be a sarcastic ass.)
      \m/(--_--)\m/
      "Guy meets girl, girl and guy exchange rings, guy is at party, girl shows up at party with other guy, first guy pulls out a desert eagle and pumps bullets into other guy leaving him face down in a pool of..." Probably one of the funniest things I've heard in a year.
      \m/(--_--)\m/
      "Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Dimebag Darrell... Are you out of your damn mind... Dimebag Darrell... lets think... those others have been remembered for wicked years... Dimebag Darrel wont be remembered in 20 years... not even close." Boo on you. Dimebag is always remembered!
      deathbyawesome
      great artice, I'm going to concider the things you said when I start writing songs for my band.
      minichibi
      "Using a chord like Gm7b9 is great, but it limits you." sort of made me grin I thought it was a pretty good article. I enjoyed the points, although some of it was pretty obvious XD!
      KingGohma
      ]
      xQuitEveryGamex wrote: I found this response to be amuzing. timdowland : Useless! I thought you were giving us something a little more in depth. How Do you expect us to write a song with this Crap. You should have called the article How to get a bunch of ideots to waste their time reading my crappy article that teaches nothing. I would have went with that one. I would like to shed some light on the word "ideots". Need I say more? (great artcle!)
      I would like to shed some light on the word "artcle". Need I say more? (Love the article, man)
      Vaul96
      Personally I'd much rather not reach the average listener. Media kills bands! Creates sell outs! Blows egos up! I've been listening to alot of Alternative, progressive and underground music, like the aforementioned Dream Theatre and Opeth, and it's much more enjoyable and inspiring than the stuff you see on MTV! Perhaps i shall write an article on the impact of media on bands
      guitarist10
      Excellent article! I want to read more but reading makes me tired and I was about to take a nap before I read this anyway!
      guitarist10
      guitarist10 wrote: Excellent article! I want to read more but reading makes me tired and I was about to take a nap before I read this anyway!
      When I said i want to read more I meant part 2.