Music & Entertainment

How to Write a Song on Guitar: Tips From Tom Morello and Herbie Hancock

Written by MasterClass

Mar 28, 2019 • 6 min read

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Tom Morello Teaches Electric Guitar

Songwriting is a very personal process, and no two writers work exactly the same way. Some compose music in their heads and only later adapt it to fit an instrument. Others write with an instrument in hand. In many popular music genres, writing songs on the guitar is among the most established approaches. Indeed, some of the most legendary songwriters have been guitar players by trade—from folk-based players like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, to rockers like Pete Townshend and James Hetfield, to country pickers like Townes Van Zandt and Brad Paisley.

In truth, any type of song can begin on the guitar—even songs that don’t have guitar in the final version. But more commonly it’s the initial guitar choices—the riffs, the strumming pattern, the tempo—that will serve as building blocks for the entire composition.

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What Are the 5 Elements of Songwriting?

A song generally has five major elements:

All of these elements (other than lyrics) can be sculpted using a guitar. What’s more, a guitar can be used to craft the song’s arrangement, the supplemental elements (like instrumental riffs) that can be layered onto an existing song.

Basic Guitar Chord Progressions

Songs can be remarkably simple, and this simplicity is often considered a virtue in genres such as folk or blues. It wouldn’t even be possible to count the number of folk songs that have consisted of merely three chords, although the genre also includes multi-part, harmonically dense compositions.

Play with these suggested chord progressions to kickstart your songwriting inspiration. (All are in 4/4 time, with one chord per measure.)

G |D |C |C |
D |A |Bm |G |
Em |D |C |B |

Other genres tend to value complexity. Progressive rock (think early Genesis, Yes, Rush) and some heavy metal (think Iron Maiden or Dream Theater) often feature multi-part suites with endless chord and rhythmic changes. Jazz fusion values polyrhythms (more than one rhythmic pattern playing against one another) and challenging harmonies.

How to Start Writing a Song

To start writing your own song, you can begin with any of the elements listed above: melody, chord progression, rhythmic pattern, lyrics, or overall structure. Then:

  • Improvise. You don’t need to know advanced music theory to begin. Many players will start by improvising. This could mean strumming chords on an acoustic guitar while fashioning a vocal melody to fit over those chords, creating a riff on an electric guitar and then later choosing chords that complement the riff, or scribbling down lyrics and then improvising a melody that sets those lyrics to music.
  • Add variety. The best songs tend to have variety. They don’t merely consist of major chords: they also feature minor chords, dominant 7th chords, and even diminished and augmented chords. Melodies tend to be in stepwise motion (ie. successive notes are no more than 1 tone apart) with occasional leaps to higher or lower notes. (These leaps are often the most memorable passages, but you can’t overdo it. The stepwise motion is also essential.)
  • Get creative. Many great songs have three or four sections, and sometimes even more. Consider a song like The Beatles classic “I Am The Walrus.” It begins with an instrumental intro in the key of B. It then modulates to the key of A for the verse and again modulates to the key of E. Verse and chorus repeat before the song shifts to a different feel and returns to the key of B for a fourth section, the bridge. Verse and chorus return before the song concludes on a fifth section — an outro featuring wordless lyrics and tape samples. In just 4 minutes and 33 seconds, the song covers immense musical territory.

Obviously not everyone can simply pick up a guitar and write an original song like “I Am The Walrus,” but take note that it partly succeeds on account of its continual variety from start to finish.

Tom Morello’s Tips for Songwriting

tom morello playing his acoustic guitar

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Tom Morello, whose guitar playing has been heard via Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave, The Nightwatchman, and more shares his insights on songwriting:

  • Harness inspiration. Inspiration can come from anywhere at anytime, and Tom believes it's important for you to document and preserve the ideas when they occur. Inspiration is as simple as choosing to make a sound or play specific notes a certain way.
  • Hone your craft. Craft is the process of arranging those sounds and notes to create verses, choruses, and all the other building blocks of a song. The arrangement gives a song its form and structure, but it’s the inspiration—the creative choices you and you alone make—that transform the arrangement into something original and new.
  • Recycle your ideas. Just as important as harnessing inspiration is never self censoring. For instance, Tom wrote the main riff for Rage Against the Machine's "Bombtrack" when he was 19 and playing in a cover band, but years passed before he found a home for it. Your ideas might not result in a full-fledged song right away, but you may find a use for them down the road.
  • Be authentic. What Tom discovered is that there’s no great mystery to songwriting. If you can hold a guitar and play a couple notes, you can write a song. In his view, it’s not even necessary to know the names of the strings or the specific notes you’re playing. What’s more important is authenticity: if the song comes from inside you, then it’s personally and artistically a success.

Herbie Hancock’s Songwriting Tips

herbie hancock sitting at his piano

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Herbie Hancock is a pianist by trade, but his bands have featured guitars, along with the requisite rhythm section, woodwinds, and brass. Hancock reflects on his own songwriting process:

  • Be vulnerable. For Herbie, the songwriting process is about sharing your own life experience with others through music. Honesty is of the utmost importance. This can be a difficult way to work because it’s not always easy being honest with others about who you are and where you come from.
  • Look at the big picture. Songwriting should be about more than making money and winning fame. Songwriting should be part of your process of growing as a human being and leading a fulfilling life.
  • Start with your feelings. Not sure what to write about? It can help to focus in on a feeling, image, or experience before sitting down with your instrument and starting to write. The next step is to see how you can create musical interpretations of what’s inside of you. That’s how Herbie wrote his best known song, “Watermelon Man.” The funky piano rhythm represented a sound from his childhood: the wheels of the neighborhood watermelon seller’s cart.
  • Work through writer’s block. The process can be intimidating, and everyone, even Herbie, suffers from writer’s block. If the blank page daunts you, just put a couple notes down. It doesn’t matter if they sound awful—the trick is to get yourself started and let those notes lead you to something better. Eventually a song you can be proud of will start to take shape.
  • Treat the song as a living being. The composing process doesn’t have to end after you’ve performed or recorded your songs. Let your compositions keep evolving over time, as you never know where they might take you or who they might reach. Always imagine your songs as having infinite potential and being able to speak to everyone.