Writing a song on the guitar can begin as early as after your first lesson or when you’ve learned a few basic chords. Whether your agenda with the guitar is to accompany your lead vocal, jam with others, or to be a wailing lead guitar player, you can at anytime feel inspired to write your own unique song. So where do you begin? How do you write a song? Here are some helpful tips in writing your first three chord song.
Listen to the pros. Numerous hits have been written using only three chords. Below is a list of ten such songs.
I, IV, V:
“Knocking on Heaven’s Door” (G, C, D)—Bob Dylan
“Tush” (G, C, D)—ZZ Top
“Sweet Home Alabama” (G, C, D)—Lynyrd Skynyrd
“Atmosphere ” (A, D, E)—Joy Division
“Release” (G, C, D)—Pearl Jam
I, V, IV:
“Rock Around the Clock” (E, B, A)—Bill Haley and The Comets
“Margaritaville” (D, A, G)—Jimmy Buffett
“Wild Thing” (A, D, E)—The Troggs
“Get it On” (E, A, G)—T-Rex
“505” (Dm, Em)—Arctic Monkeys
Roman numerals are used to describe the chord progression independent from what key you are in. For example, if you are in the key of G the chords of the harmonized G scale are:
G am bm C D em fdim
I ii iii IV V vi vii(dim)
Capital letter or roman numeral means Major Chord
Lower case letter or roman numeral means Minor Chord
dim refers to a dimished chord
Notice that eight out of the ten hits listed above use the I, IV and V chords.
This is the arguably the most common progression in popular music. And this is where I suggest beginner songwriters start with their own first song.
VERSE & CHORUS
A very common and simple song format made up of only two parts: verse, chorus, verse, chorus etc. The verse is the main narrative section of the song or the part where the writer describes what is going on in the song. It is the place where the setting is established and characters and actions are introduced—in other words, where the story happens.
Verse of “Knocking on Heavens Door”
Mama, take this badge off of me
I can’t use it anymore.
It’s gettin’ dark, too dark to see
I feel I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door.
Verse of “Margaritaville”
Nibblin’ on sponge cake,
watchin’ the sun bake;
All of those tourists covered with oil.
Strummin’ my six string on my front porch swing.
Smell those shrimp
They’re beginnin’ to boil.
The chorus is often the most memorable and sing-friendly part of the song. It is the part that people will recall most readily when they ask, “Hey you know that song that goes like this?” It repeats numerous times and serves to drive home the overall theme of the sentiment or feeling being expressed. It also is the place reserved for a “hook” (easily remembered melodic or lyric phrase that repeats throughout song). A chorus can be one hook phrase repeated, like in “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” or a group of words repeated, like in “Margaritaville” or “Wild Thing”.
Chorus of “Knocking on Heaven’s Door”
“Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door”
Chorus of “Margaritaville”
“Wasted away again in Margaritaville,
Searchin’ for my lost shaker of salt.
Some people claim that there’s a woman to blame,
But I know it’s nobody’s fault.”
Chorus of “Wild Thing”
“Wild thing, you make my heart sing
You make everything groovy, wild thing”
Take a moment to listen to the ten songs listed above and see if you can identify the verses and choruses. You may also run across a third section that appears only once in a song that doesn’t sound like either the verse or the chorus. This is called the bridge of the song and it serves to break the momentum and monotony of the song while offering a very specific outlook on the lyrical information in the verses and choruses. But for the purpose of our very first song, we will not consider writing a bridge.
EASY FIRST SONG FORM
Here is a suggested song form to start with to keep things very simple.
You can write as many verses as you want while keeping one chorus that repeats throughout the song. It might look something like this:
Keys of G, C, or D
I, V, IV: (G, D, C) (C, G, F) or (D, A, G)
V, IV, I: (D, C, G) (G, F, C) or (A, G, D)
I, V, IV on each of the four lines
V, IV, I on each of the four lines
Coming up with a simple melody that you can remember and have fun. A million melodies can fit over the same exact chord progression so your choices are endless.
You can explore using some rhymes at the end of lines or write free verse with no rhymes. Just remember to put the story part of the song in the verses and reserve the chorus for your catchy phrase or theme. Have a blast!