How I Build Songs Using A Guitar

by Tim Gillespie

This column could go several different directions. Song writing is a subject that many people accomplish differently. There are as many different ways to build songs as there are songs. Peoples opinions concerning the correct way to write songs are all over the map.

My own views on building songs change from year to year. So this month we will examine some logical approaches to start the construction process. This will be similar to last month, however, the examples will be much simpler. My hope is you can add this to the way you go about writing songs now. If you are not sure what you want to do, this may give you some structure to work with.

The first thing I think about is the key I want to use. Keys all have different personalities. The key of A minor will sound different than the key of G major. For instance I think the key of A minor lends itself to slow ballads and sad songs. It sounds sad to me in general. This is quite different than the feelings I get when working in the key of G major. To me the key of G major is a bright key that is more upbeat and happy than A minor. You can certainly build a happy song in the key of A minor so this is just a guide line. You can also build a sad song in the key of G major.

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Building songs is actually very easy when you work inside a key! The key determines what chords work and which ones do not fit.

By examing pictures of keys, you can quickly determine what chords are in a key and by using cascades that cover the entire fretboard, you can easily pick the right chord in the exact right spot on the fretboard.

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Some of the personality of a key will come from being either major or minor. The sad feeling I talked about can be partly traced back to the fact that it is a minor key. Even though the keys of C major and A minor share the same notes, they keys have separate and distinct personalities.

Each key will have a unique personality. Even though the intervals in each key will be exactly the same (whole steps and half steps), each key will start on a different note. So even though they are exactly the same, they are different. And these subtle differences can yield a completely different feeling.

In addition to the different moods, some keys are just more often used in certain types of music. Pop and rock songs usually stick to the keys of C, G, D, A and E. They do use the other keys but not as much. A classical or jazz song may very well be in E flat minor. A composer may decide to explore some of the relationships and sounds specific to certain keys.

The physical layout of the fretboard favors some keys over others too. Playing solos around the nut in the key of A major may be easier than playing around the nut in Ab major. Ab is one half step lower than A and the open string scales are quite different. I have certain lead line tricks I use in A major that I cannot easily use in Ab. If you have any doubt play the scales and see what I mean.

Notice if you are descending down the scale, the open string combinations have been disrupted by the presence of the nut. These two scales are exactly alike and one half step apart, but you might not be able to see that if you look at these pictures. The white dots are shown so you can see these scales are the same, but usually I play these notes as open strings when using this A major scale.

The same moves are not present since the nut gets in the way. This is just meant to illustrate how the fretboard can have an effect on what you do in certain keys.

So keep in mind there are several influences present and with practice you can start to take advantage of different keys. You will get a chance to see this work in the example below.

Song construction in the key of G major or E minor.

The first thing we need to do is look at the chords we can use in the keys of G major and E minor.

Next we want to look at the scale for the key of G major and E minor.

One of the tools I use to work my way through a key is to look for the chords inside the scale. This gives me a sense of where things are and how to move back and forth between passages. So take a minute and look at the chords above and find them inside the scale.

As you can see from looking at the chord chart above, they will all be within the first four frets.

Make sure you also know where the open string scale pattern is located and how to play it.

The scale is what you would use to carve out lead lines and insert filler notes. All these notes are fine to use with any of the chords in the song. Keep in mind that certain notes, like the F# note (the seventh degree) will have to be managed. Just because a note is in the scale, does not mean you can use it blindly.

So as you are using the chords to construct a progression, you can throw any of these notes in between chords. The need for speed will give you some animated files to practice playing chords and small accent lines.

These are the tools we will use to build the song. In this example we are going to outline the structure, there will still be much left to fill in. Two people playing this, ,may end up with two totally different products.

Vary the tempo of the song as you play it. Try to find comfortable timing. The idea is for you to use the process to create a song. So proceeding slowly will allow you to change chords easily and also experiment with filler notes. You can finger pick or strum the chords and create leads based on your level of ability.

This is an exercise in building songs using the palette of notes inside the key.

Now we can construct an opening progression. We could create a lead line over these notes if we want to fill the opening out more. For now we will just look at chords.

I had my metronome set at 104 beats per minute as I put this together. You can play it at whatever speed you like but if you want to throw in some accent notes between chords you may want to keep it slow at first.

So this progression is actually in the key of E minor. I meant to write in the key of G, however I changed it to accommodate the last chord in this entry sequence, E minor. It gives a little rock flavor as you close out the progression.

If you are not sure which key this is in, play the scale over these chords and see which note the song resolves to. If it is in E minor, then using the scale above you would get a sense of rest at the E note.


Check the chart below these chords if you have any questions.





The progression in E minor is

III - V - IV7 - III

III - V - IV7 - V7

III - V - IV - III

III - V - IV - I

Notice this song does not even use the tonic chord until the last chord. Also notice that we have inserted a little rock influence by adding the E minor. This is more obvious if you are playing with a pick and concentrating on the lower strings.

I want to look at some alternate chords forms I can substitute for the open string chords used above. I am going to keep the progression the same, now I might throw some of these chords in instead of the ones used above.

But before we do that let's establish a chorus line. Typically a song may feature a progression for the verses and one for the chorus line. Then after every chorus is played, the song switches to the next verse.

Here is the chorus line constructed using the chords in the key. This song definitely has the overtones of a minor key. The song is very suited to ballads and slow sad songs. You could use this type of an approach if you were trying to write a sad song about your dog or a lost lover. Notice the last two chords tie the progression to the verses? From here you can go right back into the first progression and start singing or set up a lead line.

The progression of the chorus line is;

V - VI

V - VI7

V - VI

V - VI7 - IV - I

Also notice we are using a chord form for B minor that is higher than C Maj 7. So even though we are climbing up the scale, we are tricking our ears by playing a form of C maj 7 that is lower in pitch. If we used another form of C maj 7, we might not get the same feeling this form gives us.


Now that we have the basis of a framework, we can look for chords to substitute. If you want to keep this song relatively clean, you can stick to the open string chords. They ring clear and are fairly bright. However you may want to construct a secondary part for an electric guitar that would have more of a bite to it than these open string chords provide.

So here are some chords you can substitute for the original chords.

Anyone who plays rock of any kind will recognize some of these forms. They are all based on fifths. Fifths were discussed in the Fifths Article. Click here to go revisit fifths.

If you have two guitars players one can play the chords outlined in the progressions and another can play these forms at the same time. This way you get a fuller sound, a rock influence and you are playing some of the same notes using different parts of the fretboard. This will provide a little contrast.






Lead Lines

If you have two guitars you can insert a lead line over the chords that can either incorporate some of the same chords and have a single note line emerge, or just construct a single note line all by itself.

For this example I would suggest stating off low in pitch and climbing higher as you progress through the song.

I might start the piece by laying a lead carved out of this area over the opening notes. Then the piece could give way to vocals over the opening progression and switch to the chorus. Eventually there would be a place to insert another lead which could start out using these notes or just move up an octave or two higher. As long as your lines are based on the G major / E minor scale, it should sound all right.

The final arrangement could look something like what is illustrated below.

You have to fill in the lead lines yourself, but if you are playing scales regularly, this should be no problem.

Just listen to the version of the song you put together and play small leads (5 to 20 notes) over the sections and see what shows up. You can record this and work out all the details if you want.

You can also use small leads in between the individual chords. Try having a bass player figure out a bass line using the notes in the scale. Bass players are accustomed to creating playful lines within the framework of a song. You can even structure a lead off of a bass line.

If you have two lead guitars try a call and response. One player can create a small lead and give way to the other player. Then the next player gets a chance to put a lead line down.

Just listen to the different combinations you place over this structure of the music and don't be afraid to let a secondary part move the mood of the piece wherever it happens to take it. You may even decide to change the tempo of the song because you like the influence some lead line gave it.



This is just the skeletal framework for the song, you might want to develop an opening phrase and a closing set of chords.

This approach can be a lot of fun and provide many quick ideas for new songs. In the example above all the chord progressions stick to an established pattern without ever inserting any changes. In your progression you can insert subtle changes into each chord progression and dress things up.

You can create a fixed line song or a loose structure for a quick jam session. Remember this is just a structure. You add the life to it by changing the tempo, placing accent notes throughout the song, substituting chords to introduce nuances and by creating secondary parts and single note melody lines on top.

If this example does not keep your interest, I suggest you try it in some other keys with your own chords or using another style all together. You can give it a blues slant or a jazz feeling. If you experiment with this technique, you may soon be writing lots of songs very quickly.