In my latest YouTube video and podcast episode, I give you 7 ways to improve your guitar playing for songwriting. It’s difficult to write songs and perform when your guitar skills are weak or nonexistent. This is especially true for newcomers to the songwriting world who have little to no experience playing an instrument. But, by following my seven recommendations, you can get your guitar skills in order so that nothing holds you back from writing great-sounding, meaningful music. Let’s dive in.
- Embrace the idea of being a guitar player.
If your mindset is that you are not a guitar player you’re just trying to play so that you can write songs, you’re going to struggle. If you want to get good at playing guitar, then you need to care about it. You need to be excited about playing guitar for guitar playing’s sake, and you need to be dedicated to doing it as best you can, at least to an extent (more on this in a moment). So, think of yourself as a guitar player and also a songwriter, not just a songwriter.
- Focus on being a rhythm guitarist primarily.
Strumming chords during a song is called playing rhythm guitar. Technically, anything you play on guitar including riffs and solos involves rhythm. But guitarists say “rhythm guitar” to refer to the mainly chordal parts that don’t involve lead lines. Rhythm guitar parts usually provide the basic structure to a song to support the vocals and other instrumentation. As a songwriter, this is what you should be most concerned with. Your playing should focus mostly on rhythm guitar since you plan to use your guitar playing to support melodies and vocals.
As you focus on developing your rhythm guitar skills, learn open chords, power chords, and barre chords. These are the three main types of chord shapes used on guitar. Open chords get their name because they contain open strings and are played in what is known as the open position in the first few frets. The power chord is a moveable chord shape played on a group of two or three strings. Barre chords are played by laying your index finger across all the strings at a particular fret, then using your remaining fingers to complete the rest of the chord shape. By learning open chords, power chords, and barre chords, you can make use of a large portion of the fretboard, play in any key, and play a variety of rhythm guitar parts just like you hear in popular songs. But you need to take your time with these chord shapes and learn them in the order of open, power, barre. The barre chords in particular can be quite difficult at first. Barre chords will become easier after you strengthen your hands and improve your dexterity by playing lots of music that uses the simpler open chord and power chord shapes.
- Learn songs.
Without a doubt, the most important thing you can do to improve your guitar playing skills, as well as your songwriting skills, is to learn songs from other artists. When you play songs by other artists, you see exactly how things go together to make songs, and you practice playing in the style of real music. The more songs you learn, the better your playing becomes. You’ll begin to get feel for the basic types of strumming patterns guitarists often use. You’ll also get to know which chords sound good together and you’ll pick up on the common structures that many songs follow, like intro verse chorus bridge, and so on.
You don’t need to learn all of the guitar parts played in songs. Often songs will have several guitar tracks featuring a variety of different parts including lead guitar parts. As a songwriter, you can just focus on the most basic rhythm guitar parts. This would include the basic chord changes and basic strumming patterns. This will equip you to support your singing whether you’re playing a stripped-down version of the song by yourself at an open mic night, or you’re sitting in with a full band.
- Learn practical music theory that relates to the elements heard in familiar songs.
Practical music theory for guitar would include understanding the construction of the major scale and how it’s harmonized to form chords and play chord progressions. This is where we get the number system that is often used as a short-hand method of tracking musical movement and can be an invaluable tool for songwriters.
And when you know in which major scale a chord progression fits, you can use the scale for your vocal melodies and harmonies. You might be able to find pitches to sing over chords through trial and error just using your ear, but as they say, knowing where to look is half the battle. Pick through the notes of the chords you play, and play through the related scales, to find good pitches that are in key and can be used in your vocal parts. You can check out either of my books Fretboard Theory or Guitar Theory For Dummies for good information on scales and how they are used to build chords and create chord progressions. However, I would save the theory until after you become comfortable playing complete songs using open chords, power chords, and barre chords.
- Learn the basics of strumming and fingerpicking.
We’ve already discussed how you can learn the basics of strumming by playing along with lots of familiar songs. But sometimes you might want to support your vocals with guitar playing that has a softer touch to it. This is where fingerpicking comes in. I recommend you learn how to play some popular yet simple finger-picked songs such as “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman, “You Were Meant For Me” by Jewel, and “Thinking Out Loud” by Ed Sheeran. These are fantastic songs by great singer-songwriters who are able to accompany themselves nicely using basic chords and simple fingerpicking techniques.
- Split your time between being a songwriter and a cover artist.
The better you get at performing songs by other artists, the more skilled you’ll be at writing and performing your own songs. Most successful songwriters started out by playing covers and doing so was an important part of their musical development. Playing covers will expose you to different musical ideas, give you an opportunity to refine your skills, and ultimately help you find your unique musical voice. It’ll also help you fill out your setlist and get more gigs. The more you perform in front of others, the better you’ll get at it. You’ll probably need the money you earn from playing covers too. With all these benefits, you can see why you can’t afford to skip this critical step.
- Find other people who can help you get better.
You can learn a lot by playing with and getting feedback from other musicians. A good drummer might point out when your timing is off, a good singer might help you avoid singing flat, a good guitar player might show you some new chord voicings that give you just the inspiration you need to write a new song. And of course, taking private lessons from a good teacher can be invaluable. A good teacher should put together a plan to help you reach your specific goals. You may need to ask around and try out different instructors before you find the one that is the right fit. Don’t give up on this too soon because the right instructor can make a huge difference in how well and quickly you progress. You can even connect with me online using Zoom, Skype, or FaceTime. Click on my private lesson link.