How to Write an Acoustic Guitar Song
Maybe you’re a solo artist, maybe you don’t have a band yet and want to get out there and play, maybe you just want a chill song on your next album. Whatever your situation, you’ve decided to write an acoustic guitar song and that’s what we’re going to help you with today.
Firstly, there are many differences between writing an acoustic song and writing for electric instruments or for a full band if that’s what you are used to.
You will likely find a few challenges you didn’t expect because the song is so stripped down.
For example, when you write for a full band, you can play off the other instruments to keep things interesting.
- An average guitar part can become interesting with a catchy drumbeat.
- You can use interesting effect pedals for ambience and ear candy.
- You can play guitar riffs that sound great with distortion.
- You can have a catchy, groovy bassline.
- Keyboards can help to make things sound huge and full.
None of these things may be available to you when you are one person with only vocals and an acoustic guitar, and that is where the challenge lies.
I am going to give you a few tips I have come across that helped me write with this type of setup and hopefully will help you too.
At the end I am also going to suggest a few acoustic guitar songwriters I like for you to check out, so you can see what they do and get some inspiration.
Play to the Strengths of your Vocals and your Guitar
Believe it or not there are actually some advantages to only using vocals and a guitar.
Some of these are:
- Open chords and chords with many notes sound great and very clear.
- Strumming on acoustic can sound and feel more percussive and rhythmic than on electric.
- Dynamics are very noticeable and can add a lot of drama.
- There’s lots of room for the vocals to shine through.
- It forces you to make the most with the least.
- It will be much easier to hear what areas you need to work on to improve your playing and singing, making you a better artist overall.
It’s important that we keep these things in mind because these are the elements we can focus on that will help us write.
Let’s take this process step by step.
It doesn’t really matter if you write the lyrics, chords or melody first. Wherever you want to start is fine. We’ll just go one at a time.
Choose your Chords
When you are writing on electric instruments you might be more inclined to use powerchords and riffs to write music. However, on an acoustic you may want to switch the focus to using Open or Barre chords and writing with a standard chord progression.
Powerchords are not major or minor because they have no 3rd, so we can only assume what it’s supposed to be by looking at the context of the progression and melody.
On the other hand, Open and Barre chords will allow you to squeeze the most out of the harmony because you will have chords with more notes and that are more clearly defined. It will also give you a fuller sound to make up for the lack of other instruments.
Standard chord progressions are a great place to start for choosing your chords. Below are a few popular ones. Some of them have names, some don’t:
Major chord progressions:
- Pop Song Progression: I-V-vi-IV
Minor chord progressions:
- Andalucian Cadence Progression: i-VII-VI-V
Create a Catchy, Percussive Strumming Pattern
One place where the acoustic guitar might outshine the electric guitar is in the strumming. It just offers so much more of a percussive feel.
There are common strumming patterns but I think a better way is to take the Dave Grohl approach and imagine the guitar is a drum set, with the thick strings being the kick drum and the thinner strings being the snare and cymbals.
It will give you an idea of what it would sound like with drums, which is useful while writing, even when you won’t have a drummer playing with you.
Another advantage of acoustic is if you use your hand to add little bumps and beats on the body of the guitar while you strum your chords. When you do this, it’s like you are accompanying yourself with a rhythm section, making your performance more multidimensional.
There’s even an entire style of acoustic guitar playing called Percussion Guitar based on this.
It takes this simple concept of playing guitar and bumping the body percussively at the same time to a virtuoso level. I’ll give you some artists to check out at the end of the post.
Write a Catchy Melody or Hook
Since there is not much to hold people’s attention with when you just have vocals and guitar, it really helps to have a good catchy vocal melody or hook.
Here’s a few things I have found helpful for making vocal melodies:
- Sing the notes that define the chord underneath. For example, try singing the 3rd on a major or minor chord because this note is important in defining the sound/feel of the chord.
- The 5th of the chord is also a great note to sing on or around.
- Throw in a big jump to higher notes every once in a while. It can help you switch things up and find good melodies.
- Try not to stay on the root note for a long time because it gets boring quickly. The root note is the foundation, so your vocal melody should be adding something to that.
- Your syllables are like accents. How you space them out will accent on what the rhythm guitar is doing underneath. Try holding some syllables out longer than others, especially on words that are important. For example: I WAAANT to be free vs I want to be FREEEE.
- Vocals should be mindful of the rhythm. You want to have a conversation with the rhythm instruments when singing. Groove with them so it feels like the vocals and the rhythm are playing off each other.
Write Intimate Lyrics
My suggestion to you is to write about what you know, and take this opportunity to write something intimate and personal since you are already playing a stripped down song.
Write lyrics that really say something because people will actually be able to make out the words you are singing. If you had a full band they might not be as understandable over a loud drummer.
So lean into the intimacy of playing an acoustic song and say something that matches the vibe.
It doesn’t have to be a love song, but it would be great if it was about something intimate.
Choose a Song Structure
I have entire blog posts about song structure so I don’t want to go too deep here. But really, if you use the structure below or a slight variation of it for most of your songs, you’re totally fine.
Verse – Chorus – Verse – Chorus – Bridge – Chorus
You usually want to repeat the Chorus section in your song at least 3 times, up to maybe 4 or 5 or so. You don’t want to overdo it, but at least 3 times will make it so the audience feels satisfied by the song and it won’t sound incomplete.
That’s just the way human beings listen to music. It’s a psychological thing.
Vary the Song’s Dynamics
The rule of thumb for many songwriters is to make the choruses big and the verses smaller. Of course there are songs that do the complete opposite as well.
The important thing is that the song doesn’t feel completely monotone all the time. Play some parts softer and some louder. Really think about whether the section calls for you to be dramatic or chill.
When you’re playing with just an acoustic guitar, dynamics become even more important. Every little detail is clearly heard and understood and the solitude of a lone guitar can play with silence quite beautifully. Pay attention to your volume and how you play with tension and release.
This one thing can make or break the performance. Don’t underestimate how much this will keep people hooked on your every word when done correctly.
Use a Capo
Although you might not use a capo as much on an electric guitar, on acoustic it is very common to see it. This is because the performance often relies heavily on the vocals and you might have to change the key to fit your range.
So using a capo is something that is very useful for acoustic songs especially. It will also let you do those big open chords on keys you wouldn’t usually be able to because of the way the guitar is constructed.
Acoustic Songwriters for Inspiration
So here I wanted to share with you some of my favorite acoustic songwriters. Hope this can give you some inspiration for your own songs as well.
Did you even go to college if you didn’t listen to Jose Gonzalez? I especially like that he rarely strums chords. It’s mostly all arpeggiated and yet it doesn’t feel like too much of the same thing. At least in my opinion. I like his rhythm too.
One Friday night, I picked a random show to go to without looking up the artists beforehand. It was at a place called The Hihat in Highland Park in Los Angeles. There I saw Johanna Warren. What I liked about her was that she had some songs in odd time signatures which I hadn’t seen often with folk songwriters, and the way she arranged her syllables was nothing short of amazing rhythmically. The accents were just crazy. The lyrics were kinda dark too.
Jon Gomm (percussion guitar)
Most people know him from his song “Passionflower” that got really famous on Youtube many years ago. He is one of those players that does Percussion Guitar and even has a course on it nowadays. He also sings while doing crazy things on his guitar and it sounds amazing.
Ethan Gibbs (percussion guitar)
I found him on instagram one day and he has some really cool stuff. He doesn’t sing as far as I’ve seen at the time of writing this but his guitar playing is just awesome.
Yvette Young’s acoustic albums
Everyone knows her for her tapping and math rock songs but her acoustic stuff is really good too. She also sings on those albums which is really hard to do with what she’s playing on guitar and she’s got a beautiful voice.
Wrapping it up
Personally I think anyone who wants to write songs for bands should at some point write acoustic songs. It’s really different, and it forces you to improve the quality of your songwriting dramatically because you don’t have much to work with other than the basics.
I highly recommend you do this sometime. Write a whole album too, because it can be easy to just do one song and go back to full band mode, but an entire album really challenges you to do different things with the same basic elements.
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