You know those songs where you feel as if your ears perk up, everything around you just stops and you are instantly drawn in? You whisper to yourself, “That guitar though”. It’s just goose-bump worthy.
Write one of those songs! …I mean it!
Whether you have just began tackling the art of songwriting, or you have been writing for a while, often times us songwriters hit a plateau. Everything begins to sound the same… we use the same chords over and over. Before we know it we have ran into the dreaded songwriter’s block. Like for reals, it’s a giant block and we’ve just ran into it head first and it sucks.
The easiest way to get out of songwriter’s block is to literally force your way out. Try something new, think outside of the box! Am I scaring you yet? As an introverted songwriter, I hate being told “try something new”. However, it’s the quickest way out!
Change it up! Make your guitar playing more interesting! Break out of the 4 chord mold!
Well… Here. Right here. On this very post that you’ve chosen to click on out of the thousands of clickable images on Pinterest… I will show you 7 ways to make your guitar playing more interesting in your songs.
here we goooo…
7 Ways to Make your Guitar Songs Unique.
1. Use More than 4 Chords in Your Progression
One way to instantly add the “unique factor” to your song is by creating an interesting progression with more than you average set of chords. I am not trying to discredit 4 chord songs at all, but breaking that familiar mold is good for every songwriter!
One easy way to accomplish this is by replacing and interchanging chords throughout your song. To illustrate:
Verse: I vi IV V or G Em C D
Pre-Chorus: I ii vi V or G Am Em D
Chorus: I IV vi V or G C Em D
Even though you are still writing with the feel of 4 chords, you are technically using 5 different chords. Sneaky, huh?
Another simple way to create an interesting chord progression is to use parallel minor chords.
We know the relative minor of A Major would be F# minor. However, the parallel minor of A Major is A minor. Typically, we wouldn’t think to pair these two chords up, but it can work!
Using Parallel Minors:
I V vi VI vi E B C#m A Am
Lastly, a more complex way to add interest to your chord progressions would be to borrow chords from other parallel modes.
Similar to using the “parallel minor” chord in the previous example, you can “borrow” other parallel chords from other parallel modes.
If you are writing with chords in the key of C major (aka ionian mode) you can borrow any other parallel chord from the C Aeolian mode, C Phrygian, C Mixolydian… and so on.
Does your brain hurt yet?
Allow me to illustrate:
Basic C Major Chord Progression:
C F Dm G7 or I IV ii V7
I am going to borrow a cord from C Aeolian. Then I will try replacing a chord with the parallel chord in the C Lydian mode (same roman numeral).
Progression with borrowed Chords:
C Bb7 F D7 G7 or I VII7 (C Aeolian) IV II7 (C Lydian) V7
Here, I borrowed the Bb7 chord (VII7) from the C Aeolian mode and casually squeezed it in after my first chord. This chord did not replace any chord.
Then, instead of playing Dm (which is the ii chord of the C major scale) I borrowed another ii/II chord from a parallel mode. In this case I used the II7 from the C Lydian mode which is D7.
In brief, I added a borrowed chord to my progression and I also replaced the original ii chord with another ii/II chord from a parallel mode.
Challenge: Take any basic chord progression and sprinkle in borrowed chords from parallel modes. You will instantly feel like a more creative songwriter!
2. Use Different Chord Voicings
Sometimes all you need are a couple chords and a relatable story to write a great song! I mean, Taylor Swift built her entire career off of 4 chords and her diary…. However, you can still spice up that standard 4 chord progression with the use of different chord voicings.
A chord voicing is basically the way the the notes are stacked within a chord.
As you can see from the image below, all of the chords are some form of E Major. However, the first Chord sounds E-B-E-G#-B-E and the second chord sounds E-E-B-E-B-E.
Both chords are considered E Major, but they will affect the sound your song differently.
The 2nd chord will have a more open/hollow sound given that it is missing G#. You could even add your Pinky to the B string (9th fret) to add that G# tone and still create a different sounding E Major. Anything goes!
Challenge: Try writing with a chord progression using only chords above the 5th fret.
3. Try a different tuning: DADGAD
One of my favorite ways to break out of songwriter’s block is by trying different guitar tunings. Specifically, DADGAD! There is just something so warm and ethereal about DADGAD!
If you are unfamiliar with DADGAD, basically you tune the E strings down to a D and the B string down to an A creating an ever so magical Dsus4 open tuning. I mean, you could get away with strumming 1 finger chords the whole time… I’d do it…
Often times, beginner guitarists steer away from different tunings, because the chord shapes are different and unfamiliar. Therefore, I’ve created a DADGAD chord progression chart to show you some possible chord progressions. You can use these progressions, or make up your own with the given chord shapes.
Hopefully, this helps you as a songwriter write in DADGAD with ease!
If you want the openness of the DADGAD tuning, but you want to sing in a different key just add a capo!
Click the Image to See Full Chart + other Songwriting Freebies to help you out! 🙂
4. Create a Simple, Yet Memorable Guitar Riff
Guitar riffs don’t always have to be crazy lead solos in the middle of a song. In fact, most memorable guitar riffs are simple variations of the melody played as an intro.
Find your melody within your guitar chords and come up with a simple finger style riff.
Think Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven”. The opening guitar riff is literally the melody being embellished between the chords. Eric Clapton’s guitar playing is anything but bland, however the simplicity of this riff makes the song so moving!
Riffs can even be as simple as strumming your chords. Tom Petty used 3 strummed chords in his “Free Fallin” opening: F Bb2… Bb2-F Csus… (bet you can hear those chords in your head!) 3 chords and he changed the music world! However, the simple strumming rhythm is what makes this riff so recognizable.
Less is often times more, folks!
5. Use Hammer Ons & Pull Offs
Maybe you aren’t quite at the level of pulling off amazing guitar licks and arpeggios within your riffs. No worries! You can still “fake” your way to sounding like a pro with a few hammer ons and pull offs within your chords.
For starters, try both techniques with a G major chord using your index finger to hammer on and pull off.
You can then move this chord up to a Cadd9 and hammer-on/pull-off with your index finger AND your middle finger.
Then finish your progression with a D major. Here, you can hammer-on/pull-off with your middle finger and pinky on the high E string.
Play around with different chords and try and add these techniques!
Hammer Ons & Pull Offs for beginners:
Hammer ons and Pull offs are both techniques used in your fretting hand (the non strumming hand).
Basically, to “hammer on” you would place your finger onto a fret while the initial strum/note is still ringing. This is also known as a slur. You aren’t articulating or attacking each note separately. There is one attack, but multiple notes thanks to the hammer on.
“Pull offs” are the reverse version of a hammer on. Instead of adding your finger to a fret, you are removing it while the initial strum/note is still ringing. Again, there is only one attack in the strumming hand, but you are playing multiple notes.
6. Try Different Strumming Hand Techniques
Now that your fretting hand has stepped up a bit, why not put the the strumming hand to work?
The guitar is such an amazing instrument! We can make it sound rhythmic, melodic, percussive, and fluid like a piano. AND we can carry it anywhere. It might just be the greatest instrument out there… so prove it!
Try a new strumming pattern with the use of palm-mutes. Please, don’t confuse palm-muting with slapping your entire hand on the guitar strings! Palm-muting is using the side of your hand beneath your pinky finger to gently rest on the strings near the bridge.
Strumming while you palm-mute creates a dampened sound and somewhat percussive effect.
Instead of Slapping your ENTIRE hand, use your fingers to mute the strings. Not only will you create a smooth, rhythmic feel to your song, but you WONT sound like a middle school kid learning their second song ever (smoke on the water being the first).
Similar to Thomas Rett’s “Die a Happy Man” use your thumb to drive the bass line and your other fingers to pluck and mute the chord tones.
If you are up for a challenge try a tricker percussive effect. If you listen to John Mayer’s music, he often uses his thumb and fingers to create that light slapping sound without sacrificing the flowing guitar melody.
Great example, Stop This Train.
Lose the pick and try a finger style pattern. Awww finger style guitar! As a 90’s kid, I learned how to play guitar by ear with Jewel’s finger style songs! (Consequently, it took me years to figure out strumming with a pick after that…) However, finger style guitar will always be home base for me.
Maybe I am bias, but nothing gets my attention more than a twinkly, folk-like finger style song.
7. Go back to Basics
When all else fails, just stick with basics! Forget the
music snobs of the world and write that song with 3 or 4 chords!
Pet peeve: Presumptuous musicians. Every time I hear someone whine about today’s music (or country music as a whole) only having 3-4 chords, I just want to push them off of their soapbox, steal their soapbox, hide their soapbox and then write a song about their crass judgement with 3-4 chords. Obviously with clever lyrics, melody and structure because songwriting isn’t always about how many chords you have.
I remember driving in my car when Maren Morris’s “My Church” came on the radio for the first time. I remember hearing that classic, and I mean super classic, 3 guitar chord intro and ironically thinking, “Well, this is new!”
She caught my attention. I stayed for the whole song and went home and bought it off iTunes… and I NEVER spontaneously buy songs off of iTunes.
She mainly uses 3 chords ( G C & D7) with a few E minors here and there. However, there was something so organic and refreshing about hearing those signature “cowboy” chords played on an acoustic Gibson guitar on the Radio in the year 2016.
A year later, she won a grammy for the same song! Clearly, I wasn’t the only one loving the song…
Music today is so overly electronic and dare I say, manufactured. It’s funny how a simple guitar or piano intro can just draw us in. It is as if we are coming home to our roots!
On the other hand, music is also so overly judged. I am not sure how they all became critical and pompous with something that is so pure and natural, but a the end of the day, if your music speaks to you, then who cares?! Write what YOU want. Write a song that moves YOU.