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Songwriting: Music Theory Must-Knows for Beginner to Advanced Guitarists

This week try incorporating one or all of these techniques into your riffs. How does it help—or not help—and/or change your approach to writing?

January 19, 2021
Written by
Sara Landeau, guitarist of The Julie Ruin

This article originally appeared in She Shreds Magazine Issue #13.

As much as people tend to believe the mystique of the inspired songwriter—where songs come from near magical places, muses, or out of nowhere—the truth, more often than not, is that serious songwriters are constantly crafting their trade, listening smartly, and learning new theoretical approaches. These concepts will help you on the road to improvement, and to prepare you for any inspirational opportunity. Here is a brief list of some basic music theory terms, tools, and must-knows for every guitarist.

Chord Voicing   

Definition: The specific order and spacing of the pitches within the chord. 

For example, a C major chord, made by playing C, E and G—found by the first, third and fifth notes of the C major scale—could be played with G an octave higher above C and the E above that.


This creates alternative versions of the same overall sound, with one version giving you a lower-end heavy sound that fills more space, and another version creating a brighter sound. Feel free to experiment with these three notes all over the neck and throughout all six strings until you find the voice that suits your song best. 

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Delve deeper into major and minor chords beyond the open and barred shapes. Experiment with inversion chords from triads to the extended chord patterns. Put together contrasting sounding chords for an atmospheric effect. Practice new shapes until they are comfortable and familiar, then try substituting these newbies for some of the more common chords in your composition.

Circle of Fifths

Definition: A music theory diagram for finding the key of a song, transposing songs to different keys, and for understanding key signatures, scales, and chord voicings. 

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Learn about the circle of fifths and make up mnemonic devices to memorize the patterns (ex: Fat Cats Go Down Alleys Eating Birds, B-E-A-D-Girls-Can-Fight-Bb-Eb-Ab-Db). Or write them out and keep a tidy transposition chart handy to take cues from. Play through each chord in order up the fretboard and develop your ear. Guitarists who have a basic-to-working knowledge of the circle of fifths will have the ability to turn that information into more invention and options for a wider variety of sections in their songs. 


Definition: Hooks are recurring melodic or rhythmic passages that stand out and are easily remembered.

A hook, riff, or motif is the secret weapon to songwriting. Try writing a riff that is the verse or chorus, not just a catchy line between parts of the song. Integrate the motif into the structure and be sure it illuminates the story you are telling. Look for interesting patterns in scales and arpeggios to use for creating riffs. Try a descending bass line. If your riff is strong, your chord progression can be less complex, so sit back and let the earworm do the work. Then put your riff up front; don’t bury it. Dance and pop songs become hits because we remember the hook and can hum it after only a few listens. Think of Aretha Franklin spelling out “RESPECT.” Or the riff intro to Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock and Roll,” a song that has a double whammy of a hook in the chorus too.

Know the Fretboard 

Many guitarists think only about the physical shapes or patterns they are playing, such as the triangle shaped D chord or the boxy pentatonic over the elements required to create those shapes. Flesh out those chords and look further. What notes are you actually playing? First, memorize all the natural notes (notes that are not sharps or flats) on the fretboard horizontally, beginning with the sixth, then fifth string, up to the 12th fret (where the notes start over again). 

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Most shapes and patterns originate off of these strings. Once you’ve become familiar with those notes, practice octave shapes to trace notes onto other strings. 

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In no time you’ll know all the natural notes on the neck and will find your sharps and flats accordingly.

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Definition: A passage of notes with personal expression, articulation, and other characteristics.

Songs are emotional—that’s why we are drawn to them. Bring in melodic phrases with long pauses, jolts, bends, or guitar lines that almost sound like a vocalist singing. Try arrangement tricks, such as holding a chord, drone, or bend longer than anywhere else in the song, and overlapping another section of the composition. Listen to The Breeders or The Pixies for examples of songs with sections that play with extreme dynamics—overwhelming volume, followed by sucked-down whispers, and then back up again. We don’t speak in all linear monotone 16th notes, why should our solos? Like learning a language, this is something that comes with practice and will eventually come out organically.

A good way to loosen up your fingers and get your hands to that comfort level is focusing on one technique a week. Here’s a couple to start:

  1. Pull-offs and hammer-ons: Start out using your index and middle finger, then your index and ring finger, up and down the neck, one fret a time. 
  2. Alternate picking: With your right hand, pick down, up, down, up beginning with your low E and up to your high E and back.

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