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GUITAR LESSON ONE: Using your guitar as a songwriting tool
by Billboard top rated instructor Scott Morris of You Can Play Guitar
September, 2002 Scott Morris. All Rights Reserved. Used By Permission.

During this lesson, we will discuss the possibilities of using your guitar as a songwriting tool. However, some songs may consist of a wide range of musical content, and complex elements, such as scales, and modes, relative minor scales, harmonies and scale names you may never have heard of (like, Inoian, Dorian, Phrygian, ect...) A good song can also be composed by simply using a few basic chords, and some easy to play pentatonic or blues scales. For example, the group AC/DC has many major hit songs - most of which were written using basic major chords, or power chords, and easy box scales. Artists like Ozzy, or Joe Satriani use every available chord and scale that is properly related in theory. Learning and knowing the basic fundamentals that we'll be learning in this lesson could lead you to writing songs of your own, which, with proper copyright protection and promotion, could possibly land you a hit song of your very own.

First lets look at some basic chords. For this lesson, we'll focus on learning powerchords for the initial rhythm segments. We'll then look at some easy scales you can add for soloing, as well as a basic format for composing, meaning, which order many easy to play hit songs are constucted and written within.


Powerchords are the salvation of the rhythm guitarist. They are also, without question, the most common and popular chords among rock and heavy metal and even the new country players have adapted it.

Construction of a Powerchord

It takes 3 notes to make a chord, major or minor. A Powerchord, consist of only 2 notes, the first and fifth intervals of a major scale. A power chord is not major or minor. It's a substitue chord, which can be used to replace nearly any chord. As it consist of the first and fifth intervals of a major scale, it's actual name is a 5th, or fifth chord. It got the name Powerchord from the rock and metal players who plugged into a huge stack, and cranked up the distortion. Below I have shown the major diatonic scale in the key of A. There are 8 notes (intervals) in the major diatonic scale. To build the powerchord, we will use the first, and fifth intervals.

A major diatonic scale      Intervals    A Powerchord

e :------------------------------------------------------
B :------------------------------------------------------
G :------------------------------------------------------
D :------------------4--6--7-----------------------------
A :-----------4--5-7----------------7-------7------------
E :-------5-7--------------------5----------5------------
Notes     A B C# D E F# G# A     A  E
Intervals 1 2 3  4 5 6  7  8     1  5


The best fingerings to use are index finger on the roote note (the first note played that gives the chord it's letter name, for example above, A note=A powerchord) and then use the ring finger on the fifth interval. If you're a beginner and having a hard time stretching, it's ok to use the index finger on the fifth fret, and the pinky on the 7th fret. Now that we have learned what a powerchord is and how its formula is built, the next thing to realize and learn is that it's moveable - meaning, that you don't have to change fingerings to play a different chord. You simply move the same shape up and down the neck, or to different strings. Powerchords can be played on the Large E, A and D strings.

Next we'll learn the names of the powerchords. I am only showing the natural named chords, keeping in mind that the chords in between are sharps, and flats. The first chord is an open E. To play the open chords, leave the top string open, and use your index finger on the string below. Then when beginning on the first fret, return to the fingerings explained above.

Powerchords on the 6th sting, large E.

e :------------------------------------------------------
B :------------------------------------------------------
G :------------------------------------------------------
D :------------------------------------------------------
A :-2--3--5--7--9--10-12--14-----------------------------
E :-0--1--3--5--7--8--10--12-----------------------------
    E  F  G  A  B  C  D   E

Powerchords on the A string

e :------------------------------------------------------
B :------------------------------------------------------
G :------------------------------------------------------
D :-2--4--5--7--9--10-12--14-----------------------------
A :-0--2--3--5--7--8--10--12-----------------------------
E :------------------------------------------------------
    A  B  C  D  E  F  G   A

Powerchords on the D string

e :------------------------------------------------------
B :------------------------------------------------------
G :-2--4--5--7--9--11-12--14-----------------------------
D :-0--2--3--5--7--9--10--12-----------------------------
A :------------------------------------------------------
E :------------------------------------------------------
    D  E  F  G  A  B   C   D

Now that you've learned the powerchords, next, lets try some fundamental chord exercises using some very popular songs.

Paranoid by black Sabbath

e :------------------------------------------------------
B :------------------------------------------------------
G :------------------------------------------------------
D :-9-9-9-9--9-9-9-9--9-9-9-9--9-9-9-9--7-7-7-7-7-7-7-7--
A :-7-7-7-7--7-7-7-7--7-7-7-7--7-7-7-7--5-5-5-5-5-5-5-5--
E :------------------------------------------------------

e :------------------------------------------------------
B :------------------------------------------------------
G :-7-------7--------------------------------------------
D :-5-7--9--5--------------------------------------------
A :---5--7-----------------------------------------------
E :------------------------------------------------------

Godzilla by Blue Oyster Cult

e :------------------------------------------------------
B :------------------------------------------------------
G :------------------------------------------------------
D :----4--6-------8--9-----------------------------------
A :-4--2--4-6-7---6--7-9---------------------------------
E :-2-------4-5--------7---------------------------------

Rock You Like a Hurricane by the Scorpions

e :------------------------------------------------------
B :------------------------------------------------------
G :------------------------------------------------------
D :-9-9-9------------7--9-9------------------------------
A :-7-7-7-5-5--7-7---5--7-7------------------------------
E :-------3-3--5-5---------------------------------------

Big Balls by AC/DC

e :------------------------------------------------------
B :------------------------------------------------------
G :------------------------------------------------------
D :-9--9-8-7-5--5-7-8-9--9-8-7-5--5-7-8-9--9-8-7-5-------
A :-7--7-6-5-3--3-5-6-7--7-6-5-3--3-5-6-7--7-6-5-3-------
E :------------------------------------------------------

e :------------------------------------------------------
B :------------------------------------------------------
G :------------------------------------------------------
D :-5--7--4-4-4-4-4--------------------------------------
A :-3--5--2-2-2-2-2--------------------------------------
E :------------------------------------------------------

Songwriting rules

Although there are some basic rules that will apply during this lesson, this theory of songwriting is very flexable as opposed to using the methods of modal scales and advanced theory. So far, we've learned the basic rhythm chords and learned a few exercises that were taught as demonstrations to help give you the basic idea of writing or composing a rhythm part to a song. Next, we'll focus on learning some basic box scales for soloing, as well as on learning how to align the correct scale with the choosen rhythm chord.

Pentatonic Scales

Much like a chord is named by its first note played (the roote note) a scale is named by its first note played. This is called the tonic note. Shown below, is the A pentatonic scale which begins with the tonic note A. To define the term pentatonic, we will divide the word into 2. Pent = 5 Tonic = Notes So basically, you'll be playing a 5 note scale. The 5 notes in this scale are A,C,D,E,G. See below.

A Pentatonic Minor Scale

e :----------------------5-8-----------------------------
B :------------------5-8---------------------------------
G :--------------5-7-------------------------------------
D :----------5-7-----------------------------------------
A :------5-7---------------------------------------------
E :--5-8-------------------------------------------------
     A C D E G A C D E G A C

Practicing tip

For now, you should be thinking A chord = rhythm, A scale = lead solo. Try recording a practice rhythm using the A powerchord, then rewind and play along using the A scale to experiment soloing.

Keep in mind this scale (as with the powerchords) is moveable. If you want to play it in the key of B, simply move up 2 frets and start on the note B as shown below.

e :-----------------------7-10---------------------------
B :------------------7-10--------------------------------
G :--------------7-9-------------------------------------
D :----------7-9-----------------------------------------
A :------7-9---------------------------------------------
E :-7-10-------------------------------------------------

Common Questions

Q: How do I know which key I am playing in?

A: Usually the first chord, or first note of the scale, determines the key you are playing in. So, if you're starting with an A chord, you'll be in the key of A. If starting with a B chord, you'll be in the key of B.

Q:Which chords should I use to write or compose a song?

A: This can be complicated.That's why it's important to learn scales and theory. Then you will know exactly which chord and scale may be played together. You will find this information in the You can Play Guitar Video, Volume 3, Scales & Theory. However, we covered the fundamentals in this lesson and a quick easy solution would be as follows.

You could choose to compose a rhythm structure or chord progression by playing the notes in a chosen scale, as powerchords. We learned the notes in the A pentatonic minor scale were A,C,D,E,G. So you could create a rhythm as shown in the example below.

e :------------------------------------------------------
B :------------------------------------------------------
G :------------------------------------------------------
D :----------5-5-5-5-------------------------------------
A :-7-7-7-7--3-3-3-3-5-5-5-5--7-7-7-7--------------------
E :-5-5-5-5----------3-3-3-3--5-5-5-5--------------------
    A A A A  C C C C G G G G  A A A A 

Or you could choose to create something like this:

e :------------------------------------------------------
B :------------------------------------------------------
G :------------------------------------------------------
D :---------7-7-7-7--------------------------------------
A :-7-7-7-7-5-5-5-5-5-5-5-5--7-7-7-7---------------------
E :-5-5-5-5---------3-3-3-3--5-5-5-5---------------------
    A A A A D D D D G G G G  A A A A 

Basic Formatting

There are many ways to compose a song from beginning to end. Once again, we are looking at the basic fundamentals of song writing possibilities. Although there are many ways to compose a song, a basic format that is very common would be like the one AC/DC used to write thier hit song "You Shook Me...all night long"

The format would be as follows

Intro = The beginning lick that starts the song
1st verse = words
Chorus = "You...shook me, all night long
2nd verse = words
Chorus = " You...shook me, all night long
Solo = Guitar solo
Chorus = "You ...shook me, all night long
END Song

That will end this lesson on using your guitar as a songwriting tool.

For more free guitar and bass guitar lessons, visit us daily. You can also join our Yahoo! Group and post and reply to music related topics and issues with other musicians from around the world.

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