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How to write a rock song

how to write a rock song

Many people believe that rock music is dead because the radio and other mass media don’t play many rock songs anymore. But the reality is that there are millions of people who LOVE rock music all around the world.

Rock music is a genre and there are countless different kinds of rock styles, influenced by a lot of different genres, including folk music, jazz, country, blues, and even Latin music! But now we will go through the very basics to see how you can write a rock song.

Instrumentation

Musical styles are mostly about the instrumentation. For example, if you hear congas, other small percussions, piano, brass section, you can’t think about anything else but Latin music. All the musical styles are using the same chords, same rhythm!, same songwriting tools, same structures. So what mostly differentiates them is the instrumentation.

If you think about rock music, the first thing that comes to mind is electric guitars with distortion. Think about the song “Black or White” by Michael Jackson. It is considered a pop song, but the guitar riff really makes it a rock song actually.

Another important instrument in a rock song is the acoustic drums. Without these two instruments, it’s hard to talk about rock music!

So the most basic setup for a rock song instrumentation is:

– electric guitar
– drums
– bass guitar

Of course, there are many different kinds of rock songs that are using many other instruments, but you can start to write rock songs using only these three instruments.

Rhythm

One of the most important aspects of any music genre is rhythm, yet rhythm is the most overlooked topic in music.

If you write a rock song, the first thing you need to figure out is a unique riff for the guitar. Almost every rock song has a riff that is so unique that you recognize the song immediately by only hearing that riff.

Think about the guitar riff from “Black or White”. You recognize the song by only hearing that riff. Or listen to the first few notes of the song “Sweet Child O’ Mine” by Guns N’ Roses. You recognize the song immediately from that guitar riff.

In our songwriting course, I give you the formula for how you can create a riff that is easy to remember AND unique at the same time.

If we are talking about rhythm, most of the time the drums are playing the regular 2-4 beat in a rock song:

Blues

Rock music is derived mostly from rhythm & blues, and you can still find characteristics of this genre even in modern rock songs. Listen to the song “The Pretender” from Foo Fighters. The guitar is playing a very typical blues riff from 2:38.

It’s not just the rhythm or the groove, but most rock songs are using the blues scale. Whenever you hear a typical rock guitar solo, it will surely contain the blues scale.

Listen to the song “Beating Around the Bush” by AC/DC. The main riff at the beginning is based on the blues scale.

Chord Progression

Most rock songs have a very simple chord progression. They mostly use 3 or 4 chords, so you don’t have to overcomplicate it with too many chords.

First, try to use 3 or 4 diatonic chords throughout the whole song. If it’s too boring, then try to experiment with borrowing chords from other keys. But a rock song usually has very few chords. For example, the previous song “The Pretender” has only three chords in the entire song.

You can also use a classic blues chord progression, for example, the song “I’m still haven’t found what I’m looking for” by U2 is a song like that. Here is a typical blues chord progression in the key of C major:

C – C – C – C
F – F – C – C
G – F – C – C

This is a classic blues chord progression with 12 bars.

Song Structure

A classic rock song always starts with a guitar riff intro! And then verse, chorus, verse, chorus. While a pop song usually has a bridge after the second chorus, a guitar solo takes the place of the bridge in a typical rock song. So here is a basic song structure for a rock song:

guitar riff intro
verse
chorus
verse
chorus
guitar solo
chorus
chorus

Whether you follow this typical song structure or you want something different, it’s always a good idea to write down the structure so you will have a plan, and it makes the songwriting process much easier and faster.

Conclusion

Writing a rock song shouldn’t be overcomplicated. The style itself is mostly determined by the instrumentation: an electric guitar, an acoustic drumset, and a bass guitar.

Try to find a unique riff for the song, so people can identify your song from that riff.

Learn some basic things about the blues, because rock music mostly derived from it.

Use simple chord progressions, starting with diatonic chords, or add some borrowed chords if you find it too boring.

The secret pattern behind successful songs

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About the Author

Producer, songwriter of the band Barrio Latino Hungría. Author of the Songwriting Essentials.