If you read biographies or watch videos about songwriters, you will learn that songs get written on everything from the back of someone’s hand, to a restaurant serviette, notebooks, pads or pretty much anything that comes to hand. Probably the most important thing is always to have something handy to write on.
If you’re writing lyrics, it’s much easier than if you’re also composing the music, because you can write the words on just about anything, even on your phone if you are fast enough, although that can be a challenge.
In this article I’m going to talk about songwriting, learning songs; the benefits and different uses of Blank Guitar TAB Sheets and Chord Charts. I’ll talk about how and why to use them and even a unique way of composing using Chord Charts that I came up with.
In a previous article I wrote about knowing your chords and being able to share what you wrote with other people and also how common it is, when you are composing or writings songs, to forget what you wrote, and what you can do about it. In this article I am going to help you with some additional tools.
Always have paper and pen handy
You never know when you are going to come up with an idea. Most songwriters have paper and pens everywhere. There are many famous people from Elton John and Paul McCartney to The Eagles whose amazing Top Hits were written in a matter of minutes. Of course there are also songs that may have taken years to finish.
An idea might come from a dream or that state when you are still in bed half asleep. Most songwriters will have a pad or notebook on their bedside table. I carry at least one notebook with me everywhere I go. You might get an idea while you are on a bus, at work, walking through a park, reading a book, visiting friends. It might be just a few words, like one day I wrote down “Crushed like a paper cup” after something triggered the thought. It seemed like a pretty good hook to me for a lost love song.
Sometimes I might write lyrics without music, jot down ideas and just hang onto them. Other times I might write something down and race to my music room to grab a guitar and start working on it.
TAB is your friend
Whether you can read and write music in manuscript form on a treble clef or not, I find TAB or tablature much faster if I want to remember a riff, or maybe a chord sequence. I very rarely record something as I write it, although I do that once in a while as an exercise. For example, I have done the odd session on Twitch, starting from scratch and writing a song, but that was more about sharing some songwriting techniques I use.
Even if you recorded something you were starting to write, that doesn’t mean you will remember how you played it. When you learn the guitar keyboard, you may learn the 7 positions. In effect there are lots of ways of playing the same note or the same chord, but which one did you use? If you look at classical guitar music, you will see that it often has characters telling you which fingers play which note for both picking and fretwork. The picking ones are known as PIMA. If you tried to learn a piece by ear, you might find that there is a much easier way of making progressions.
I learned a lot of music from TAB, especially blues when I was in my teens. For example, that’s how I learned to play Mississippi John Hurt songs. I did a series of videos about his music and my journey to find his home and final resting place in Mississippi, starting with one of the original TAB books I had of his songs.
Writing TAB is as simple as knowing which frets on which strings you played. I found it really easy to learn alternating base using TAB because it was like painting by numbers. One step at a time.
You can use TAB to note down what you created, and the only thing it doesn’t recover for you is the rhythm.
How did I play that chord?
As I wrote in the article about knowing your chords, there are lots of different ways of playing the same chord. Often when I write music, I don’t even know what the chord is called and while I’m in the flow, I don’t care. All I care about is being able to reproduce the exact chord that I used. I can identify the chord name later.
I use chord charts to note down exactly what notes I played, which essentially is a block diagram of the guitar fretboard. Then later when I am happy that I have documented all my ideas, I can use the tools I mentioned in the previous article to find out what those chords were, so I can create a song sheet.
A few songwriting tips with Blank Guitar TAB Sheets and Chord Charts
A chord chart sheet typically has the bottom 5 frets of the guitar, i.e. the frets closest to the head of the guitar, because that’s where we play most of our basic chords. In the image you will see a Dm7 and note that I have an X on the bottom E string. That’s to remind me that I am not playing that note. This can be particularly helpful if you are playing melodies where you often don’t use all the strings, like plucked chords.
If I am writing chords that are farther up the fretboard, I write the number of the fret next to the lowest note, so that I know where on the fretboard I am playing. I make that note in the gap of the fret, not on the fret itself, because that can be confusing.
Another tip is that when writing multiple verses, if you write the first verse above the chord box, then you can write the second verse underneath and you don’t have to rewrite the same chords twice. This is easier and quicker to write, and it also makes it easier to learn.
You can print off sheets of blank TAB and Chord Charts, but I prefer to use a book that is a pad, with pages you can tear out if you want to, and it is also a way of keeping lots of material in the one place. I often use notebooks for whatever purpose, many unrelated to songwriting and then I can’t remember which notebook I was using or often were I left it, whereas a dedicated pad/book is only for the one purpose.
There are many tools and guitar accessories. The Blank Guitar TAB Sheets and Chord Charts is a valuable one, whether you are writing music, or learning it. For example if you are sitting with another guitarist and are asking them for tips as to how they play something, this will make sure you remember it. There were so many times when I remember learning something from another musician, like Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ and I sat across the table and copied them, but I couldn’t remember all of it afterwards. Using TAB and Chord Charts would have made it easier.
I’ve used sheets printed on computer paper, bound manuscript books, ruled up blank paper, pretty much tried most things. I haven’t found anything better than a pad/book for the reasons I mentioned above. A book will last you a long time, possibly months or even a year and is a great investment.
I promised to tell you about a novel idea I came up with that was very unusual. One day I came up with the idea of composing music based on the mathematical infinite number Pi. I used the boxes in the pad to write down the number, i.e. 3.14159265358 and so on to 220 decimal places. I then took the notes of the scale and gave each note a number, so 1=C, 2=D etc. OK, yes I am a bit of a geek.
When I studied music, I discovered that it is very much akin to maths and Pi is fascinating to me because it never ends. That means you can theoretically compose a piece of music that never ends. Obviously I didn’t finish it.
Initially I wrote a piece based on the rule, that the note corresponding to each number had to be correctly and sequentially used in a note or chord in the composition. I ended up playing it on the keyboard which was less restricting when it came to the chord structure. If you are curious, you can hear it here on Soundcloud.
I hope you found this useful. If you have any other tips with regard to using blank guitar TAB sheets and chord charts, please accept my invitation to leave a comment below this article.