How To Write a Killer Guitar Hook

January 23, 2018

[Editors Note: This was written by Sarah Jacobs.]

The hook is basically what keeps you hooked on a song. It’s a selling point, that group of notes or that phrase that stays stuck in your head and makes you sing, headband, or rock out on your air guitar. Most of the time it’s the first thing that comes to mind when you mention a song’s title, and it’s what most musicians usually start out with when composing as it serves as the foundation for the verses of a song.

Consider the lines “We are the champions,” “I can’t get no satisfaction” and even “Ah, ha, ha, ha – stayin’ alive” – these are all popular hooks that have made their respective songs easy to recall. Of course, it helps that these are also part of the song titles, but not all hooks are in the titles or the chorus. Blur’s “Song 2,” for example, has “Whoo hoo!” that sets off the hook.

Writing for Gibson, Ted Drozdowski says that for guitar players, it’s wise to think of hooks as riffs. Riffs have the power to pull listeners right into a tune – recall the riffs of great guitar players in Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” and Van Halen’s “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” and you’ll see what riffs can do to make a song a hit.

What makes a great guitar hook?

Before you go writing a hook, it’s first important to know what makes a hook a great one. If you listen to the most iconic hooks in music, you’ll notice that they’re all short and easily repeatable. When writing a guitar hook, keep in mind that the longer it is, the harder it is to remember, which defeats the purpose of a hook – so keep your hook short and simple.

Music producer Kim Copeland says that different music genres rely on different types of hooks to sell songs. Country songs, for example, almost always have a story and characters. Country music artists are storytellers, which is why their songs would usually have a hook at the beginning or end of the chorus, or at the beginning or end of each section of verse. A great example is country favorite “Always On My Mind.”

For pop music, a melodic hook is key. The melody is what makes people burst into song, (even if they don’t want to), and what makes earworms stay in our heads seemingly forever. Hooks in pop songs make lyrics singable and hard to get away from – Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” is one song you probably can never shake off because of its catchy hook.

And for rock music, you’ll agree that the most hooky hooks are there at the very beginning, way before you even hear a vocal melody. Copeland mentions AC/DC’s “Back in Black” as a prime example of a song with a killer hook.

So how do you come up with a guitar hook that will get people hooked, keep them listening and make them invested in the song and your music? Let’s look into three different kinds of hooks and what you can do to create them. By the way, you don’t have to stick to just one type of hook in a song – experiment and see which ones work best alone and which would work well together. Let’s get started!

The Rhythm Hook

The rhythmic hook uses a combination of instruments and essentially establishes a beat-rhythm combo upon which a song is built. Many of Stevie Wonder’s hits in the Seventies are built on rhythm hooks, such as “Boogie On Reggae Woman” and “Superstition.” Creating a powerful rhythmic hook involves these steps:

  1. Keep a steady beat by slapping your knee or tapping your foot.
  2. Improvise (sing or hum) a short, catchy 4- or 8-beat rhythm.
  3. Come up with a one- or two-chord progression that sounds interesting when repeated, such as C-Bb, C-Fm7, C-Eb and so on.
  4. Make a bass line where the end connects easily and smoothly back to the beginning of the line. Make sure that this bass line has a catchy rhythm, one that is ideally different in rhythm as the guitar or other instruments.

The Intro Hook

The intro hook is mainly a melodic idea that, as its name suggests, gets established in the first few bars of the song. It is then repeated throughout the song over and over but it isn’t always present – it appears then drops out. Some examples of songs with an iconic intro hook are “Smoke on the Water” and “Moves Like Jagger.” The following steps can help you write your own intro hook:

  1. Think of a catchy rhythm (4 to 8 beats) and base a melodic idea on it.
  2. Stick to the pentatonic scale notes C, D, E, G and/or A (in C major).
  3. Come up with three separate chord progressions to accompany the hook. These chord progressions should be able to function as chorus, verse and bridge progressions.
  4. Let the hook appear and disappear throughout the song.

The Background Instrumental Hook

“With or Without You” by U2 and “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan are two fine examples of songs with great instrumental hooks. The instrumental hook is usually added to an already completed song, and it works well in combination with other types of hooks. Here’s how to create one:

  1. Make a short 2- to 4-beat riff (with a distinctive rhythm) on your guitar. The guitar riff should be able to be accompanied by most chords in the key you’ve chosen.
  2. Focus on using it mainly in the song’s chorus but instead of putting it on top of the chorus lyrics, fit it in and around the lyrics. Think of the instrumental hook as a counterpoint or answer to a chorus lyric.
  3. Let the hook stay in the background, complementing the other hooks you already have.

Now that you’ve come up with a hook (or at least an idea for one that you want to try), get songwriting! Remember to repeat, repeat and repeat – but not too much. Give your song a listen with different hook repetitions and you’ll know when it’s too much so you can adjust and make it just right. Change the rhythm between verses and choruses, or add effects like stuttering and pauses for variety. Lastly, make sure you highlight the hook. Again, the hook is the song’s selling point, so make it easy for listeners to pick out and sing or air guitar along to. Good luck and have fun!

Sarah Jacobs is a blogger at Know Your Instrument.

Tags: featuring guitar guitar hook songwriting