If you’re reading this you’ve probably recently started to learn the guitar. You may have learnt some open chords and perhaps used them to play a few songs. You might have heard about power chords and thought, what’s that all about? This post on power chords for beginners will explain what they are and how they can be used.
If you can understand power chords you can exponentially increase the amount of songs you can play. The good news is that it’s not that complicated and you don’t even need to understand the theory behind them. Want to find out more? Let’s continue.
Introduction to Power Chords
When learning open chords, you’ve probably distinguished between major and minor chords. Power chords are a strange breed because they’re neither major nor minor. Essentially that means they have a lot of flexibility.
Power chords are great when used with distortion, which makes them the staple of heavier rock styles like metal, but they’re also used in punk, ska and pop-rock too. They became popular in the 1960’s when amplifiers became capable of delivering more distorted tones.
It’s no exaggeration to say that some bands have enjoyed long careers playing songs entirely made up from power chords. You can certainly play a wide range of songs, but it’s important not to neglect other things such as technique and learning the fret-board. Now that I’ve delivered a health warning about power chords, let’s find out how to play them.
How to Play Power Chords
You don’t need to understand the theory behind them, but here it is anyway. In their purest form power chords are made up of just two notes. The first is the “root” note, which gives the power chord it’s name. The second is the “fifth” note. This is the note that’s a perfect interval of 5 above the root note. For example, if you were playing a G power chord, the root would be G and the fifth would be five notes higher, which would be an D. That’s all the theory there is to it, thank goodness!
If you look at guitar tab or sheet music you might see power chords specifically labelled. For example a G power chord would be labelled as G5 (representing the root and fifth). Here’s an example of a G power chord.
To play the G5 power chord, place your index finger on the third fret of the low E string and your ring finger on the fifth fret of the A string. Give that a strum. Want to know a secret? If you keep the same shape but move the whole thing up two frets, you have an A power chord. Move it up a further two frets and you have a B power chord. Move it up another fret and you have a C power chord. In fact you can use that same shape to play any power chord!
You might not want to slide from the G5 power chord on the third fret right up to the C5 power chord on the eighth fret. The good news is you don’t have to. The shape also works with the root note on the A string and the fifth on the D string. All you need to do is find the root of C on the A string, which is the third fret. The fifth is the seventh fret on the D string. Voila, you have your C5 power chord, right underneath the G5 power chord.
The only thing you need to be aware of when playing power chords with the root on the A string is that you’ll need to mute the low E string. You can do this by resting the tip of your index finger against the low E string so that it doesn’t ring out. Alternatively you can block using your thumb, although I’d recommend muting with your index finger if you can.
You can beef up a power chord by adding another root note. Thankfully this is really easy to achieve. All you need to do is use your little finger to play the note directly under the fifth note. Let’s take the G5 power chord for example. The additional root note sits on the fifth fret of the D string. This is the same as the root note, but one octave higher. Therefore our G5 power chord is now the third fret on the low E string, the fifth fret on the A string and the fifth fret on the D string.
This shape will also work with the root on the A string. You can actually use these shapes on higher strings (with a slight variation when playing the root note on the G string), but you tend to lose the bass punch, which is one of the biggest attractions of power chords.
Not only are power chords simple, they’re used in thousand of songs by countless bands. Think of any Blink 182 song. It’ll definitely use power chords. Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana? Power chords. You Really Got Me by The Kinks? Power Chords.
Even some iconic riffs, like Deep Purple’s Smoke On The Water uses a form of power chords. Here they’ve removed the lower root note leaving just the fifth and the higher root note. Why not try the riff to Smoke On The Water? Here’s a link to the tab.
Focusing on the low E and A strings you can find any power chord you might want to play. Here’s an image of a fret-board with the notes of the E and A strings populated from the first to the twelfth fret.
Once you’ve found the root note required you can construct your power chord. It’s actually a good way to learn the notes of lower strings. The fact that the shapes don’t really change means you’ll be able to memorize where each power chord resides without too much trouble.
Pros & Cons of Using Power Chords
You’ve probably noticed that open chords sound a bit out of place when using distortion, especially if you’re using a lot of distortion. That’s where power chords really make a difference. Not only do they sound great, but they’re very user friendly thanks to their simplicity.
Although they’re simple to use, you can construct some reasonably complex progressions. The introduction phrase of Basket Case by Green Day for example is made up exclusively of power chords. However complexity is introduced by the palm muting pattern and the speed of chord changes.
Power chords aren’t great for cleaner styles of music, such as folk and country, which rely on sweeter open chord progressions. Using power chords in these styles will lower the tone, like turning up to a black tie event in shorts and flip-flops.
As previously mentioned, it’s a good idea to purposefully step away from power chords from time to time to ensure that you’re not neglecting other important factors such as technique. You can write a song using just power chords, but unless you’re able to combine them with a riff you might just end up creating a wall of noise. So make sure to keep practicing your scales!
Learning to play power chords is like an amazing “a-ha” moment for many guitarists. It opens up a world of possibilities not only for expanding your repertoire but also for writing songs. Their simplicity and flexibility makes them a handy tool for any guitarist. If you can identify the notes on the low E and A strings you’re a third of the way to learning the fret-board too, which will pay untold dividends as you continue your journey.
I hope you’ve found this post useful. Feel free to leave any comments or questions below. Alternatively you can get in touch using my contact page. Have fun exploring the wide world of power chords and as always happy strumming!