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Power Chords Explained: What They Are, and How To Play
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When learning how to play guitar, you will undoubtedly come across the term “power chord,” especially when playing rock or pop. Despite the grandiose sounding name, this is one of the easiest chords you’ll ever learn.
So what exactly is a power chord? A power chord is a guitar-centric term for a two note chord that includes the root note and a fifth note. The root note designates the key of the chord, and is the first note of the power chord. The fifth is the fifth interval above the root note. On the guitar, it is played with the index finger and the ring finger, usually starting either on the low E or A string. Here is a diagram of the most basic power chord shape:
Once you learn this pattern, you will recognize it in most rock songs that you learn, and you may start to hear it in the music you listen to. You’ll see that it’s the building block of barre chords as well.
A Small Dose of Music Theory
As mentioned above, a power chord is composed of a root note plus a fifth. “Power chord” is a term used solely by guitarists. If you ask a piano player to play a power chord, they may not know what you’re talking about. But if you tell them to play a fifth chord or interval, they should understand.
A power chord on a guitar is a very simple chord, so we will try to keep the music theory to a minimum. But you should know something about intervals in order to understand how the chord is constructed.
If you are familiar with the major scale, you will know that there are seven notes. You can count from the first note of the scale to the last note, and basically, these are your intervals.
The first note of the scale is referred to as the tonic, or in terms of intervals, a perfect unison. This will be the root note of our chord. You may know about the third, which determines whether a chord is major or minor. The fifth note is the fifth interval in the scale. If you combine the first, the third, and the fifth, you have a chord.
Combining just the first and fifth notes, you have a power chord. Technically, it’s neither major or minor, because there is no third.
Power chords are easy to play, and frequently used in rock music. The most basic variation is the first note and the fifth played together, but you can also add an octave of the root note at the top of the chord.
Once again, here is a diagram of a power chord:
And here is an illustration of the power chord with the addition of an octave above the root note:
Power Chord Patterns and Fingering
Power chords are movable chords. They can be played up and down the guitar neck and, and they don’t change their shape. The one exception is when the B string comes into play.
On the E, A, D, and B strings, you will use the standard fingering shown above. Due to the tuning of the guitar, you will need to modify the fingering to account for the B string when playing a power chord starting on the G string (and starting on the D string if you include the octave).
However, most power chords are played on the lowest E string and the A string. It’s less common to play power chords on the G or B strings, but it is good to know the note relationships for other chord applications.
Note that when you play a D chord, the D on the B string is shifted up one fret. This is due to the guitar’s tuning, and it might help you to visualize the patterns as you are moving around the neck. Just think of the B string as the exception.
Power Chords on the Open Strings
You can also play power chords using the open strings. In this case, you just use one finger for the fifth note. The open string is the root note of the chord.
When playing a power chord using an open string, the fingering of the fifth note is going to be a matter of personal preference. But, you should consider your chord progression in order to set up efficient chord transitions, and minimize finger movement from one chord to another.
If you know the notes of the fretboard, or at least some of them, you now know some additional chords! The power chord pattern is movable, and you can use it up and down the guitar neck.
I’ve included a few diagrams of power chords in various positions to get you started. Playing power chords may actually help you learn the notes of the guitar neck. This will be important as you progress to more difficult chords and scales.
Power Chords Starting on the Low E String
By now, you should see that the chord shape remains the same as it moves up the neck. Try moving it around, and experiment with chords starting on the A string as well. If you learn chords on the E and A strings, you will be in good shape to play some rock and roll.
Experiment with chords on the D and G strings too, but keep in mind how the guitar tuning affects the B string. You’ll have to move notes up a half-step, or one fret.
Learn Some Songs
So these chords in and of themselves are kind of boring unless you make music with them. My suggestion is to get comfortable with the chord shape, and then learn some songs.
When I think of rock songs using power chords, Smoke on the Water by Deep Purple comes to mind. Or almost anything by Black Sabbath. Iron Man anyone?
Here’s a list of a few songs featuring power chords to get you started:
- Smoke on the Water by Deep Purple at Fender Play
- Iron Man by Black Sabbath at Justin Guitar
- Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana at Justin Guitar
- Brain Stew by Green Day at Fender Play
- Buddy Holly by Weezer at Fender Play
- You Really Got Me by The Kinks at Justin Guitar
Is a power chord 2 or 3 notes?
The standard power chord is just two notes, a root note, and it’s perfect fifth. You can add the octave above the root note for a bigger sounding chord.
How do you play a power chord?
You play a power chord by hitting the two strings as close to simultaneously as possible. You are not playing the individual strings one after the other, but playing the two notes together. By playing the strings together, the chord will sound full and powerful.
Why do power chords sound good?
The combination of the root note and the fifth is a strong, stable sound that is pleasing to the ear. There is no dissonance or tension in the chord. By omitting the third, you get the unique sound of a perfect fifth. It just sounds good, especially on an electric guitar with some overdrive or distortion.
Why do my power chords sound bad?
If it sounds bad, this is probably due to your finger placement, and how you are fretting the individual notes. Make sure your fingers are pressing down firmly just before the fret. And take care to not touch the other strings with your fingers so that the individual notes of the chord sound clear.
Are power chords and barre chords the same?
No, a barre chord is made by barring all six strings across the neck with your first finger, and constructing the rest of the chord with your other fingers. A power chord makes up the first two or three notes of a barre chord, but is just a two note chord.
Who invented the power chord?
According to NPR, Link Wray invented the power chord.
How many types of power chords are there?
There’s really just one combination of the root note and its perfect fifth. However, if you add alternate tunings and seven string guitars into the mix, there are some additional ways of playing power chords. According to Guitar World and the Gear Gods channel, there are 12 types of power chords. These are still combinations of the same notes. Octaves are added above or below for bigger sounding chords.