So you want to find out about power chords? You’re in the right place.
In this guitar lesson, I’ll cover what a power chord is, a bit of music theory behind power chords, and how to play them. Basically this article is a one stop shop for all things power chord related.
Before I get into it, know that although pretty essential to Rock guitar, power chords are also pretty easy. You’ll probably find them easier than most of the open guitar chord shapes as well as easier than barre chords. But (and it’s a big but), get comfortable with the full chord shapes before learning power chords. The full chords may be more difficult, but they’re worth learning properly.
What Is A Power Chord?
I’ll provide full diagrams and instructions on how to play power chords at the end of this lesson, but, when playing a power chord, you’re basically playing the lowest three notes of an E shape or A shape guitar chord.
Power chords are a simple and quick way of playing a chord. They also sound great with distortion so they lend themselves to rock music. Power chords can be chunky and really add some weight to a song. They’re fun!
Why Should I Use Power Chords?
As mentioned, power chords work well with distortion, so they’re great for Rock and any kind of heavy music. Since a power chord is pretty stripped down to the bare basic of what you could call a “chord,” there’s not a lot in there that can get muddled up when there’s a lot more going on in the song. Even though they’re often played through distortion, power chords still remain relatively clear, even when the tone is anything but. At the same time, even though a power chord is a stripped down chord, the addition of the 5th (and the octave) beefs things up enough so you’re not just playing single notes.
In addition to the sound and tone, power chords are fast and easy to play, and they’re easy to move up and down the neck. This allows power chords to be great to use in riffs, especially if you want the riff to be chunkier than just single notes. Listen to the riffs for You Really Got Me by the Kinks or Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana. These songs would be boring with just single notes.
Going further, since a power chord doesn’t have a 3rd, it’s neither major nor minor. While some musicians will say that a power chord isn’t a “true chord” because it’s only two notes, for the sake of this article we’re calling it a chord, and we’re calling it a chord that isn’t major or minor.
Why Shouldn’t I Use Power Chords?
Power chords aren’t the be all and end all of guitar playing. They’re great for a lot of guitar playing, but they’re not great for everything!
As mentioned, although they’re great for distortion, power chords can sound thin in other circumstances. A simple 1-3-5 chord has a lot to say, and a chord with an additional note in it, even your humble seventh chord, has a lot more to say. You lose this with a power chord.
Basically, a power chord shouldn’t be used as an excuse or a replacement for a full chord. Don’t get overly reliant on power chords. Use them as a tool like anything else on the guitar.
Where Did The Power Chord Come From?
Although there are examples of “power chords” in early 2th century classical music, these can be better thought of as 5th chords. They really didn’t come about “properly” until the 1950’s as Blues players started to use electric guitar and Rock music started to develop.
So it was early electric Blues players who really got the power chord going. There’s no written record of the first to use a power chord, but there’s a lot of evidence t suggest that Blues players at Sun Records were early pioneers of the sound. From there, you get Scotty Moore playing power chords with Elvis on Jailhouse Rock and the technique gets moved into Rock ‘n Roll and onwards from there.
How To Play Power Chords
OK, we’re finally here. How do you play a power chord?
Firstly, if you’re looking at a chord chart, you’ll likely see a power chord written as a letter with a 5 after it. For example, a C power chord is written as C5. That’s just easy short hand for a power chord.
Anyway, as mentioned at the beginning of this article, all you’re doing is play the lower three notes of an E or A shape barre chord.
Some people like to play a power chord by fretting two strings with their third finger, rather than using their fourth finger as well. Use what feels comfortable.
Don’t Forget To Mute The Additional Strings
Importantly, don’t forget to mute the strings you’re not playing when strumming a power chord! You can do this with a palm mute on your fretting hand. Just let the palm of your fretting hand rest on the strings you’re not playing. If you’re playing a power chord on the A string, use your first finger to mute the low E string.
This is really important, especially if you’re trying to play power chords at speed. Nothing sounds worse than a power chord with a bum note in it!
You Can Move These Shapes Up And Down The Neck Like Barre Chords
And remember, just like barre chords, you can easily move power chords up and down the neck like a barre chord. Want to play a B power chord? Play it on the 7th fret on the E string or 2nd fret on the A string.
And That’s Power Chords
I’ve tried to cover as much as possible about power chords in this article/lesson. They’re a pretty basic part of playing guitar, especially electric guitar. Hopefully this gets you one step closer to becoming a Rock god!