A lot of classic and modern Rock guitar riffs have their foundation in power chords. But what are guitar power chords and how do you play them? Well, in the following article we will discuss everything you need to know about these easy to learn and fun chords.
I’d like to start off with giving you a little bit of background on this rather unique kind of guitar chord. We will then discuss in more detail how to learn them and look at a few popular songs with power chords. Last but not least, I have a chart with power chords available for free which you can download right from here. Oh, and I want to share a couple of additional good resources for you to learn more about power chords.
As usual, below is an overview of the topics that we will cover in this article. For easy navigation, you can just click on the topic of your choice, even though I recommend that you read the entire article. No worries, I tried to make it as entertaining as possible and you’ll be able to take a break here, because I put a couple of videos together for you.
1. Introduction and History
Who invented the power chord? The answer is: I have no idea. But others do, at least they claim they do. For instance, some people are convinced that Pete Townshend of The Who deserves to get all the credit. Well, while I like Pete and The Who, I have my doubts that he actually invented power chords. With that being said, undoubtedly, he had a rather unique way of playing them by using his signature ‘windmill -strum’, hitting the strings pretty hard.
Others point at blues greats Willie Johnson and Pat Hare who supposedly had been using power chords on several recordings in the early 50ies.
Well, let’s put it this way. For me personally, I really don’t care about the whole who invented power chords question, because I don’t think there will ever be a definitive answer. However, I think it’s fair to say that there is no or very little ambiguity that certain guitarists are intrinsically linked to power chords. One of whom is Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath. Tuning the guitar down and using ultra-light strings are a typical Iommi trademark – however, and arguably more importantly, in order to create an even richer and fuller sound, Tony came up with the idea of adding vibrato to power chords. We will watch a video on power chord vibrato a little later where I show you exactly what that is and how you can use it.
Of course, Tony is not the only prominent example of a guitarist and the use of power chords. In Rock, and all of its sub-genres, power chords are virtually omnipresent.
2. What Is A Power Chord?
It’s actually quite interesting, because I don’t think the debate as to whether or not power chords should be considered real ‘chords’ in the first place, is still ongoing. I’m not savvy in music theory, so forgive me if the following is not 100% correctly articulated – but I think in general when we use the word ‘chord’ we think of three or more notes played at the same time. I will not go into harmonic relations, etc. , for the purposes of our discussion, let’s just agree that a chord typically consists of three different notes (or more).
Now, as for power chords, we only need two notes, not three. Typically, we use the index finger to play the root note and the ring finger (some prefer the pinky) to play the 5th. Alternatively, you can add an octave. Here is an example of an A-Power Chord (A5) with and without the octave.
Wikipedia did a nice job in explaining the theory of power chords in more detail. Click here for more info.
You can also play guitar power chords with a so called ‘bare fourth’. A good example for that is Deep Purple’s Smoke On the Water riff which is played that way. I will show you what I mean in the video we’re about to watch.
3. Video Discussion: What Are Power Chords
Alright, I put two videos together for you. In the first one, I will essentially just show you everything we discussed in the previous chapter, meaning how to actually play power chords on guitar. And in the second video, I demonstrate the power chord vibrato, which is a crucial technique if you’re – like me – addicted to early Sabbath tunes; but even if you’re not, it’s definitely something you should look at, because it’s a great way to give even more punch to a power chord.
4. How To Learn Power Chords
Alright, now that you watched the two power chord video tutorials, I’d like to highlight a couple of things that I feel are important as you learn this type of chord and think about how to incorporate them into your guitar playing.
Strictly from a fingering perspective, power chords are easy to learn and to play. However, even easy chords require proper execution and therefore practice. I’m not a stickler or perfectionist by any means, but I do believe that there’s value in at least trying to play a chord (or anything on guitar, for that matter), the way it’s supposed to be played. So, let me just quickly touch upon a couple of important Guitar Power Chord Tips & Tricks.
We talked about what to do with the fingers of your playing hand in order to “build” a power chord. So, depending on if you prefer to keep things super simple and play your power chords with two fingers only (root and fifth) or with three fingers (root, fifth and octave), you now know where your fingers need to go. However, let’s take a closer look at the index finger, because it does more than just playing the root. It actually also mutes all strings underneath to prevent them from ringing freely (other than the ones needed for the fifth and octave).
Let’s look at the G-Power Chord (G5) for example. You would put your index finger in the third fret on the low E-String. The ring finger (or any other finger) would go on the A-String in the fifth fret. So, you got your low E-String and the A-String covered – however, while he the tip of your index finger is busy with playing the E-String in the third fret, the rest of it (the lower part of the finger) is also slightly touching all other strings. This prevents the D, G, B and high E-String from ringing if your were to hit them inadvertently with your strumming hand.
While not a necessity, power chords go hand in hand with heavily distorted guitars. Heavy gain and distortion come with background noise that needs to be controlled. We already discussed one mitigating factor above, the role of your index finger in muting the strings which are not part of the chord. However, your strumming hand can also add some additional level of control. Whether or not that’s necessary depends on your personal preference and whatever you feel is conducive to the tune your playing. I’m talking about a technique that is called “Palm Muting”. As the name suggest, you would use the palm of your hand to mute the strings that you hit. Obviously, the effect is that they won’t keep ringing after you struck them. That way you get a short, accentuated chord vs. a rather blurry mix. There is nothing wrong with the latter, it might be very well exactly what you wanted. But it could also completely butcher a power chord riff, depending on the song your playing.
Let me explain Palm Muting and Power Chords in a short video:
Again, this is not about getting things 100% perfect all the time. Though, while power chords, as I had mentioned already, are considered easy to play, you should give them the same level of attention – yes, I mean quality practice – that you would give an open C-Major chord or an F-Major. When you learn a powerchord based riff, start out slowly. Think about whether it makes sense to to palm mute your strings – it may or may not be appropriate.
You probably know that already, but just to bring up an example for illustration purposes: let’s just briefly go back to Smoke on the Water. We all know the riff. But we also know that sometimes it sounds better than other times. Why is that? Sure, it could be the sound of the guitar or amp, but let’s put that aside for a moment. You could have several guitarist using the exact same equipment and playing the exact same riff – yet, there is a noticeable difference depending on the player. This all comes down to execution. I’ve heard people covering that song and it sounded awesome – and I’ve seen it going down the exact opposite way and it was an ear-sore. Because, the fellow guitarerro hit the strings way too hard, the timing was off or he had never heard about muting your strings. All this may sound very abstract to some of you, other will know exactly what I mean by all that.
The bottom line is; the longer you play guitar, the more it will become apparent to you that proper execution is more than just knowing where to put your fingers and which strings to play. It takes practice and you need to develop an ear for these things, which will come over course of time.
5. Easy Power Chord Songs
There’s really tons of them. I wouldn’t even know where to start. But just to give you some pointers:
The Kinks – You Really Got Me
Black Sabbath – Iron Man
Nirvana – Smells Like Teen Spirit
Deep Purple – Smoke On The Water
Here’s a quick video with some examples an later on I will share a online resource with you with more powerchord based riffs/songs:
6. Power Chord Chart
I have downloadable, printable power chords chart pdf document. I found this online and I’d like to give credit to its creator Roy Barnett at Guitar-Skill-Builder. It’s a concise and handy document to look-up power chords quickly. There are obviously tons of other power chord charts out there but I like this one best. It’s not necessarily the prettiest thing, but it is concise and handy. I’ll send it to you (yes, it’s free, of course) – just click here and follow the instructions.
7. Summary and Resources
Good, I think we got everything covered. At this point, it’s all up to you. Tune your axe and get going. Riff around, do covers, write your own power chord songs. I harped on thing such as proper execution and control – and I believe all that is very important, no doubt. But ultimately, it’s about having fun and enjoying guitar playing, right?
Okay, just a couple of additional resources that you may want to look into to get some additional information on how to play power chords on guitar:
Ultimate-Guitar: a great website with tons of tabs and lessons. Here is a link where they cover power chords in a short beginners lesson.
Guitar God In 90 Days: the title of this website is a little funny, because I think it would take a little more than 90 days of guitar playing to be considered a Guitar God – but I digress. Anyway, great job of putting a nice compilation of power chord song videos together that you can look at by clicking here.
EarMonk: Some great power chord tutorials with tabs and videos!
So, that’s it. I hope you found this helpful, but if you have any questions, just leave a comment below or contact me directly.