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Playing the guitar is all about making an art form of physics, bending sound waves to your will to make your songs come into the real world from where you hear them in your brain.
But sometimes your fingers haven’t quite caught up to the patterns in your head, and that’s where power chords come in. They’re a great playing technique to underline the primary tone of the chords in songs that are loud, fast, and heavy, so if you’re ready to melt the faces off your audiences – in a Kirk Hammett kind of way, not like the Nazis from Indiana Jones – power chords are for you.
Before we get into the details about power chords, we have to go back to the technical definition of a musical chord itself. At its most basic level, a chord is a group of notes that are played at the same time. Usually, this will be within the same key to enhance and reinforce the emotions of the chosen scale.
But if you’ve played any form of chord before on your guitar or on another instrument that can play more than one note at a time like a piano, you know that it’s easy to make exceptions to that. It’s done all the time to add tensions, indicate movement into another key or section of the song, or just to make your ear feel slightly uncomfortable in a good way like in jazz.
Power chords are when you play the root and fifth notes of a scale or key at the same time without any other note interval added. They’re most popular in amplified rock music that uses heavy tone distortion, such as heavy metal and punk. That’s because of how amplified distortion makes individual notes sound once it gets done crunching them.
A typical distortion effect will amplify played notes in different proportions than the strength by which they’re struck. In other words, however hard or softly you pluck a string, your distortion effect randomly chooses how much it wants to broadcast it through your amp without much input from you except which note you played. How it does that is some major math wizardry that we don’t have the space to explain here – just trust us that the end results produce what’s called partials. Those are harmonic tones that echo from the original tone’s vibration frequency.
So already even with just one note fed through distortion, you’ve got a depth of tone that includes more soundwaves than you originally played. Add a full chord’s set of three, four, or five notes doing the same thing, and even the most pleasingly ratioed intervals on paper will clash and muddy each other when let loose into the air from your distortion effect.
Power chords are meant to clean up music that wants to stay dirty but comprehensible. When you play only a root note and it’s fifth and runs them both through distortion at the same time, their partials create harmonics that complement each other instead of clashing. Therefore you can play all of the Ramones’ catalogue as distorted as you want without losing what key the songs are supposed to sound like. Thanks, science!
Power chords are structured within a single octave – you won’t need to reach from your third fret to your tenth to make one work, although you can double your octave to create extra oomph. On sheet music, these are indicated with a written 5 under the notes to indicate the interval between the root and fifth tones in the scale you’re working with, or as a chord name indicating no third (for example, C no 3 means a C power chord) when you’re reading chords above lyrics or sheet music for other instruments. You can also play around with whether the fifth tone or the first tone is the bottom note of the chord and have fun with all the combinations in however big an octave span you want to use.
How you finger your power chords depends on how they’re structured, but in basic terms, you will anchor your first tone on a fret of your bass E string with your ring finger, then position your middle and index finger two frets above on the A and D strings. This takes advantage of what feels natural for your fingers as well as where the midtones are on your fretboard. You can move your fingers in the same general shape up and down the fretboard to get to different power chords without having to readjust your fingering.
Another power chord fingering technique is called spidering, and this involves keeping the same two-note interval on your frets while moving which fingers you’re using, instead of moving the same fingers up and down the frets. This was invented by Megadeath guitarist Dave Mustaine in the 1980s to reduce string noise when changing power chords, especially in speed metal and other areas that require extremely quick chord shifts.
One technique that both blues and heavy metal guitar playing have in common is the concept of tuning the bass E string lower to a D so that the first three guitar strings form a chord when openly strummed without any fretting required. Tuning strings to any notes beside their default range of E, A, D, G, B, and E can make playing power chords as easy as pressing one fret down, or even none. Downtuning is done by metal bands for more bass power in chords, and in the blues for easier slide playing technique. Either way means a different, yet usually easier, way to consider how to shape your power chords.
As we mention above, power chords are great for when you want to use distortion without creating a crowd of harmonics, partials, and soundwaves that don’t fight with each other like it’s the last scene in Game of Thrones (no spoilers!).
Because distortion effects are so arbitrary about picking the tones they amplify at different levels, it helps immensely for them to have only two to choose from, and it helps even more than either one of those tones they pick are scientifically proven to complement the other. Power chords are a win-win situation for your distortion use and your overall song.
Classically trained musicians are more inclined to treat power chords as dyads, or a group of two notes consisting of one interval, rather than chords, and one reason is that without a note that represents the third step in a scale, they are technically neither major nor minor in key.
The third interval in a scale is the tone that turns a scale into the more upbeat sound of a major key or the more melancholy one of a minor key; without those, power chords can go either way. However, this is actually a great advantage when played as part of a whole band because the power chord will pick up inflection influences from whatever else is playing with it and amplify them without having to adjust itself.
Classic metal bands have tons of excellent examples of this shape-shifting property that you can hear more clearly than in the speed or thrash metal genres – check out the work of Yngwie Malmsteen, Eddie Van Halen, Steve Vai, and Joe Satriani to get a crash course in the types of key change shifts that power chords can help with.
Don’t let anyone convince you that power chords are lazy shortcuts. There are legitimate reasons they work better than fuller chords in some situations, so you have our permission to shout, “Physics!” if you need to get a snob off your back. That being said, power chords are in fact easier to play for the simple reason that they’re two notes rather than the usual four, five, or six you’re grappling with on a fretboard.
That also means it’s easier to change, easier to play faster, and easier to cram more into a two-minute song or solo. They’re also great for mastering your understanding of tone layering so that you can expand that knowledge to more notes and intervals instead of blindly following chord charts without realizing why they work. Music theory can be a massive pain for those who just want to rock, but it’s essential to evolving your art, especially if you want to write your own songs.
The structure of power chords on a guitar neck makes it easier to jump from playing chords to a run of notes within the scale, which is especially handy if you are heading into a solo. You don’t have to do as many finger gymnastics to get into a position from power chords to single notes, and that can help you rock socks off even better.
The most obvious disadvantage to using power chords is that you don’t get the added richness of extra tones on the scale that will flesh out its sound. Chords have as many varying personalities as the players who use them, but power chords on their own remain somewhat blank.
That’s great if you need them as part of an ensemble or as just the first step in a sound building process, but as solo performers, they don’t have the multi-tonal impact of three or more notes played together unless you’re going for a minimalist sound.
As we’ve said, power chords are a legitimate part of your guitar-playing education. However, they are easy enough to learn and handy enough to use in a lot of songs that they bring a major temptation to not worry about other types of chords. Don’t let that happen to you! Use the bases of your power chords to branch out into what thirds, fourths, and all other combination of tone intervals can do for your playing. Power chords are a healthy part of a balanced music diet.
Power chords come from when the blues went electric, with early Sun Records artists Willie Johnson and Pat Hare recording with the technique in the first part of the 1950s. Power chords were popularized through early rock and roll, most notably in Scotty Moore’s opening to “Jailhouse Rock” (1957) and Link Wray’s use in “Rumble” (1958). Rock and pop music followed through the next decades as these origins evolved into hits like “You Really Got Me” from the Kinks and “My Generation” from the Who.
Artists as diverse as King Crimson and the Ramones also experimented with power chords as they became the hallmark of punks, heavy metals, and others whose songs fed off heavy distortion to get their points across. It has become a hallmark of guitarists who liked to manipulate the math of their playing into emphasis of their songwriting.
Many classical musicians and composers, including those who work with traditional guitar music, consider a chord to need at least three notes to officially be called a chord and that playing only two notes at one time is called a dyad. But within rock and popular music, the two-note interval is accepted as being a chord of the power variety, so both denotations mean the same thing. The name just depends on context.
The video portion of the internet is basically made of guitar tutorials (along with cats doing silly things), so we’ve narrowed down the infinite to a few we’ve found especially helpful.
There you have it – your ultimate guide to what power chords are, how they’re useful, and where to get started on your own journey with them. You’ll be channeling your inner Tony Iommi in no time.