Whether you play electric guitar or acoustic guitar, at some point you’re going to run into power chords. While the concept behind these “chords” has been around for ages, they are a staple of most guitarist’s playing, being used in music of all genres and styles. Here’s a primer to help you understand and form any power chord you want in several different ways.
As you hopefully already know (and if not, take a quick read of “The Power of Three” to give yourself a quick rundown on the basics of chord building), chords typically use the root note, the third note and the fifth note of the major scale in order to have a chord. It’s the third note and the choice of using either the major or minor third that makes a chord sound either major or minor.
Power chords (also known as “5” chords, as in “C5” for example), technically, are not chords. They are simply dyads, a two-note interval composed of the root note and the fifth note of the major scale. Because there is no third, the sound of a power chord is neither major nor minor. It’s ambiguous, if you will, or simply undefined.
However, when you play a power chord on an electric guitar with the distortion cranked up on the amplifier, you generate many overtones that give this neutral “5” chord more depth and tonal color. Depending on the other chords played in a particular progression, power chords can trick the listeners’ ears into hearing them as being either basic major or minor chords. C5 followed by F5 and G5 (used in a lot of Blink 182 songs) sounds major, while going from E5 to G5 and back, as in many Nirvana songs, sounds minor.
While you don’t get the overtones produced by an amplifier on your acoustic, the use of power chords on an acoustic guitar can create a tonal ambiguity that adds to the mood of a song. A great example of this would be the use of the E5 power chord that you can hear in our lesson on “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”
Because power chords use only two different notes, you have many options when it comes to playing them on a guitar. If you only want to play two notes, typically you’d play the root note on either the low E string and the fifth on the A string or play the root on the A string and the fifth on the D string, as in the following chords:
You may pick up on a pattern here: if you can find the root note on either the low E or A string (and provided that you are in standard tuning), the fifth of that root will always be on the next higher string, two frets higher than the root. This pattern will hold for notes on the D and G string as well:
You may already have figured out, too, that being familiar with power chords means that you do have to know where the notes are on your low strings. And many guitarists do learn the placement of notes on their fretboards because of playing power chords.
Power Chords With Three Or Four Notes
Most guitarists tend to play power chords using three strings – one for the root note, one for the fifth and a third for the octave of the root note. When played with the lower root note on the low E or A string, the octave root note will be located on the second higher string, two frets up, as shown here:
Typically a guitarist will play these by using the index finger to fret the low root note, the ring finger to fret the fifth, and the pinky to fret the octave root note. Some guitarists find it easier to flatten out their ring fingers to fret both the fifth and the octave root note.
It’s interesting to note, too, that the fifth of any root note played on the A or D string can be found at the same fret of the low E string (for the roots on the A string) or the A string (for root notes played on the D string). This allows you to play four-note power chords, like this:
The Drop D Shortcut
One way punk, metal, and grunge bands play incredibly quick power chords is by making use of Drop D tuning, which we cover in many articles here at Guitar Noise, such as this one. When you drop the low E string down a full musical step to D, your lowest three strings become D, A, and D, which is a D power chord (“D5”). Consequently, using a single finger (or even your thumb if it’s big enough) to barre the lowest three strings at any fret gives you an automatic power chord, like these:
Going All Out With Power Chords
Once you understand how power chords are formed and what notes are needed to play them, you can also come up with different voicings for them all up and down the neck. Here are some that you may like:
The first two E5 chords are slight variations of the ones you already know. The first is a regular E chord with the G# at the first fret of the G string replaced by the B note at the fourth fret of the G string, which is the same note as the open E string. You’ll hear this used in Gordon Lightfoot’s “Sundown.”
The second E5 (labeled “E5(2)” on the last example) is the “root on the A string” version that you learned earlier, but with the added open B string and both the high and low E strings as well. This chord is used a lot in Tom Petty’s “Running Down a Dream.”
This version of D5 (which is used in “Moon Shadow” by Cat Stevens) is an open position D chord with the F# note at the second fret of the high E string replaced by the A note at the fifth fret of that string. As you might imagine, it sounds even better in Drop D tuning.
The G5 is a little tricky in that you want to mute the A string totally. You can do so either by placing your finger on it lightly, or by slightly flattening out which ever finger is fretting the low E string so that it mutes the A string by touching it lightly.
The final A5 may seem a little strange, but is a form used by Classical and Spanish guitar players quite often. Lay your index finger across the second fret to barre the four thinnest strings (the high E, B, G, and D). Then use your pinky to barre the high E and B strings at the fifth fret. You’ll hear this particular power chord used in songs like “Al Right Now” by Free and it’s also a favorite of Pete Townshend’s, which can be heard in classic Who songs like “The Seeker” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”
I hope you’ve enjoyed this short guide to the world of power chords. Have fun exploring and be sure to experiment with different shapes on your own.