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What are Power Chords and how do you use them?

Updated on January 9, 2016
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What are Power Chords and how do you play Power Chords?

What are power chords? Some guitar players love them and others hate them with a passion. They are simple and they have a simple purpose, so what do power chords sound like? Power chords create a strong sound with mediaeval overtones.Why do guitarists use them then? Power chords are better with overdrive because they are kinder to the human ear. Power chords are also simple to play on the guitar. All these things make power chords the backbone of rock music and on this page I hope to show you how to play them, where to play them and why it is important to play power chords with sensible fingerings!

Intro image of B.C. Rich Red Bevel Warlock Guitar Pack, Black with Red Bevels courtesy of Amazon, otherwise all graphics are my own and should not be copied

Power Chords - Who Invented Power Chords?

Who, who, who, who....

Well the generally accepted theory is that it was Pete Townsend from The Who and it may well have been, but I am sure that there probably were many guitar players around that time experimenting with the whole idea. Jimi Hendrix was making distortion indispensable in rock and blues playing and Tony Iommi and Black Sabbath were making the transition from blues band to inventors of Heavy Metal. Who knows for sure? All I know is those first definitive chords in Baba O'Riley are certainly classic....

Why are they called power chords?

Power chords are not called power chords because they are "big" shapes, in fact they are much smaller than usual chords. They are more properly called Fifth (5) chords, or Diads and can be used on treble strings in lead playing too. The term Power Chord comes from the fact they are useful with greatly amplified and powerful sound! You can play power chords on any harmonic instrument, including piano and keyboard, but they are usually much more useful to guitar players. They could be really helpful with a distorted synth voicing however!

Power chords are pretty much what is expected in modern rock music. One example of a band that makes great use of power chords (and movable major chords too) is The Offspring. One of my favourite Offspring songs to play is Pretty Fly For A White Guy. The moving power chords are great fun!

Consecutive 5th and 8ves are good in rock!

A final note on the theory for now. Playing power chords means you will be using consecutive 5ths and octaves... Anyone who has studied harmony will have been told to avoid these because they are a "waste" of a part or "break the rules of harmony". Power chords sound good though!

Power Chords with Root on String 6 - The conventional fingering....

Power Chord with Root on string 6
Power Chord with Root on string 6

Using correct fingerings for power chords

Yes, there ARE other fingerings for power chords, some of which are easier to play, but this is the best fingering to learn. It is tricky to use your pinky, but if you want to know why it is important it is to avoid strain on the second and third fingers and to free up the second finger for those movable major chords that bands also like to use.

Power Chords with Root on String 5 - Mixing it up to make it easier!

Power Chords with Root on String 5
Power Chords with Root on String 5

Yes, you can slide that one shape up and down the neck, but you do have a lot of frets to cover and it is MUCH easier to mix in some Root 5 Power Chords. An example you might know if you like Nirvana - to play Teen Spirit, you need:

F, Bb, Ab, Db

You could play it with a Root 6 power chord for each at frets 1 then 6 then 4 then 9 but that would be very hard work. Playing the Bb and Db power chords on string 5 makes it MUCH easier.

Power Chords with Root on String 4 - Boosting the mid-range with power chords.

Power Chord with Root on 4
Power Chord with Root on 4

Power Chords with Root on String 4 are not so common these days, but were very popular in classic rock and are useful when you want higher pitched chords to really cut through the mix. It is also a little harder as the tuning diference means you have to stretch that pinky out - but you CAN do it with practice and a correct hand position!

Power Chords are not just for Guitar

The power chord is not limited to the guitar. You can use it on any harmonic instrument. It works especially well on keyboards. Remember combining root and fifth is all a power chord is. It has nothing to do with the instrument it is played on or the use of distortion, it is simply a 5 chord.

Bach to the Swamp - Power Chords on Organ and Guitar

Power Chords - the Theory

What makes up a power chord?

A power chord is a chord with no third. Chords are usually built up with Root (R) Third (3) and Fifth (5) The Root repeated at a higher pitch is called the Octave (8).

So, if I build a C chord from a C major scale (C D E F G A B C) numbering those notes R/1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 a regular major chord would be:

C (R/1) E (3) G (5) C (8)

If I build a C minor chord from a C minor scale (C D Eb F G Ab Bb C) numbering those notes R/1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 a regular minor chord would be:

C (R/1) Eb (3) G (5) C (8)

My diagrams show you Root (R), Fifth (5) and Octave (8) and you will see straight away that the 3rd is missing. This is for two reasons, first of all it gives an easy way to play all chords which is movable on the guitar but second and most important missing out the third gives a much NICER sound when you are playing at high volume with overdrive or distortion. The sound is strong, but lacks the clashing harmonics higher up the scale that have the potential to hurt your ears! Also, because the third (3) is missing you don't need to worry about major or minor and that gives an ambiguous tonality which is great for metal and rock in general.

Power chords are not the only moveable shapes. Learning them with correct fingerings opens up a whole new whole of rhythm playing with moveable chords and barre chords.

The Music Theory - Chords and Power chords - How Chords are Built from Scales (E Root)

Chords, Power Chords and Scales in E
Chords, Power Chords and Scales in E

You can see that to play the chords in this form it is necessary to play the third a whole octave higher! Guitar voicings are much more open than keyboard voicing, otherwise the chords would not be playable on guitar! When we get to chord 7, we need another sharp to make the power chord. All this is TAB so you can play with the chords.

What do you think of power chords?

How important are power chords to you?

See results

© 2011 Lisa Marie Gabriel

I hope you enjoyed this brief introduction to power chords - I can promise you more to come...

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    • savateuse profile image

      savateuse 

      3 years ago

      This is a great introduction to power chords - I look forward to reading more!

    • Paul Ward profile image

      Paul 

      3 years ago from Liverpool, England

      Excellent intro to the subject - I look forward to many more hubs like this.

    • Jimformation LM profile image

      Jimformation LM 

      6 years ago

      Love it!

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      6 years ago

      Very nice and impressive tutorial. Wish I had a better inkling towards music! :)

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