The power chord. If you’re new to guitar, you may not know what it is, but you’ve surely heard it. It’s the sound of rock n’ roll. Power chords have been used to create some of the greatest riffs and chord progressions in rock history. In this lesson we’re going to look at the basic power chords on guitar, from construction to the various ways they’re played.
Let’s get rockin’.
What Are Power Chords?
Power chords are two-note chords that have a unique quality to them in that they are neither major nor minor chords. To understand why this is, let’s take a look at how the power chord is constructed.
Building the power chord
The power chord breaks the standard definition of a chord. Traditionally, chords are comprised of three notes: root, 3rd, and 5th. If the terms root, 3rd, and 5th are a little foreign to you, check out the lesson on guitar intervals to gain a better understanding.
In short, root, 3rd, and 5th refers to the scale degrees from which the notes are taken. If we take the C major scale for example, this would refer to the notes C, E, and G.
The third degree of a chord determines whether the chord is major or minor. In the case of C major, it has a major third, so the chord is major. If we were to lower the 3rd degree of the chord to E♭, it would be a minor chord.
The power chord, on the other hand, is comprised of only two notes: root and 5th.
In the case of C major from above, the C major power chord would contain the notes C and G only.
The power chord omits the 3rd degree, which means power chords are neither major nor minor. If played over a major chord progression, they tend to take on a major chord feel. If played over a minor chord progression they take on a minor feel.
Power chords are notated via the root note and a 5, representing the 5th: G5, A5, D5, etc.
Now that you have an understanding of what a power chord is, let’s take a look at the common ways to play it on the guitar fretboard.
Power Chord Shapes
Power chords are really easy to play on the guitar. Since the chord only contains two unique notes, there are only a few shapes you really need to know.
Important to note is that all of these shapes are moveable, so you can play any power chord up and down the neck by moving to a different root note.
In the 3-note power chord, the root note occurs twice as both the bass root and octave are played.
The diagrams below outline the common shapes of the power chord with the root on the 6th, 5th, and 4th strings. You’ll notice the 6th and 5th string shapes are exactly the same.
The 4th string, on the other hand, is a bit different. Because the B string (2nd string) is tuned a 1/2 step lower relative to strings 3-6, the second root is moved up one fret.
Sometimes, instead of stacking the chord as root, 5th, root, the chord is played as just the root and 5th. I typically use this variation when having to move quickly between chords or if I’m looking for a bit thinner sound out of the chord.
Below are some recommended fingerings for the power chord and its variations. If the chord is stacked root, 5th, root, I prefer the 1-3-4 fingering. It allows me to play a little cleaner. If the stack is root, 5th only, I prefer the 1-4 fingering as it allows me to play cleanly and shift the chord up and down with a bit more ease.
With that said, there is no wrong way to finger them. Use whatever is most comfortable and works best for you.
1 = index finger, 2 = middle finger, 3 = ring finger, 4 = pinky
Inverted Power Chords
An inverted chord is when a note other than the root note is in the bass position (lowest note) of the chord. In the case of the power chord, this would be when the 5th is in the bass position. This makes much more sense when you see it visually, so let’s take a look at a few diagrams.
Inverted Power Chords – 2 notes
Below are 2-note power chords with the 5th as the bass note on strings 4, 5, and 6.
Inverted Power Chords – 3 notes
The diagrams below show 3-note power chords with the 5th in the bass position of the 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th strings.
Inverted Power Chords – 4 notes
Below are the 4-note inverted power chords with the bass 5th on the 4th, 5th, and 6th strings.
These inverted power chords tend to have a heavier, more full sound to them. You’ll see these more often used in heavy metal than probably any other genre of music.
Power Chord Progressions
Let’s take a look at a few song examples to get you playing some power chord progressions.
Smoke on the Water – Deep Purple
Super easy iconic chord progression. This is a great example of using 2-note inverted power chords.
View Tab: Smoke on the Water – Deep Purple
Iron Man – Black Sabbath
Another icon power chord progression. This one uses the 2-notes version of the standard power chord.
View Tab: Iron Man – Black Sabbath
I Wanna Be Sedated – The Ramones
For examples of 3-note power chords you can probably look to any punk song, so what better example to use than I Wanna Be Sedated by The Ramones.
View Tab: I Wanna Be Sedated – The Ramones
Power chords on guitar differ from standard chords in that they only contain the root and 5th instead of the root, 3rd, and 5th. The chords are notated using the root note with a 5 beside it: G5, A5, D5, etc. They can be played up and down the neck using the shapes in the diagrams above.
Power chords are versatile because they can used with major and minor progressions. A good way to practice is by taking chord progressions you already know and playing them as power chords.