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Andrew Cockburn
Power Chords


In this lesson we are going to take a look at something near and dear to all of us - Power Chords. Power chords fit into this series nicely at this point, because they are more than intervals, and less than chords! If you haven't done so already, I suggest you check out the earlier parts of this lesson to understand the concepts of degrees of the scale and intervals as we'll be using those some more in this lesson.

What are they?

As I intimated above, a power chord does not even qualify as a chord in the traditional sense of the word. In musical terms, a power chord consists of the 1st and 5th of the scale played together, so it is actually a 5th interval, not a chord. In a lot of cases we double up the root note and play 3 notes, a Root, 5th and Octave, but the root and octave are the same note so it does not qualify as a triad. Now, that rather dry description doesn't really convey the ... power... of power chords. Since we are using only 1st and 5th notes, the resonance and intervals set up are extremely clean and consonant. Musically the 5th interval is a simple ratio, which tends to be easier on the ears. The result of this is that power chords are clean and very strong, providing a very powerful basis for riffs - they are unlike any other chords in this regard, which are harmonically more complex, which means that they are also less pure and therefore less able to cut through to the heart of a song or riff.

Power chords are also interesting in that they are ambiguous as to function. You can play a given power chord in a minor or major context because the sparseness of the notes guarantees that it will fit in. To differentiate between minor and major, in chordal terms we must put in some flavour of 3rd note - a minor 3rd, or a major 3rd - no prizes for guessing which function each has! Since it has no 3rd, the power chord fits neatly over each chord and scale type, and its perfect interval gives it a powerful balanced sound ideal for certain types of music. It is also the true that power chords work better than fuller chords when used with distortion - this is because, as a perfect interval, it has that simple ratio between the notes. More complex ratios such as 3rds tend to be processed by distortion in a more complex way adding undesirable artifacts that muddy up the sound and make it sound much more dissonant. So even though a power chord isn't really a chord, we guitarists love them because they fit in anywhere and sound great with the gain cranked up!

So, they are clean, powerful and extremely versatile as they can be used in a Minor or Major context, but how do we play them?

Power Chord Shapes

There are a huge number of different power chords - remember, we just need an arrangement of notes that includes a 1st and a 5th, and optionally the octave note. This gives us a large number of possibilities from gut-wrenching bass laden chords, to strident high chords. Lets look at a few of the different options. In each case, I'll give you the lowest possible variation of the chord, and you just have to slide the chord up until the root note is the chord you want to play. When writing down chord symbols, we usually refer to a power chord as a "5" chord - e.g., C5, or G5, to denote the fact that they contain a 5th interval. Although many other chords include a 5th interval without it being called out as anything special, in the power chord the 5th is the only interval so we make a fuss about it smile.gif

We'll start with the simplest variations, I'll show the 3 note versions, but in any of these apart from the last you can drop the highest note without changing the chord type at all.

Starting on the E string with the lowest of power chords, the E5 chord:

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Next, we move up a string to get A5:

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These first two power chords work particularly well in a progression together, because in the key of E, E would be the tonic or root, and A would be the 4th - this would give us a I,IV progression which is a common chord sequence, and easily played using these two power chords in one after the other. Sliding the A5 up 2 frets also gives us B5 which is the 5th - another very common chord and in fact with I,IV and V you can play a lot of songs.

The chords used so far have a fair amount of bass presence to them, and are used a lot in metal riffs at various places on the neck. If you want to go for some higher sounding power chords, there are a few more options. Lets start with the D string and work up - this gives us a D5:

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Starting on the G string gives is G5:

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And finally, the highest power chord we can get starts on the B string, and is called B5:

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Those are the basic shapes, but we can start adding other 5th and octave notes to give an even fulller sound - here are a couple of my favourites:

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Drop D Tuning

This is a trick used by metal players to get an even deeper sound. A regular guitar's 6th string is tuned to E. When you couple that with a B on the 5th string to make a power chord, that gives you the lowest deepest option you can get - an E5. If you tune your 6th string down to D, and use an open A string along with it, you get a power chord that is 2 semitones deeper - a D5. Some of the deepest bassiest riffs are produced this way. Also, when you do this, your low power chord shape looks like this:


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It is a very simple bar, making it easier to play more complex riffs up and down the neck.

Smokin'

Ok, lets take a quick look at a piece of music that uses some power chords - our old favourite Smoke on the Water. I have tabbed out the first few chords. As you can see, it is in G minor, which means it starts off with a chord of G5, which in this case is played using the very first shape I showed you, moved up 3 semitones. All of the remaining chords are that same shape, moved up and down the neck, giving you an idea of what you can do with one simple chord!

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That's all for now - questions on the forum as usual!
megadeth1117
awesome lesson

as a metal player this lesson was very essential

quick question, does this refer to inverted power chords also?
Andrew Cockburn
Glad you liked it smile.gif

The theory for inverted power chords is exactly the same, you just play with the ordering of the notes so that the root note isn't the lowest. For instance, you could take one of the fuller E string based shapes and play starting on the A string, so you wouldn't get the root note as the lowest note of the chord, but you would still have it in the chord on a higher string.

Thats what inverting a chord, or using different inversions of a chord actually means; playing the notes in a different order.
megadeth1117
QUOTE (Andrew Cockburn @ Aug 11 2007, 11:36 PM) *
Glad you liked it smile.gif

The theory for inverted power chords is exactly the same, you just play with the ordering of the notes so that the root note isn't the lowest. For instance, you could take one of the fuller E string based shapes and play starting on the A string, so you wouldn't get the root note as the lowest note of the chord, but you would still have it in the chord on a higher string.

Thats what inverting a chord, or using different inversions of a chord actually means; playing the notes in a different order.

thanks, i get it

your theory lessons are very helpful cool.gif
Andrew Cockburn
QUOTE (megadeth1117 @ Aug 12 2007, 03:50 AM) *
your theory lessons are very helpful cool.gif


You are obviously a very intelligent and discerning person laugh.gif
Mrblomme
Thx for the lesson Andrew, I allready knew some powerchords but this helps a lot.
eddiecat
QUOTE (Mrblomme @ Jan 4 2008, 08:42 PM) *
Thx for the lesson Andrew, I allready knew some powerchords but this helps a lot.


Also, check out Muris' "Advanced Power Chords Lesson"!!!

Eddie
FretDancer69
Hey andrew, nice lesson, im reading right now and i have a doubt as i read, its something about Sheet notation that always confuses me. For example, the D5 Powerchord that you show in the lesson, is tabbed and written in sheet music like this:



Ok, so its a D5, D = Root Note, and A = 5th.

But what about this "Powerchord" ? :


E|----------
B|----------
G|---------
D|------------
A|---12--------
E|---10----------

OR


E|----------
B|----------
G|---------
D|---7--------
A|---5--------
E|-------------


they are still D5 Powerchords, but i dont think we write them the same way in music notation. How can i know which way to write it? Do i have to memorize the location of every D from the fretboard in the sheet music? If thats the answer then im doing good, ive been doing that for a while but im just curious. Thanks.
Andrew Cockburn
All 3 are written the same in music notation - music notation doesn't care that on a guitar we can play the same note in several different places so it doesn't have a way to include that information (tab does of course). That means that when you are playing from sheet music in a lot of cases you have several options for the fingering.
FretDancer69
QUOTE (Andrew Cockburn @ Jan 17 2008, 06:37 AM) *
All 3 are written the same in music notation - music notation doesn't care that on a guitar we can play the same note in several different places so it doesn't have a way to include that information (tab does of course). That means that when you are playing from sheet music in a lot of cases you have several options for the fingering.


i see, but certainly those chords sound different. Ive read somewhere that really skilled sight readers can even listen to the melody/progression by just looking at the notes. How is this possible, in this case, if these chords are written the same but sound differently?
Andrew Cockburn
QUOTE (FretDancer69 @ Jan 17 2008, 03:28 PM) *
i see, but certainly those chords sound different. Ive read somewhere that really skilled sight readers can even listen to the melody/progression by just looking at the notes. How is this possible, in this case, if these chords are written the same but sound differently?


They are all the same notes, in each case, just played on different strings. They may sound a little different in timbre but they are all the same notes.
FretDancer69
QUOTE (Andrew Cockburn @ Jan 17 2008, 04:48 PM) *
They are all the same notes, in each case, just played on different strings. They may sound a little different in timbre but they are all the same notes.



Ok, thanks Andrew smile.gif
Compound9
Hi im new to this site. My theory has always been lacking, I could never get my head round it all. Im going through your theory lessons and the way you've explained things so far is great, im learning loads.

Just one thing though, and I dont want to sound as though im being picky but this one thing doesnt make sense to me. maybe its a typo, maybe im understandaing it wrong...


QUOTE (Andrew Cockburn @ May 6 2007, 11:14 PM) *
Power Chords



Starting on the E string with the lowest of power chords, the E5 chord:

Next, we move up a string to get A5:

These first two power chords work particularly well in a progression together, because in the key of E, E would be the tonic or root, and A would be the 5th - this would give us a I,V progression which is a common chord sequence, and easily played using these two power chords in one after the other.


I thought that in the Key of E, E would be the tonic and B would be the 5th, and A would be the 4th.

However if this read:

These first two power chords work particularly well in a progression together, because in the key of A, A would be the tonic or root, and E would be the 5th - this would give us a I,V progression

would that be right? or am i being retarded?

many thanks
Andrew Cockburn
Absolutely right and well spotted ! A is of course the 4th, B would be the 5th - I fixed it. Your example is also right though, if you flip it, E is the 5th to A.
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