Power Chords (lesson)

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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:


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 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:


Starting on the G string gives is G5:


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


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:



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:


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


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!


That's all for now.