For both beginner and professional guitarists alike, power chords are a mainstay in hard rock, punk and heavy metal music. Their popularity and widespread use are the result of two key characteristics: they sound cool and they’re easy to play! This blog will introduce you to the following elements of power chords:
- What is a power chord?
- Why are power chords so popular in rock, punk and metal?
- What are the open and moveable power chord shapes?
- What are some great songs that use power chords?
What is a Power Chord?
A power chord is just a simplified version of a regular open-position or barre chord. The simplification is the result of only playing the lowest two or three strings of the full chord. For example, instead of playing an open E chord using all six strings, an E power chord only uses the bottom two or three strings.
The use of two or three strings is generally based on the preference of the guitarist and the context in which they’re playing. For instance, if there is a rhythm guitarist playing as an accompaniment, then the lead guitarist usually only plays two strings so as not to create too much sonic overlap which can cause a loss of musical clarity. If the lead guitarist is just playing along with a bassist and a drummer, then a three-note power chord is useful for a fuller sound.
Whether or not you play a two or three-string power chord, the key thing to understand is that you’re playing only two notes of the full chord and they’re always five steps apart. For that reason, power chords are written with the note name followed by the number 5. Using an E5 power chord to make this point more clear, the lowest three notes are an E on the open 6th string, a B on the 2nd fret of the 5th string and another E on the 2nd fret of the 4th string. The third note of any power chord (in this case an E) is the same pitch as the first root note, just at the next higher octave.
Check out the image below if you’re more of a visual learner like me. And if you’re not familiar with chord charts, make sure to read my article on this important topic first.
Because power chords use only two musical notes (the first and the fifth notes of the scale), they are neither major nor minor in their tonality. This means that they sound great no matter what key the song is being played in or what scale is being using for soloing.
Why Are Power Chords So Popular in Rock, Punk and Heavy Metal?
Anytime something combines practicality and coolness, it’s probably going to be popular. There’s a reason why classic muscle cars are still so popular decades after they stopped being produced. A ’65 Mustang can take you from Point A to Point B (practical) and anyone driving it looks pretty good cruising down the road (cool). Power chords are sort of the same thing.
They’re practical because when playing heavily overdriven or distorted sounds through a guitar’s amp, a full five or six-string chord can sound quite muffled and non-musical. At its worst, it can just sound like noise. So limiting the sound to just two notes of the chromatic scale keeps the screaming distortion sounding musical. And because they only involve the lowest and heaviest strings on your guitar, they produce deep bass-driven sounds that are essential for hard rock, punk and heavy metal music.
Open and Moveable Power Chord Shapes
Like any regular chord, power chords can be played in open position, or moveable up or down the fretboard like barre chords. Below are chord charts for the most common power chord shapes, both open and moveable.
Open Power Chord Shapes – 2 Strings
Open Power Chord Shapes – 3 Strings
When it comes to moveable power chords, they are all based on open E or A chord shapes. Because the chord charts shown below are positioned starting at the first fret, they produce F and B flat chords respectively. In both cases below, the lower finger positioning on either the 6th or 5th strings are merely replicating the function of the nut on open chords, but further up the fretboard.
Moveable Power Chord Shapes – 2 Strings
Moveable Power Chord Shapes – 3 Strings
Start Rocking with Power Chords!
Have fun practicing these cool power chord shapes. They enable any beginning guitarist who loves hard rock, punk and heavy metal to start playing songs quickly without having to know too much theory or have the most dexterous hands. Showing this rapid progress should hopefully inspire you to continue learning and loving to play guitar because if you can pull these off, you’ll be on your way to learning more advanced skills and learning even more great songs.
Below are a few good examples of great songs that are based on simple power chord progressions. Check out two of my favorite online sheet music and tabs sites, www.musicnotes.com or www.songsterr.com to get the tabs for easy guitar.
- AC/DC – TNT
- Deep Purple – Smoke on the Water
- Black Sabbath – Iron Man
- Nirvana – Smells Like Teen Spirit
- The Kinks – You Really Got Me
- Blink 182 – All the Small Things