How To Play Power Chords | Quick Beginner Guide
Confused about the best way to play clean power chords? Learn how to play power chord shapes for electric and acoustic guitar
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What Are Power Chords?
Power chords are a type of movable guitar chord shape that contain only two notes. They can be thought of as a simpler 'watered down' version of a barre chord.
These movable chords can be shifted around the fretboard to make countless other chords using the same fingerings.
Played mainly in rock but also used in different styles of music like country, one typical use of power chords on electric guitar is to add an overdriven full-bodied rhythmic blanket of sound.
Power chords are a handy type of chord that all guitar players should have in their tool box.
The Difference Between Power Chords & Barre Chords
The main difference between a power chord and both barre and open chords, is that they're made from just two different note intervals - the root and fifth note of the chord. As a consequence, power chords are sometimes written like this:
"G5". In this example, the 'G' represents the root note and the '5' represents the 5th note.
That being the case, this is what makes power chords particularly special because they sound neither major or minor in sound quality. Major and minor chords on the other hand are made from 3 different notes - the root, 3rd and 5th.
And it is the distance between the root and 3rd note that makes a chord sound either happy (major), or sad (minor).
For those of you who may not know, the interval between the root and third note in a Major chord is a major 3rd, whilst a minor chord contains an interval of a minor 3rd between the root and third.
Power chords don't contain a third note. Only a root and fifth.
Why Learn Power Chords?
Learning new chord shapes is always going to be useful to your overall guitar playing and musical development.
The particular magic with power chords?
Power chord shapes are remarkably versatile thanks to their root and fifth note makeup and they're the building blocks for many other areas of guitar playing.
The Benefits Of Learning Power Chords:
- Power chords sound neither major or minor meaning they are perfect chords to substitute for more complicated chord shapes
- Power chords sound punchy and clear on distorted guitar, whereas complicated chords with complex harmonics can get lost sounding muddy
- Power chords are a great tool to help you work out songs, practice fretboard note location, arrange and write arrangements plus much more
Fair Warning: Whilst many articles will tell you power chords are easy to play, they're tricky to play properly. The trick is to mute the strings that aren't being played so the chord doesn't sound messy. This takes practice.
Power Chord Shape # 1 - Two Fingers
Power chords can be played in any of the 12 keys. For the following chord diagram examples, we're going to use an A5 chord.
This first A power chord shape is played using two separate notes. Your 1st (index) finger plays the root note on the low E string whilst your 4th (pinky) finger plays the 5th note of the chord located on the 5th A string:
A Power Chord Shape Using 2 Fingers
This shape can also be played using the 3rd finger to the play the 5th string note instead of your pinky. However, I wholeheartedly recommend you use your pinky finger at every opportunity to help strengthen it. Your guitar playing will improve in all areas as a result.
Using your pinky finger instead of your 3rd also gives you more finger spread on the lower wider power chords such as F5 and G5.
I Like To Move It, Move It
Want to play another power chord such as a G5? No problem.
All you do is shift this movable A shape down the fretboard one tone till your index finger is playing the G note on fret 3. The G note becomes the new root note, and the new note on the A string automatically becomes the 5th note of the current chord.
Power chord shape notes = A (root) + E (fifth)
Power Chord Shape # 2 - Three Fingers
This next power chord shape still contains only 2 different notes. But wait, the chord diagram shows 3 notes, I can almost hear you thinking.
The deal is, we're still playing a root and fifth note, however, an extra A root note is added in a higher octave:
A Power Chord Shape Using 3 Fingers
The extra root note serves to make the chord sound fuller. Practice muting the unplayed strings by resting your first finger on them just enough to mute them.
More on this plus extra key practice tips towards the end of the article.
Your 1st (index) finger plays the root note on the low E string, your 3rd (ring) finger plays the 5th note on the A string leaving your 4th (pinky) finger to play the octave root note on the fourth string. Your 2nd finger is late to the party and has to hang out getting FOMO on its own:
Power chord shape notes = A (root) + E (fifth) + A (octave)
Power Chord Shape # 3 - Barred Finger
This 3rd power chord shape uses the same amount of notes as the last shape. The difference is, the two higher notes are played by barring your third finger across strings 5 and 4 to play them both.
This fingering will feel tricky at first. You're not alone if you feel like you're struggling. The secret is to practice your barring technique separately.
A Power Chord Shape Using Barred 3rd Finger
Practice Tip: If you're a beginner player who hasn't mastered the barring technique, concentrate on learning the first two power chord shapes and leave this one alone for now.
Like all of the shapes in this lesson, you can move this chord up and down the fretboard to play power chords in any key you wish.
Power chord shape notes = A (root) + E (fifth) + A (octave)
Power Chord 5th String Root Shape
Don't you love movable chord shapes? Here's the 3 finger, 3 note power chord shape shifted across the fretboard to form a 5th string root power chord.
The same note pattern applies - your first finger is playing the root note whilst your 3rd finger plays the 5th and your pinky plays the octave root note.
5th String Root D Power Chord Shape
The trick to cleanly playing a 5th string root power chord is use the top of your index finger tip to mute the low E string.
Never rest your finger tip on the 6th string as you run the risk of accidentally playing it. Instead, lightly touch the underside of the string to deaden it as illustrated here:
Note how the index finger position is so accurate it looks to the untrained eye as if the tip is resting on the string, when in fact it is under it muting the vibration.
Power chord shape notes = D (root) + A (fifth) + D (octave)
How To Play Clean Power Chords
It's not as easy as you'd think playing a chord with just a few notes well. The correct power chord playing technique all comes down to muting the unused strings. Fail to do this and your playing will sound like nails scraping down a blackboard.
To play clean sounding power chords, focus the core of your practice around training your first finger to mute the unused strings. You do this by combining three skills:
- First Finger Ninja: Fret the root note with the tip of your first finger and lightly lay the rest of the finger on the unneeded strings. Be sure to apply minimum pressure on the muted strings. It's pretty awkward to get the correct balance at first, like all things on guitar; practice, practice, practice.
- Guitar Pick Aim: Make sure your guitar pick only hits the fretted strings. Sounds simple, but many beginner players strum away on all 6 strings when first playing power chords and wonder why it sounds bad. Work on accurate strumming hand aim.
- Thumb Position: Keep your thumb on your fretting hand low down roughly in the middle of the back of the guitar neck. It should sit under the middle of the 3 power chord frets. This will help your finger positions.
Practice power chords using just down-strums to begin with. Many songs use 'chuggy' downstroke strumming patterns on power chords, combining palm muting also. Stay tuned for a lesson on how you use the palm muting strumming technique.
It is vital you mute the unused strings when playing power chords as many songs use quick down-strums and up-strums on the shapes.
With that being said, once you nail playing power chord technique, transitioning to playing full barre chords will gradually feel easier for it.
5 Critical Practice Tips
For those of you having guitar lessons, if your guitar tutor is worth their salt they'll have taught you never to practice aimlessly. To get better at playing guitar you need to make your practice sessions productive.
Follow the tips below when you pick up your guitar to work on your power chords to ensure your practise sessions are as effective as possible.
As we've touched on throughout this lesson, when playing a power chord, you should only play the strings you're fretting. Remember to focus on muting the unused strings when you practice and concentrate on playing down-strums only to begin with. Add on up-strums when you feel comfortable.
#2. Set Goals
Your main practice aim is to get the power chords sounding clean and to execute smooth chord changes. This will take patience and daily practice whilst you build up muscle memory and finger strength.
#3. Record Yourself
Recording yourself practicing will help you identify what needs improving. No matter how messy you think the chords are sounding, still record yourself. You'll have a motivating record of your improvement and will cut practice time in half.
#4. Use A Metronome
When you reach the stage of changing between different key power chord shapes, be sure to always use a metronome. If you don't, your timing won't improve. Most people rush their playing but don't realise it. Don't be one of those people.
Using a metronome will help you get consistent perfectly timed chord changes. Make sure you stick your metronome on a slow tempo to start with - 70bpm - and count out loud in 4/4 timing like this: 1 - 2 - 3 - 4. Play a downstrum on beat 1 of the bar, then change chord on beat 1 of the next bar. Try this:
B5 A5 G5
1 - 2 - 3 - 4 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 1 - 2 - 3 -4
#5. Play Along To Songs
The Kinks, Greenday, Metallica, Nirvana....what do they all have in common? Yep, you guessed it, they all love using power chords. Get learning some songs with power chords to practice your new chops.
This stage may take some time to get to if you're a total newbie, but remember, it doesn't matter how slow your chord changes are, you should still practice them using chord progressions in songs.
Summing It Up
Be sure to set aside 5-10 minutes practice every day to power chords. It takes time to get the muted string technique down, and in the meantime don't get disheartened when your playing sounds messy.
Keep the faith, and keep rocking out on those power chords.
If you've got any extra power chord tips you think your fellow guitar players will find useful, let us know in the comments section below.
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