Power Chords


As we conclude our coursework dealing with root five and root six movable chords I would like to focus your attention on power chords. When I learned to play guitar in the 70s power chords were synonymous with regular bar chords. Just around that time however, lots of bands were starting to use two note versions of the bar chords, playing the lowest pitched notes in the standard root six are root five bar chord to substitute for the entire chord. These small two note voicings, also called dyads, were far more effective than standard chords for certain applications, and far more musical when played through large loud amplifiers and signal processors such as fuzz, overdrive and distortion.

Although many famous songs have signature guitar parts and guitar hooks comprised of power chords, you'll also find them very useful in creating support or texture when used in conjunction with the standard rhythm guitar parts you are currently working with.

As before, we will play and name the power chords according to which strings their root notes fall on. As is the case for the regular bar chords, power chords come in three basic types: root 6, root 5 and root 4. These three basic types of chords are all based on the common knowledge open string chords E, A and D.

Power Chord Reference Charts

By now you know the drill: root 6 and root 5 thinking is your first line of defense, meaning you should be able to play at least two versions of every chord you know automatically, a root 6 and a root 5 one. The people taking this course are after a musical school experience and in developing professional level skills so it's important that we also be able to quickly find a root 4 version of every chord we play. Obviously, there are an unlimited number of chords on the guitar and there are nmany more than three versions of every chord, but in my systematic approach this is the first level of understanding to attain.

Use the chord reference charts below to reinforce what you have learned so far about playing and naming chords, finding root notes and understanding the neck of the guitar more and more as you do the exercises I have made for you.

As before, play each and every chord in each diagram, pluck the root note, say it's name to yourself and then play the chord. Do the exercise ascending and descending until the names of the chords, their visual shapes and locations are all second nature.

The purpose of these diagrams is to learn the names and locations of power chords wtih their root notes on strings 6, 5 and 4. If you have been taking the lessons sequentially, reviewing the videos and periodically using the interactive training animatons you should have a greater understanding of the mysterious guitar neck. What was once impossible should now ne manageable.

Power Chord Trainer

Below is an interactive training animation which introduces the element of time into your practing and memorizing of chords. To do this exercise, press the play button, I will the say the name of the root note, you have 4 beats to find the root 6 version of a power chord which will then appear. Next, four more beats will transpire in which time you will find the root 5 version of the chord which will then appear. Finally, four more beats will go by giving you just enough time to find the root 4 version of the chord. The order of the root notes will follow the circle of fifths which you see on the right of the trainer. Introducing the element of time to your studying and practicing prevents your mind from wandering and forces it to work a little faster than normal.

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Three Note Version: Root - 5th - Octave Of Root

As I said in the video portion of this lesson, many players often opt for the three-note version of a power chord, which simply adds the octave of the root note as its third note as I have clearly diagrammed just below. Octaves within themselves are an extremely tight and powerful sound but when and octave is incorporated as part of a power chord there is a lot of extra kick an emphasis on the guitar, that one high octave note can really make a world of difference.

Musical Examples


Because of their ambiguous nature an extremely tight and specific sounds the exclusive use of power chords is no way to go through your life as a guitarist. Rather, it is just one more tool in your toolkit, giving you yet another way to create the perfect guitar part and become a valuable member of the team.

You will find power chords extremely useful as a way to create arrangements and add dynamics to a song, especially one of those songs that employs the same chord progression for both the person the chorus such as Knocking On Heavens Door which has been a staple on the concert scene for decades being performed most notably by Bob Dylan, The Grateful Dead, Avril Levigne and Guns N Roses. In the example below, I have created an electric guitar part which uses clean open string chords throughout. There is a second guitar playing clean bar chords for the verse and two note power chords for the chorus in order to distinguish the two parts from each other and provide punch and dynamics to a song or arrangement.



Nothing, and I do mean nothing can fatten up and fill out a track like a steady stream of eighth note power chords. This has been standard operating procedure in heavy metal guitar songs for a long time but the steady pulse of eighth notes became associated with more mainstream guitar playing and top 40 hits in the 1980's, most notably by artists like The Cars and Billy Idol, who had big hits with White Wedding, Dancin' By Myself and several other tracks featuring this eighth note technique.

I have found this technique useful in rock band situations when trying to update and reinterpret decades old cover songs or do heavier, more rockin' versions of current or soft rock arrangements. When performinmg a rock ballad, the steady eighth nore groove can keep the performance moving. At the risk of being redundant, nothing fattens up a song like this steady eighth note approach.

The first example is based on the ever popular old favorite Stand By Me (1960, Ben E. King) a song which is still a staple on the general business scene. The standard theoretical interpretation of the following example is a I - VI - IV - V progressin which has been used countless in virtually every style imaginable. Such tunes are regularly reinterpreted and covered by recording artists such as John Lennon, Mickey Gilley, Ronnie Milsap, Pennywise and Jon Bon Jovi to name a few. My example provides an updated R & B take and uses a steady strean of eighth notes with a clean setting on the guitar to add a nice textural support.

I - VI - IV - V CADENCE: Standard, Favorite Cadence

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The example below is based on another classic rock favorite: Comin’ In To Los Angeles by the legendary Arlo Guthrie. The track was recorded with a thick acoustic guitar rhythm part, which the parts I have written out are meant to compliment.

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The chords themselves are quite cliche in the sense that it is a minor tonality with a descending, scalewise bass line. As a guitarist in a playing situation this is frequently the kind of riddle you will frequently have to solve. To solve these types of riddles you need to a breath of fresh air and musical interest to the mix -not just the same old thing.

During the verse or the A section I am employing several of the techniques we have learned so far in this course. For example, the use of slash chords and a simple picking part to as opposed to a heavy strumming, which will get in the way of the other guitars' strumming. I am taking a similar approach to the one that I took in the previous example by using power chords to add a sense of intensity and thickness to the chorus or B section. Given that I am using distortion for the power chords, the two slash chords (A-/G and D/F#) don’t sound good with the overdriven sound so I am the 'less is more' approach by opting for single notes as indicated in the diagram.  I will point out for one final time that a steady pulse of eighth notes is a simple yet powerful technique for adding texture and rhythmic support to rock and pop tunes.

Musical Examples


Let's get down to the study of some famous and familiar material using power chords. Power chords are responsible for create hooks, licks, fills and signature sounds associated with rock, metal, and pop music. The sounds of two note power chords became central to modern guitar styles in the late 60s, 70s and 80s and are now a central part of your musical vocabulary.  Interestingly, many of these brief little hooks and fills are actually more famous are just as famous as the chorus or the vocal part most commonly associated with a song.  In some great tunes like Smoke On The Water or Iron Man for example, the guitar fill is arguably the star of the song.
Right now, in 2013, it is a great time to be a guitar student. This is because of the incredible amount of high-quality sheet music and tablature that is available to you and also because of the advent of YouTube. When I begin teaching a serious guitar student there are two things that are part of virtually every lesson, the first being a YouTube assignment and the second is that I express my feeling that it is the job of every serious music student to collect officially sanctioned sheet music, the guitar recorded versions published by actual music publishers and NOT only the freebie internet tabs which although often helpful, are quite often wrong.

Today's world of guitar study is a far cry from the one your teachers, musical elders, and guitar heroes grew up in.  Back in the day you were lucky if you got any high-quality sheet music that had any degree of accuracy concerning guitar parts. Also we had to tediously use record albums, the radio or cassette tapes to study our favorite songs, which were always not available unless you wanted to invest in the record. Back then, guitar students played by ear and compared notes with one another and it often took days and days to ascertain the recipe for certain songs. Nowadays, everything is written down, everything is available to you, so make it your business to use YouTube to listen and listen to the songs you are studying and also invest in at least one or two books of high-quality, officially sanctioned guitar tab books per month.. These could be collections of songs by various artists or books dedicated to your favorite guitar players. If you follow this advice, your learning process will become interesting, easier and more enjoyable.

Below are three well known and instantly recognizeable musical examples which beautifully illustrate applications of powed chords.


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The following 4 bar example is based on a very early rock-fusion classic called Hocus Pocus. The brief but interesting excerpt is a testament to the seeming endless creative possibilities power chords brings to the composing guitarist.

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During your studies of this course on chords and how to use them it is my hope that you have also studied or are currently studying my course on music theory available here on this website. In these courses I am making the case for learning standard cadences and chord patterns that are the basis of many famous and favorite songs and can be looked at as a songwriters basic tools. The following example is based on the 1980s sound and employs a standard I – V – VI – IV progression that also serves as the basis for countless hit songs.


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Survey Of Great Power Chord Songs

Now, let's put this lesson up with a discussion of great songs using power chords. The musical examples presented here exemplify applications of two note power chords by presenting famous examples and industry-standard techniques. In many situations power chords are interspersed with brief scale passages and also with regular open string or bar chords.  The following video is a demonstration of many famous and instantly recognizable licks, riffs and hooks that employ power chords for all or part of their duration. They say one picture is worth 1000 words so I can imagine how many words a video is worth but the point of the following video is merely for observation, and for watching. It's for you to see the power chords in action and how they have created many of the world's best-known guitar parts. For the songs in the demonstration that interest you enough to learn in their entirety, or your research on YouTube or iTunes and of course acquire high quality printed music for the song, hopefully artist approved or guitar-recorded versions available online or at music stores.


I Love Rock And Roll
Back In Black
Dirty Deeds
Enter Sandman
Rockin’ Like A Hurricane
7 Nation Army
Born To Be Wild

China Grove

Hold On Loosely
Just What I Needed
Schools Out



Slow Ride
All Right Now
La Grange
Cat Scratch Fever
Hocus Pocus
School Days
Blitzkrieg Bop


You Really Got Me
All Day All Night
Smells Like Teen Spirit
All The Small Things
Iron Man
The Other Woman
Jumpin Jack Flash
Smoke On The Water
What I've Done