Power Chords

The most basic building block of rock and metal is the power chord. It’s a great place for beginners to start learning rhythm guitar, as only three (or even two) fingers are required. Below, check out the chord diagram and photo for the basic A5 chord, on the low E-A-D strings at the 5th position:


As you can see from the indications below the chord chart, this chord consists of the root, the fifth, and another root note an octave higher. (We’ll try to keep the references to intervals at a minimum here, but there will be a free cheat sheet posted on the Resources page.) There are several advantages to knowing these simple but effective boxes:

  1. They can be moved anywhere along the neck, and across the neck with minor adjustments.
  2. They are the basis for the more developed major/minor barre chords.
  3. The interval that gives a chord a major or minor quality is the third. Since the power chord has no third, it can be played in either context.

Let’s move the box across the neck by one string, from the E-A-D string trio to the A-D-G grouping, staying at the 5th position. Now it is a D5 chord:


So far so good. But as you might guess, the next string grouping will need a small adjustment in our box formation.

Most of the guitar strings are tuned to perfect fourths (p4):  A is a perfect fourth above E; D a p4 above A; etc. The exception to this rule is the B string which is tuned a major third (half-step lower than a perfect fourth) above the G string. So continuing across the neck, for the next string group (D-G-B) you’ll have to kick the 4th finger up one fret for that octave root (R’) note:


This new box can be moved up and down the neck along this string group, just like the other boxes. Making the jump to the final string trio (G-B-E’), you’ll now have to move the 3rd finger up one fret along with the 4th finger:


You can also use your 4th finger to barre those last two notes, like this:

C5 (alt.)

(I probably don’t need to point this out, but just in case, so there’s no confusion about anything:  in these photos, unused fingers are tucked away so that the fingers in use are more clear. You would never do that in an actual playing situation. Seems obvious, but I have had a couple of raw beginner students in the past who were thrown by it. Stranger things have happened.)

Practice moving all these boxes around, up and down the neck, in different sequences, jumping from one box to another, etc. Before long, it will be easy to shift from the basic A5 box we started with to the G5 or C5 boxes further down.

Having that second root note in the power chord lends it a bit more, well, power and fullness. It makes the chord sound bigger. But do you absolutely have to have two root notes? Nope, and in fact, getting rid of one of them can make a simple chord even simpler to play. Let’s dump the octave root (4th finger) note:


Now it’s just root-fifth, the heart of countless rock and metal riffs over the years. A two-note chord is known as a diad. Let’s take the diad and invert it, by keeping the octave root note (R’), and dumping the lower root note (R). Now it’s the simplest chord organism of all — the one-finger chord.

A5(inv.)A5 (inv. diad)

Try it with the third finger now:

A5 (inv. diad 2)

Finally, let’s take a simple riff that keeps you in the 5th position, and uses the first and third fingers to make inverted diads:


Play it slow, play it fast, play it until those two fingers feel comfortable, and your diads sound smooth and clean. It’s very easy to “choke” one or both notes in the diad, so make sure your finger is barring properly, and you’re picking just those two notes. Again, riffs of this sort are common in rock and metal, and gained popularity in the ’70s and ’80s, so when you move these around a few positions and string groups, you’ll probably stumble across many classic songs.

Once you have the idea down, try this variant, which uses all four fingers:


You may find it more comfortable to shift up on the final diad and use the third finger to barre, or to reinforce the fourth finger. Either way is perfectly okay; obviously the fourth finger is much weaker than the others, and will need some work, but that will take some time.

Picking all these two-note riffs can be somewhat subjective; although the usual down-up alternate picking is the go-to picking regime, the box forms especially will sound heavier with mostly (or all) downstrokes. This will make your picking hand basically work twice as hard, so take it slow at first if you give that a shot.

Later this week, we’ll go over the basic types of major, minor, and dominant (7th) chords. Interval cheat sheet will also be posted on the Resources page this week. Please keep sending in your questions and comments!

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