Power chords have been a staple in rock and later metal music since the 60s. They have been used in some of the heaviest riffs out there, and for good reason: they sound awesome! In this lesson you will learn how to play power chords on guitar.
In this lesson, we will also be covering the theory behind power chords. Since power chords are specific to guitar, it’s important to know what makes a power chord a power chord so you can easily communicate with other musicians.
What Is a Power Chord (Theory)
A power chord, also known as a “5 chord”, is a 2-3 note chord. Power chords are also referred to as 5 chords because the 2nd note of the chord is the 5th note in the root note’s major scale.
For example, an E5 power chord would have an open low E string (i.e. an E root note) and then the 5th note in the E major scale is a B note. Therefore, your E5 power chord is played with an open E and the A string fretted at the second fret.
E Minor Scale
E5 Power Chord
To determine if your power chord is major or minor, you must examine the 3rd of that chord. If the 3rd of the chord is the 3rd note on the Major scale, then you have a major chord. If the 3rd of the chord is the 3rd note in the Minor scale, then you have a minor chord.
Occasionally you will hear power chords referred to by their root. For example, an E5 is also known as a “E Root 6” power chord, since the root is on the 6th string.
How to Play Open String Power Chords
Now that you’ve got a basic understanding of the theory behind them, let’s learn how to play power chords on guitar!
What’s great about open string power chords is that they can be played with just one finger. You’ll notice on the TAB power chord examples below that the notes are stacked on top of each other. This means you should play both strings at the same time, just like a guitar chord.
If you’re unsure about reading TABs, I highly recommend my lesson on How to Read Guitar TABs and Chord Charts
Your open chord power chords are:
E5 Power Chord
For an E5 power chord simply put your index finger down on the 2nd fret of the A string and play just the low E and A string.
Tip: Use the string below the last string you play as a “stopper” for your pick. For example, for an E5 power chord, you would use the D string as your “pick stopper” to prevent you from playing any unused strings.
A5 Power Chord
An open A5 power chord is very similar to an E5, except played 1 string down. For an A5 power chord, fret the 2nd fret on the A string and play the A and D strings together at the same time. For this power chord, you would use the G string as your “stopper” string.
D5 Power Chord
G5 Power Chord
Because of the way the B string is tuned on a guitar, the G5 power chord shape is played by fretting the 3rd fret of the B string and an open G string.
Compare this to all the other open power chords, which fret on the 2nd fret.
B5 Power Chord
The B5 open string power chord goes back to the normal power chord shapes of using the 2nd fret. For a B5 power chord you fret the 2nd fret of the high E string and play the B and high E string at the same time.
Tip: Typically power chords are played only down strumming, though you can alternate pick power chords. All down strums will produce a much chunkier, heavier sound while alternate picking will create a more melodic, rhythmic sound.
How to Play Movable Power Chords
Playing movable power chords is where the real fun with power chords begins. Though you can create some really heavy riffs with just open power chords, movable power chords open up the rest of the fretboard for you.
An easy way to remember the shape necessary for movable power chords is that your 2nd note will always be 1 string down and 2 frets up the neck from your root.
For example, your F power chord is played with your index finger fretting the root note (F) on the low E string, and the 5th of the F scale ( C ) on the A string. Just like with open power chords, you’ll notice the name of the movable power chords is dictated by the root note.
The only exception to the movable power chord shapes rule we just discussed is G string power chords. If you remember with open power chords, we played the G5 on the 3rd fret instead of the 2nd fret. Same idea applies to movable power chords.
For G string power chords you will always play the 5th one string down, three frets up the neck. Again, this is because of the way the B string is tuned on the guitar.
Once you go down to B string movable power chords, go back to using the 1 string down, 2 frets over shape.
Adding the third note
Are you ready to take your power chords to the next level!? Let’s add an octave!
You’ve probably seen people who play 3 string power chords, by adding a third finger below the 5th of the chord. This third note being added to the chord is actually the octave of the root note. Meaning, it is the same note, just 1 full octave higher in pitch.
Adding the octave to the power chord does a couple things: First, it gives the power chord a much “fuller” sound to it. Second, it makes your power chords sound mean and more aggressive. Who doesn’t want that?
There are also a couple different ways to add the third note to your power chords. The first and easiest, way is to add your third (ring) finger below the 2nd (middle) finger, 1 string down, on the same fret.
The second way to fret a 3 note power chord is to barre your 2nd and third notes. I’ve seen people barre the notes with their 2nd or 3rd fingers. Personally, I find using my 3rd finger for the barre more comfortable.
Neither of the above ways to play a power chord are right or wrong, they are all about preference. Though I will say you may have a tough time barring if you’re a beginner.
Note: For most octaves the third finger goes right below the 2nd finger, however not this is not always the case. Can you guess where this is going?
This happens a lot more as you move to the higher strings so it’s important to know your notes and scales to be able to play proper power chords on the fly
3 Different Ways to Play Power Chords:
Tip: When playing power chords, do not lift all of your fingers up if you are staying on the same root string. This saves effort and makes transitions much easier.
Palm Muting Power Chords
If you're looking to get a good guitar tone, adding palm muting to your power chords will make them sound much cleaner, and often much heavier. Let’s look at how:
First, you want to try to palm mute all the open strings that you aren’t playing. Couple this technique with the “stopper string”, and the no-finger-lifting tips we discussed before and your riffs will sound 10x better than they did before this lesson.
How to Palm Mute in 30 Seconds
Rest the edge of your picking hand gently against the edge of the guitar’s bridge and strum. Try varying degrees of pressure with the palm’s edge to see how it changes your tone.
Also, try experimenting with where you rest the edge of your palm to see how that also changes your tone.
Getting a feel for this will really help you in developing your own personal guitar tone. A lot of folks think your tone is in the gear, but your tone really stems from your hands first.
Adding Palm Muting to Your Riffs
The next way to add palm muting to your power chords is to palm mute the chords themselves. Palm muting a power chord gives it a much chunkier, chug of a sound.
Experiment adding and removing palm mutes to your power chords and get a feel for how it changes the rhythm of the riff. Palm muting is great for establishing rhythms. For example, try palm muting your first 3 power chords, then not palm muting the 4th. See what I mean?
Muting Unused Strings
Depending on how low the action of your guitar is it will be harder to mute the unused strings since it takes much less force to fret the notes and therefore stray notes are more common.
The best ways to mute any unused strings are:
- Palm Mute Unused Strings
- Use a “stopper” string
- Use the pad of your bottom finger to mute the string below the string you’re playing
It is very important to practice and incorporate all the above techniques into your playing if you really want to have a crisp, clean tone and your power chords to sound as brutal as possible.
Bonus JamPlay Lesson: How to Play Power Chords like Tom Petty & AC/DC:
If you enjoyed that lesson preview, check out this FREE JamPlay lesson:
>>>>> Learn 4 Easy Power Chord Guitar Riffs <<<<<
Wrapping It All Up
By now, you know how to play power chords on guitar, as well as how to move them up and down the neck and the theory behind them. You have a solid enough understanding to apply power chords to your own riffs and to play them with other musicians who may not be guitarists.
Did I leave anything out? Are you still hazy on how to play power chords? Leave any questions or comments you may have down in the comments below and I’ll get back to you ASAP (usually within 24 hours).