What are Power Chords: An Introduction That Can Make You Better - Guitar Space (2024)

Playing the guitar is all about making an art form of physics, bending sound waves to your will to make your songs come into the real world from where you hear them in your brain.

But sometimes your fingers haven’t quite caught up to the patterns in your head, and that’s where power chords come in. They’re a great playing technique to underline the primary tone of the chords in songs that are loud, fast, and heavy, so if you’re ready to melt the faces off your audiences – in a Kirk Hammett kind of way, not like the Nazis from Indiana Jones – power chords are for you.

What are power chords?

Before we get into the details about power chords, we have to go back to the technical definition of a musical chord itself. At its most basic level, a chord is a group of notes that are played at the same time. Usually, this will be within the same key to enhance and reinforce the emotions of the chosen scale.

But if you’ve played any form of chord before on your guitar or on another instrument that can play more than one note at a time like a piano, you know that it’s easy to make exceptions to that. It’s done all the time to add tensions, indicate movement into another key or section of the song, or just to make your ear feel slightly uncomfortable in a good way like in jazz.

Power chords are when you play the root and fifth notes of a scale or key at the same time without any other note interval added. They’re most popular in amplified rock music that uses heavy tone distortion, such as heavy metal and punk. That’s because of how amplified distortion makes individual notes sound once it gets done crunching them.

A typical distortion effect will amplify played notes in different proportions than the strength by which they’re struck. In other words, however hard or softly you pluck a string, your distortion effect randomly chooses how much it wants to broadcast it through your amp without much input from you except which note you played.

How it does that is some major math wizardry that we don’t have the space to explain here – just trust us that the end results produce what’s called partials. Those are harmonic tones that echo from the original tone’s vibration frequency.

So already even with just one note fed through distortion, you’ve got a depth of tone that includes more soundwaves than you originally played. Add a full chord’s set of three, four, or five notes doing the same thing, and even the most pleasingly ratioed intervals on paper will clash and muddy each other when let loose into the air from your distortion effect.

Power chords are meant to clean up music that wants to stay dirty but comprehensible. When you play only a root note and it’s fifth and runs them both through distortion at the same time, their partials create harmonics that complement each other instead of clashing. Therefore you can play all of the Ramones’ catalogue as distorted as you want without losing what key the songs are supposed to sound like. Thanks, science!

How do I play power chords?


Power chords are structured within a single octave – you won’t need to reach from your third fret to your tenth to make one work, although you can double your octave to create extra oomph.

On sheet music, these are indicated with a written 5 under the notes to indicate the interval between the root and fifth tones in the scale you’re working with, or as a chord name indicating no third (for example, C no 3 means a C power chord) when you’re reading chords above lyrics or sheet music for other instruments.

You can also play around with whether the fifth tone or the first tone is the bottom note of the chord and have fun with all the combinations in however big an octave span you want to use.


How you finger your power chords depends on how they’re structured, but in basic terms, you will anchor your first tone on a fret of your bass E string with your ring finger, then position your middle and index finger two frets above on the A and D strings. This takes advantage of what feels natural for your fingers as well as where the midtones are on your fretboard.

You can move your fingers in the same general shape up and down the fretboard to get to different power chords without having to readjust your fingering.

Another power chord fingering technique is called spidering, and this involves keeping the same two-note interval on your frets while moving which fingers you’re using, instead of moving the same fingers up and down the frets. This was invented by Megadeath guitarist Dave Mustaine in the 1980s to reduce string noise when changing power chords, especially in speed metal and other areas that require extremely quick chord shifts.


One technique that both blues and heavy metal guitar playing have in common is the concept of tuning the bass E string lower to a D so that the first three guitar strings form a chord when openly strummed without any fretting required. Tuning strings to any notes beside their default range of E, A, D, G, B, and E can make playing power chords as easy as pressing one fret down, or even none.

Downtuning is done by metal bands for more bass power in chords, and in the blues for easier slide playing technique. Either way means a different, yet usually easier, way to consider how to shape your power chords.

What are the advantages of playing power chords?

Clear tone origin even when run through heavy distortion

As we mention above, power chords are great for when you want to use distortion without creating a crowd of harmonics, partials, and soundwaves that don’t fight with each other like it’s the last scene in Game of Thrones (no spoilers!).

Because distortion effects are so arbitrary about picking the tones they amplify at different levels, it helps immensely for them to have only two to choose from, and it helps even more than either one of those tones they pick are scientifically proven to complement the other. Power chords are a win-win situation for your distortion use and your overall song.

Ambiguous major or minor inflection

Classically trained musicians are more inclined to treat power chords as dyads, or a group of two notes consisting of one interval, rather than chords, and one reason is that without a note that represents the third step in a scale, they are technically neither major nor minor in key.

The third interval in a scale is the tone that turns a scale into the more upbeat sound of a major key or the more melancholy one of a minor key; without those, power chords can go either way. However, this is actually a great advantage when played as part of a whole band because the power chord will pick up inflection influences from whatever else is playing with it and amplify them without having to adjust itself.

Classic metal bands have tons of excellent examples of this shape-shifting property that you can hear more clearly than in the speed or thrash metal genres – check out the work of Yngwie Malmsteen, Eddie Van Halen, Steve Vai, and Joe Satriani to get a crash course in the types of key change shifts that power chords can help with.

Easy to play and change chords

Don’t let anyone convince you that power chords are lazy shortcuts. There are legitimate reasons they work better than fuller chords in some situations, so you have our permission to shout, “Physics!” if you need to get a snob off your back. That being said, power chords are in fact easier to play for the simple reason that they’re two notes rather than the usual four, five, or six you’re grappling with on a fretboard.

That also means it’s easier to change, easier to play faster, and easier to cram more into a two-minute song or solo. They’re also great for mastering your understanding of tone layering so that you can expand that knowledge to more notes and intervals instead of blindly following chord charts without realizing why they work.

Music theory can be a massive pain for those who just want to rock, but it’s essential to evolving your art, especially if you want to write your own songs.

More room for single-note runs between them

The structure of power chords on a guitar neck makes it easier to jump from playing chords to a run of notes within the scale, which is especially handy if you are heading into a solo. You don’t have to do as many finger gymnastics to get into a position from power chords to single notes, and that can help you rock socks off even better.

What are the disadvantages of playing power chords?

Less depth of tone for chords

The most obvious disadvantage to using power chords is that you don’t get the added richness of extra tones on the scale that will flesh out its sound. Chords have as many varying personalities as the players who use them, but power chords on their own remain somewhat blank.

That’s great if you need them as part of an ensemble or as just the first step in a sound building process, but as solo performers, they don’t have the multi-tonal impact of three or more notes played together unless you’re going for a minimalist sound.

Reliance can make more music theory seem irrelevant

As we’ve said, power chords are a legitimate part of your guitar-playing education. However, they are easy enough to learn and handy enough to use in a lot of songs that they bring a major temptation to not worry about other types of chords. Don’t let that happen to you! Use the bases of your power chords to branch out into what thirds, fourths, and all other combination of tone intervals can do for your playing. Power chords are a healthy part of a balanced music diet.

What is the history of power chords?

Power chords come from when the blues went electric, with early Sun Records artists Willie Johnson and Pat Hare recording with the technique in the first part of the 1950s. Power chords were popularized through early rock and roll, most notably in Scotty Moore’s opening to “Jailhouse Rock” (1957) and Link Wray’s use in “Rumble” (1958).

Rock and pop music followed through the next decades as these origins evolved into hits like “You Really Got Me” from the Kinks and “My Generation” from the Who.

Artists as diverse as King Crimson and the Ramones also experimented with power chords as they became the hallmark of punks, heavy metals, and others whose songs fed off heavy distortion to get their points across. It has become a hallmark of guitarists who liked to manipulate the math of their playing into emphasis of their songwriting.

Many classical musicians and composers, including those who work with traditional guitar music, consider a chord to need at least three notes to officially be called a chord and that playing only two notes at one time is called a dyad. But within rock and popular music, the two-note interval is accepted as being a chord of the power variety, so both denotations mean the same thing. The name just depends on context.

Where can I get help learning how to play power chords?

The video portion of the internet is basically made of guitar tutorials (along with cats doing silly things), so we’ve narrowed down the infinite to a few we’ve found especially helpful.

  • Ubercord. This is a great introduction to the concept of power chords, how to play them, and where they can take you. Best of all, their how-to is broken into short exercises, each with its own video tutorial. We recommend going in order so you can see your own progression to ultimate power.
  • Riff Ninja. Aside from having a cool name, these guys are great at breaking down riffs into understandable parts that you can watch as many times as you need to get good at them. Check out their power chord lesson for an intro that will lead you to a host of awesome songs you’ll be able to play in no time. Also, we can all relate to losing a pick out of nowhere – these guys are just as fun to play with as your buddies.
  • Gear Gods. This site is aptly named, but these guys’ knowledge doesn’t end at the gear itself. They’ve got a good cache of videos on how to get the most out of your gear, and their video exploring twelve different types of power chords is the extensive breakdown you never knew you needed.

There you have it – your ultimate guide to what power chords are, how they’re useful, and where to get started on your own journey with them. You’ll be channeling your inner Tony Iommi in no time.

  • About
  • Latest Posts

Melanie Griffin

Melanie is a freelance writer who works in a library. She loves to write about different guitar gear available in the market. She wants to make sure you get a detailed guide to cater to your needs. She's also into crafting and 3D printing.

Latest posts by Melanie Griffin (see all)

  • The Best Guitar Amps with Bluetooth On The Market - August 4, 2023
  • Humbucker vs Single Coil: Which is Best for You? - July 14, 2023
  • What are Power Chords: An Introduction That Can Make You Better - January 3, 2020
What are Power Chords: An Introduction That Can Make You Better - Guitar Space (2024)


What are power chords in guitar? ›

Power chords are often used in rock music and are to learn for anyone taking beginner guitar lessons. They're also called fifth chords because they're made from the root note and the fifth. They're beefy, often crunchy and are super simple to play because it takes only three notes to make these types of guitar chords.

What are the benefits of power chords? ›

Power chords offer up a really full, open, and stable sound. the relationship between the root and the 5ths is called a Perfect 5th. It is the most stable pitch interval other than the octave. It's a good thing to know how to use it!

What are the essential guitar power chords? ›

To play power chords on a guitar, you need to hold down the root and fifth notes of a chord at the same time with your fingers. For example, if you want to play the E major chord, you need to press down the root (E) and fifth (B) strings with your left hand.

What are the 3 power chords? ›

Power chords come in two varieties: Open-position: The following figure shows the most common open-position power chords — E5, A5, and D5. These chords are merely the two or three lowest notes of the simple open-position E, A, and D chords.

What is an example of A power chord? ›

For example, a C power chord would comprise the notes C, G and then C an octave above. Note that power chords are neither major or minor—since they don't contain the all-important minor or major third interval which is what gives a chord a major or minor quality.

Should a beginner learn power chords? ›

Your Ultimate Power Chords Guide for Beginners!

But - learning them is useful in any music genre, many popular songs you know use them! Power chords are also fantastic to play if you encounter a barre chord that you don't know. They'll be easier to play & will extend your chord freedom.

Are power chords easier? ›

They're also one of the easiest as they require the least finger strength of any guitar chords. These two-note treasures (which aren't really chords per se as much as they are bottoms of chords) are so simple in fact that they're sometimes referred to as “cheater” chords.

What to learn after power chords? ›

After getting a good grip on both open and power chords, you can start to tackle barre chords.

What is the easiest power chord on A guitar? ›

F5 is one of the easiest power chords to play since it's in the native position. The chord shape is created by using the first fret of the lower E string, and the third fret of the A and D strings on the guitar.

What is the best guitar tuning for power chords? ›

Drop D tuning is the most common alternate guitar tuning, largely because it is so easy to tune to! The only string that changes from standard is the low E string, which is tuned down one whole step to D. Drop D is well known for its low, punchy sound and its very convenient one-finger power chord shape.

Are all power chords the same? ›

Although all power chords are based on the same chord shape, there's still some room for variation. You can add an extra note to the chord to play a three-string version. Just use your pinky to play the same fret as your ring finger but on the next string above the other one.

Can you play guitar with just power chords? ›

A decent grip on power chords is enough to play basic but solid guitar for just about any song you like. No need to worry if chords are major or minor and we can just ignore all those complex looking numbers! One shape fits all. Find the root note and plant your power chord there.

What is the difference between power chords and regular chords? ›

What Are Power Chords? Power chords developed alongside the development of loud, distorted electric guitar amps. They are simple, 2 or 3 string chords that only consist of two notes as opposed to three or more different notes that full open or Barre chords possess.

What is the difference between A power chord and A regular chord? ›

This is because power chords are just made up of the root and the fifth of the chord. The part that usually gives the chord a major or minor quality is left out of power chords. For example, the power chord of C is made of only the notes C and G, the first and the fifth notes of the scale.

What is the difference between A chord and A power chord? ›

Since power chords don't contain a third note, they're neither major nor minor. Power chords are usually written with a “5”, i.e. A5, C5, etc. Power chords aren't solely the purview of rock music – they can be found in all genres, including pop. They can also be played on piano.

Are all 5 chords power chords? ›

Yes. Power chords aren't really “chords” - they're perfect fifth intervals. An interval has two notes, a chord has three or more. Since they're not really chords, chord notation was adapted a bit, and they're shown as “5”.

Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Rob Wisoky

Last Updated:

Views: 6440

Rating: 4.8 / 5 (68 voted)

Reviews: 83% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Rob Wisoky

Birthday: 1994-09-30

Address: 5789 Michel Vista, West Domenic, OR 80464-9452

Phone: +97313824072371

Job: Education Orchestrator

Hobby: Lockpicking, Crocheting, Baton twirling, Video gaming, Jogging, Whittling, Model building

Introduction: My name is Rob Wisoky, I am a smiling, helpful, encouraging, zealous, energetic, faithful, fantastic person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.