Muting, tone, and strumming to power up your power chords.

Power in Your Power Chords
by Chris Liepe

Quick… Name every hit Classic Rock song that has power chords in it! Yeah, that’s impossible. Power chords rule the simple, catchy, hard hitting rock groove. They might be embedded in riffage, or disguised in some clever muting but power chords are among the most important building blocks of the music we grew up listening to… And in Modern Rock! As common as they are, and as simple as they seem to be, it is amazing how many guitar players I deal with that can’t seem to pull off THAT sound. You know —When your ears start to tingle and your face starts to melt. Yes, they are simple, but delivering an energy filled passionate power chord performance requires more than just two notes, two fingers and a distortion pedal.

There’s an attitude and a whole pile of details that makes power chord rhythm playing work. This weekend, we’re going to dissect your playing, expose your habits, and hopefully have you melting at least one face by late Sunday evening. We’re going to look at three areas of your power chord playing that you might be able to improve:

1. Muting

When many guitar players see the word “muting”, their brains and hands tend to head for a bridge and they bear down with some palm muting. I’m going to address palm muting a little, but my main observation when it comes to muting issues deals with the fretting hand. If you play any old power chord based off of your low E string (lets stick with just the two note variety for now) your natural bent is to target your strumming or picking at the low E and A strings. This produces a pure, accurate sound based off of the root and the 5th… A power chord, right? Well, we want it to sound good, but “pure” and “accurate” should not be the first words someone uses to describe your distorted AC/DC style chording. They want to hear energy and rebellion!

If you get too excited with your strumming hand though, you’ll hit other notes/strings that aren’t in the chord and it’s just going to sound like mud. Enter muting. Your energy and intensity DOES want to be focused on the two notes (or three if you add the octave above the root) that are creating the chord but if you position your left hand so that the strings next to the strings you are playing are deadened, you can strum more freely and with more gusto.

It’s not as if you want to intentionally strum all 6 strings with equal intensity. The goal here is that you loosen up your strumming so you can focus on power. You’ll be able to increase your range of motion and add an element of percussion based on the newfound force of your strum and the sound of the dead strings adding to the string stack. So try this: Put your first finger on the 5th fret, E string and your 4th finger on the 7th fret, A string. Don’t arch your fingers at though. In fact, you want to flatten each finger so that they are holding down their assigned notes, but lightly touching every other string above them in pitch. Now give your guitar a nice, free, and loud set of strums. Just strum down at this point.

Focus your mind and your energy on the lower strings and adjust your fret hand so that you don’t have any rogue notes. It’ll take a little experimentation, but you’ll soon hear and feel the difference. Again, it’s not like your trying to play all the strings. You’re just allowing more room for motion, percussion and intensity. Practice playing to a steady tempo. Here’s a fantastic lesson on left hand muting techniques. Try these techniques with a single note first and then try making it work with power chords:

Muting Technique

Taught by Will Ripley

Proper muting can add a lot of passion to your playing. In this lesson, Will shows us how to play single notes without compromising any of the energy or intensity.
Show Interactive Tabs

2. Tone and Sound

Before reading on, please realize that I’m not suggesting that anyone go out and by any new gear. I’m actually advocating using less bells and whistles as you work on dialing in your monster rhythm sound. I used to have students bring their amps to my house during their lessons. I’d have them do this so that I could get a sense of their practice environment, and would help them dial in certain sounds for different applications. Whether it was an amp with a few pedals or a multi effects/modeling box, I found that most students relied way to heavily on effects and gain to help prop up areas in their playing that couldn’t stand on their own. This isn’t really an issue with acoustic guitar thankfully, but many electric guitar players stay sloppy and lifeless much longer than they need to because they are drowning in a sea of effects.

The flexibility that amps, stomp boxes and multi effects units offer should be used to create or enhance a musical context. This philosophy can apply to all types of guitar playing and practicing but ‘in-your-face’ powerful rhythm playing is a great place to get started with the right mindset when it comes to your tone and sound. So, if you haven’t reached for your effects knob already, kill the reverb, dial back the distortion, and take a good look at your signal chain. How little can you get away with and still achieve the sound you hear in your head? Many times, we make things more complicated than they need to be.

My favorite way to practice is to start with a full-sounding clean channel that breaks up just a little bit when you really dig in to a power chord or single note. No verb. No delays. Then I put an overdrive pedal (usually an Ibanez Tube Screamer) between my guitar and the amp input and set it so that I can still hear the bite and attack that was present in just the clean sound, but now I have a bit more grit to glue the notes in the chords together. I’m not using a ton of gain. You might say: “Well the style of music I like uses a ton of distortion and other goodies. I want to practice with that stuff so I sound like the music I enjoy listening to!” There is a time and place for that kind of practicing for sure, but when you are focusing on your playing mechanics and feel, layering sound upon sound will only cripple your ability to improve your raw playing skills because you are masking what you are really doing on the instrument.

Many times, the music we listen to has much less actual effects going on than we really think it does. Dry things up, dial the gain back and expose your playing for what it really is. You’ll hear some things you really like and learn about all kinds of ways you can make your playing cleaner, more powerful, and more expressive. Power chords are just the beginning in this area!

3. Strumming

You’ve been introduced to fret hand muting techniques and at least seen how they can free your strumming hand. Now let’s look at a few things that you can focus on with your newfound freedom. First, lets look at direction. Alternate strumming and alternate picking are efficient and great ways to work most of the time, but especially with walls of power chords emanating from your amp, it’s good to not always default to the most efficient or proper way of doing things. Playing all downstrokes over a power chord groove creates more UMPH! You get more power, more face melting and more aggression. Certainly, song tempo plays a role in whether or not all downstrokes is possible, but always keep this in the back of your mind during your rhythm playing. I don’t play all downstrokes or a consistently alternating pattern when I’m playing power chord-based songs or riffs.

I do play mostly down downstrokes though, and I save my upstrokes or up strums for quicker, less frequently occurring rhythmic additions. My general starting point with strumming and power chords is to take whatever the dominate rhythmic subdivision is, and make that consistently downstrokes. So if the dominant rhythm is based around 8th notes, my strumming hand is down on all 8th notes and I may use an up strum to catch some occasional 16th notes. You have to be free with it though. While sticking to a solid down strum groove can really improve the vibe of a song, make sure you are listening to what everyone else is doing so that you can make the most of your part in the overall context. Maybe even the 16th notes need to be played with a downstroke?

And of course, how can we talk about left hand muting and strumming ideas without touching on palm muting. There’s nothing like a crunchy palm-muted power chord that leaves you wanting that wide open sound when the chorus comes. Most people don’t think too much about palm muting. They just do it. Sometimes they nail it, and sometimes they don’t! One of the most common issues I’ve seen with palm muting is the tendency to ‘over mute’ and make your guitar sound out of tune. If you’re placing too much pressure on a floating bridge, you can draw your guitar sharp during your palm muted passages. This often sneaks by a player in the moment and then the listener has to suffer through not knowing quite what sounds ‘off’ about that song.

Players with hard tail bridges are not immune to this either. If you don't have your hand planted firmly over the bridge and just SLIGHTLY in front of it to get that dead sound, you can also draw the sound sharp. If you’re hand is too far up, your sound will be sharp and slightly too dead. Don’t be passive about your palm muting. Pay careful attention to where you are doing it and make sure you find the sweet spot with your guitar. Every guitar design is different.

The last area (for now) to keep in mind with your power chord playing and strumming is how you hold your pick. If you’re using a ‘regular’ size pick, there is a tendency among some beginners to grasp the pick with the thumb and both the index and middle finger. When you’re strumming open and with all strings on an acoustic or clean electric sound, this doesn’t pose much of a problem. When it is time to bear down on those power chords and start incorporating palm muting and calculated riffing in between walls of 5ths, the groove can completely fall apart.

Hold your pick between your thumb and index finger and position both your pick and your wrist more like you’re getting ready to play a scale or a single note line. This will help you find the balance between an all out strum and a slightly more precise ‘riff-ready’ posture. Don’t confuse what I just said with what I spoke about earlier regarding being free with your strum, but there’s always a balance and you’ll find it as you keep all of these tips in your mind as you’re playing this weekend!

Here’s another great lesson from Will Ripley that puts some sound to my reason:

Black Sabbath Power Chords

Taught by Will Ripley

Will adds in a power chord element to a common chord. This makes the riff extra heavy sounding and extra cool!
Show Interactive Tabs

Learn the power chord riff and play it over a rockin’ backing track. Have fun this weekend! Feel free to leave me comments below.

Thanks for reading.

I hope I've been able to make an impact on your playing.

Thanks again for joining me on this musical journey!

Chris Liepe
JamPlay Content Director

Chris Dawson.  JamPlay Co-Founder

Chris Liepe is the content director at JamPlay. He was one of the first JamPlay instructors. His talents were quickly noticed, both on and off camera. Chris and the folks at JamPlay soon realized that he would be a perfect fit for the team. He hopped on board as a full time staff member in 2009 and has since been leading the charge towards realizing JamPlay's mission: providing affordable music education worldwide.


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