Learn Four Essential Power Chord Riffs

The Power of Power Chords
by David Isaacs

Power chords are an essential part of the sound of rock music. From “Iron Man” to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and a thousand other classics, many of the great guitar hooks are played using power chords.

The term “power chord” is sometimes used to describe a full barre chord, like the 6-note first position F chord or 5-note second position B. These are major chords, and probably better described simply as barre chords. For our purposes, a “power chord” is usually a 2- or 3-note chord played on the bass strings, and made up only of roots and fifths. This is an important point, because that means it leaves out the note that makes a chord major or minor. These chords are often indicated by the number 5: E5, A5, D5 – to distinguish them from full major or minor chords.

You don’t need a deep understanding of theory to make sense of this, but a little bit helps. Major and minor chords are made up of three notes: the first, third, and fifth notes of the scale of note 1. In other words, a C chord contains the notes C, E, and G, which would be the first, third, and fifth notes of a C scale. Whether the chord is major or minor depends on the 3rd of the chord. If it’s the 3rd note of the major scale, the chord is major. If it’s the 3rd note on the minor scale, the chord is minor.

Notes can be and often are duplicated. An open position C major chord contains C, E, G, another C an octave higher, and an octave E. Five notes, but only three different letters. Power chords work the same way; you can have more than one note, but only two different letters in most cases.

Because power chords don’t contain a 3rd, they might also be indicated by the term “no 3rd.” So you might see E(no 3rd) or E5 to describe the first chord of example 1:

Exercise 1

We’re using three chords here: E5, A5, and D5. Notice that all three are two-note forms, and that they have identical fingerings but appear on different pairs of strings. Since we’re in open position, the root of the chord is an open string while the fifth of the chord is fretted.

The first section should be pretty self-explanatory. Hold the fretted note with your index finger, and make sure the pick only strikes two strings. The variation that begins in bar 5 keeps the same fret-hand fingering, but notice the use of single open strings to break up the rhythm in places. A slight palm mute sounds really good here.

Example 2 is in power chords as well, but we’ve flipped the order of the notes. Instead of a low bass note with an added fifth, we have a series of bass-string double-stops (two notes on the same fret). Technically, these are now no longer fifths but fourths, if we count the interval from low note to high note. You should remember this fingering AND the slightly different sound it creates. Riffs in fourths are a little darker than fifths, with a nice bite and grind when you add distortion. But these forms are still power chords, because we created the fourths by inverting fifths, or moving the lower note up an octave. This is a tricky little tidbit of music theory but it’s worth knowing. The first chord is an A5 because the notes are A and E - a fifth apart – but it’s spelled as a fourth because when we reverse the order, the distance from E to A is four scale steps (E=1, F=2, G=3, A=4). In other words, there are two pieces of information: the interval, or distance from the lower note to the higher, and the chord itself that the notes create when sounded together.

If this is a little confusing, it’s understandable. For now, learn the fingerboard pattern so you recognize the look and sound of 4ths. Here’s example 2:

Exercise 2

The entire exercise could be played with two fingers by flattening out index and ring and playing partial barres. You could also use a partial index finger barre for the 5th fret notes, but use ring and pinky together to cover the double-stops on the 7th fret. Either way, watch out for the way open strings are mixed in with the fretted double-stops. The open strings create a nice tonal contrast and also add some more melodic interest and texture.

Exercise 3 is an example of the more familiar technique of sliding 5ths:

Exercise 3

This is a very familiar sound! Notice how we use the same two-note shape for the entire exercise. A bass note played with the index finger, and another note on the next string two frets higher. Since we’re only playing two notes, you could use the ring or pinky fingers for the upper note. However, this two-note shape often becomes a 3-note shape or even a full barre chord, making the ring finger the better option.

Notice the opening slide is played in time. It's not a “smear” slide (more precisely called a glissando or “gliss”) but precisely measured out as eighth notes. Also note the difference between this slide and the shift up to the 10th fret in measure 2. When shifting, we maintain contact with the strings but don’t apply any pressure so we don’t hear the slide itself. More technically, we might call this a “glide shift.” As you go through the example, watch for the difference between slides and shifts.

All three of these examples are using two-note chords throughout. If you find it challenging to strike only two strings at a time, try resting the heel of your picking hand on the bridge. This way you can stabilize the hand for a little more control, and you have the option of palm-muting as well. Remember, we don’t need to move the pick very far! Keep your pick movements controlled and economical.

Our last example uses a different type of power chord voicing. These 4-note forms are still made up of two basic notes just like our earlier examples, the root and fifth of the chord, but contain two of each (lower and higher, an octave apart). They also contain both fourths and fifths. Notice the combination of note pairs on the same fret with note pairs on different frets. So we might call these “stacked” power chords.

Exercise 4

These chords have a much bigger, thicker sound, and sound great clean or highly distorted. It’s a more contemporary sound that became popular in the grunge era of the 1990’s, but you can hear examples all through the history of classic rock. Listen to the opening three chords of Jimi Hendrix’ “The Wind Cries Mary”, and then to Foo Fighters’ “Monkey Wrench” for two well-known examples.

Play the first two chords with a partial barre across the bass strings, using the ring and pinky fingers to reach the upper notes. Use the same basic fingering for the chords in measure 2, but extend the pinky one fret higher. The closing Esus2 and Dsus2 chords are one example of the cool sounds you can create when you start adding other notes to the power chord; in this case, creating an add2 chord by allowing the barre to reach all the way to the second string.

It’s worth mentioning that we’ve built all of these examples on two basic two-note forms: two adjacent strings on the same fret (creating an interval of a fourth) or two frets apart (an interval of a fifth). As you learn these forms, remember that when you play fifths, the root is the lowest note just like it would be in a standard barre chord. But when you play fourths, the root is the upper note. Keeping this is mind will help with your overall fretboard knowledge as you begin to work with both forms across the neck.

For more on the relationship between power chords and barre chords, check out this lesson from my beginner guitar series:

Like a Drummer

Taught by David Isaacs

Learn how to create motion and percussive interest with your strumming. If you look at and listen to how drummers accent general grooves, there is a lot of insight there in to how to make your rhythm playing groove.
Show Interactive Tabs

For a good challenge, try using some of the forms you learned today instead of the full barre shapes used in the video. You’ll find the sliding 5ths formation from example 3 is the easiest option. As always, don’t just memorize the exercises…explore a little! Power chords make it easy to make up your own riffs, so use the examples as a starting point and see where it takes you.

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Thanks for reading.

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

Thanks again for joining us for another edition of Weekend Warrior with our guest author David Isaacs!

Chris Liepe
JamPlay Content Director

Chris Liepe

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.

David Isaacs is a JamPlay instructor and frequest guest author for the JamPlay.com Weekend Warrior series.

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