The power chord is mainly a guitar phenomenon which was created mainly to use in high gain contexts, because of how distortion brings out the harmonics in an extreme way, leading to some ugly sounds when too many notes are played in a chord. The use of fifths and fourths and fewer notes in general leads to a cleaner and more powerful sound, with the distortion pushing out the harmonics to fill out the sound in a way that is usually filled out by more complex harmony.
Because of the symmetrical nature of the guitar, any of these shapes can be moved up and down the neck and will retain their chord quality. Many of them can be moved across the neck as well, at least one set of strings.
Basic Root-Fifth Power Chord
Anyone who’s had a month of guitar lessons has learned the basic root-fifth shape:
But many people never go beyond that. Here are 12 more that you might not have tried!
Root-Fifth, 3 Notes
I managed to leave this one out of the video in my haste, but it’s the most common variation on the basic shape. Simply add the octave above the root, either with your pinky or by flattening out your third finger to barre two strings at once to get a thicker sound than the two-note version alone.
The Inverted Power Chord
I like to call this one the Smoke On The Water power chord, because of it’s extensive use in that song. So if you learned how to play that song, then you already know this one (and if you never learned the song, then you’ve probably never had a guitar lesson in the back room of your local music shop). To play this one, we simply move the root of the chord to be the top note, inverting the interval of a perfect fifth to a perfect fourth. Aside from just sounding cool, these are very easy to play with just one finger, which is justification enough to add it to your chord vocabulary.
Fifth On The Bottom – 3 Notes
This one thickens up the sound quite a bit, and sounds really mean and full to me. In order to play this one, we need to have the basic root-fifth shape and one string below it. We then add a second fifth an octave below the higher one, which gives it a fuller sound with a very particular aggressive edge to it.
Fifth On The Bottom – 4 Notes
That brings us to the next one, which is a simple variation on the fifth on the bottom power chord – just add your pinky in to play the note an octave above the root for a four note version.
Minor 6th Power Chord
Generally, power chords tend to be made of fifths and fourths, but since there are a limited number of those in a key, I like to use these minor 6th shapes to make up for that shortcoming. It’s a cool sound, and it can be used in a number of different situations to imply an inverted major third (so the root would be the top note), and I highly recommend trying them out all over the place to increase the possibilities of your rhythm guitar playing.
Add9 (Sus2) Power Chord
This one is a favorite of mine, although it can be easily abused and overused (see: Chevelle, Deftones, Incubus, Staind etc.). Also called a sus2 chord, to make the add9 power chord we essentially just stack two basic power chords on top of each other, to create a total spread of a ninth, which covers 5 frets. It’s a bit of a stretch, but it can give the chord some real flavor, and you’ll get used to the stretch pretty quick. I usually finger this one with my first finger, second finger, and pinky.
Drop Tuned Power Chords
There are some power chords that are greatly facilitated by putting your guitar in a drop tuning of some kind (tuning your lowest string down a whole step below standard). This allows us to reach other shapes we previously were unable to, or play other ones more easily than before.
Basic Root-Fifth, Drop Tuning
Our basic root-fifth power chord suddenly becomes a simple matter of placing one finger across two strings (just like the inverted power chord from earlier). This only works on the two lowest strings, of course.
Root-Fifth, Drop Tuning – 3 Notes
We can easily add an octave above the root to this chord without even adding another finger. Simply barre across to your D string with the same finger, and voila! Also known as root-fifth-root.
Root-Fifth, Drop Tuning – 4 Notes
With the simple addition of just one finger, we can add another note to this one, an octave above the fifth of the chord, to create a four-note power chord.
Root-Fifth, Drop Tuning – 5 Notes (6 String Guitar)
Did you think we were done? Hell no. Let’s up the ante even more. For a MASSIVE five-note power chord, add your pinky onto the B string. This one is very rich, and might be too much for some situations, but it sure does sound huge. This is the six-string version.
Root-Fifth, Drop Tuning – 5 Notes (7 String Guitar)
If you’re playing on a 7 string guitar in a drop tuning and you want to play this chord, it looks a little different. Just put your pinky one fret lower than you would for the 6 string shape. Boom.
Add9 Power Chord, Drop Tuning
That big ol’ Add9 shape we had in standard tuning is now easy as pie in a drop tuning – two fingers and done. Basically we just move the top note of the 3 note drop tuned root-fifth shape up two frets to make it a 9th.
I hope you learned some new shapes to try out to make your rhythm guitar parts a little more interesting. Let me know in the comments if there’s any I forgot!