What are Power Chords?
If you’ve been playing guitar for any period longer than 3 weeks you probably already know what power chords are. They aren’t usually the first chords we learn on the guitar. We typically learn open chords first, usually prescribed by a teacher alongside a chestnut like “Twist and Shout” or “House of the Rising Sun” to get us off and strumming like a real guitarist in no time. However, if you were like me and grew up in the 80’s or, if you like any kind of rock music, be it hard rock, metal or punk, it probably didn’t take too long until you encountered a song that required a different sort of chord. A chord with a name that is both so majestic and so ridiculous at the same time. “Power Chords.” So, like I said, I’m sure that most everyone that has arrived here already knows what power chords are but hopefully in this article I am going to show you a few new things about power chords and some new ways to use them.
First things first; what are power chords? Power chords aren’t really chords per se because they contain only two notes, not the minimum of three notes that are technically required for a chord (the root, third and fifth). Power chords are structures that contain merely the root and the fifth. This is what they look like in their most basic form.
Often, the octave is added to the power chord shape. This is what that looks like.
I know, I know. You already know this. Of course you do! I promise we are going to get to the juicy stuff! But first, a detour…
Where Did Power Chords Come From?
Where exactly did power chords come from? There are some interesting examples of proto-power chords that predate rock and roll and the electric guitar, going even as far back as the Middle Ages. Medieval Church music (what we generally think of as Gregorian chant) started off strictly monophonic. It was a group of clerics (men) singing in unison. After a while they had the idea to add some boys to the mix, and they sang the melody an octave higher. After a while longer they must have thought that it sounded pretty nice with the added octave so why not dip their toes a little deeper in the waters of polyphony? A second melodic line was added that strictly paralleled the melody with 4ths, 5ths and octaves. So, basically, power chords. These “power chords” probably sounded good sitting in the pews of a 9th century church for the same reason it sounds good today; it sounded majestic, mysterious and um, powerful.
Here’s an example of this kind of chant called Free Organum, where the second line accompanying the melody is improvised with 4ths, 5ths and unison/octaves.
Another example of pseudo-power chords are found in left hand piano voicings. It is very common to play either root-5th or root-octave intervals in the left hand to support chords and melodies played in the right. Similarily, it’s very common to voice 5ths and octaves in a trombone section that is anchoring higher brass and woodwinds voiced above it. This is also true for French horns as well. These examples all sound great for the same reason as Gregorian chant, 5ths and octaves sound punchy and powerful and when placed low they form a solid foundation for voicings with higher pitched instruments.
So, what about guitar? There are some written examples of power chords in the classical guitar repertoire of composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, specifically his Twelve Études for Guitar, written in the late 1920’s and published in 1953. These etudes (especially No. 10) definitely feature the structure that we know as power chords, and while to these works are solid parts of the classical guitar repertoire, I’m not sure they were influential on the rock guitarists who made power chords a mainstay of guitar vocabulary.
While looking for the first use of power chords I’ve seen references to Sun records and Willie Johnson’s electric guitar featured on Howlin Wolf’s “How Many more Years” in 1951 and Pat Hare’s guitar playing on James Cotton's "Cotton Crop Blues" in 1954 as the birth of the power chord. I’ve also seen referenced Link Wray’s 1958 instrumental hit “Rumble.” All of these wonderful recordings feature electric guitar tones that are aggressive, overdriven, and undoubtedly full of rock and roll energy. However, none of these recordings feature the actual power chord structure. As far as I can tell, the first recording to feature power chords was “You Really Got Me” recorded in 1964 by the Kinks.
Apparently, the song’s riff was originally written by Ray Davies on the piano as a lighter jazz number, but it got turbo changed when it was moved over to guitar and recorded by Dave Davies through his razor blade slashed, pinhole punctured, gloriously overdriven amp. The song was a smash hit and was very influential on the whole London rock scene. The next three videos will demonstrate how power chord usage developed over the decade following 'You Really Got Me.'
The first song ‘Good Times, Bad Times’ by Led Zeppelin , is a good example of how power chords were used in 60's rock. I imagine the staccato E power chord that kicks the song off must have introduced many guitarists to the power chord sound, but like most rock songs of the era, the guitar arrangement also features riffs, open chords and barre chords. It seems that the power chord is used almost accidentally, without fully realizing it as a unique musical structure.
The next song, ‘Smoke on the Water’ by Deep Purple  features the power chord shape more prominently. I don't think that guitarist Ritchie Blackmore was seeing the into as power chords, but the verse and chorus do use the classic root, fith, octave power chord shape. The fact that Blackmore moves the shape around the fretboard leads me to believe that he understands he is using it as it's a voicing and that it's "a thing.”
Finally, we have ‘More Than a Feeling’ by Boston . The arrangement of the song features a squeeky clean acoustic guitar contrasted with a very dirty electric guitar playing almost exclusively power chords. Because the dirty rhythm guitar part is basically just the power chord shape moved up and down the fretboard, we can be reasonably confident that the guitarist was conceiving of power chords as a distinct musical device. The arrangment of ‘More Than a Feeling’ is also the template for much of the hard rock that would follow in the next few decades. Power chords from a distorted electric guitar would be contrasted by fuller, complete chord voicings from an acoustic or sparkling clean electric guitar. In the 70's the complete chord voicings might also come from a piano or B3 organ while in the 80's synthesizers were often times used to fill this role.
How Can We Use Power Chords?
Approach #1 - The Basic Root + 5th
Ok. So let's get into some (hopefully) novel ways we can aproach using power chords. I wrote a little power chord etude of sorts to demonstrate how these different approaches sound in a musical context. Here is what our chord progression sounds like with the most basic version of the power chord, the root + fifth.
Approach #2 - Roots Only
Before we add complexity to our power chord shape, I want to do the opposite and strip it down and make it even more basic. By playing only the roots of the chord we can still provide a nice amount of thick bottom to the arrangement. This works especially well when there is some other instruement covering the chords, like a keyboard instrument or another guitar. When we are only playing one note on the guitar, we have the advantage of being able to use a bunch of articulations like vibrato, bends and slurs, etc. that we can't use when fretting the multiple notes of a chord.
Approach #3 - 5ths Only
Another single note approach is to play the 5ths of the chord only. The bass is most likely playing the roots of the chords, so by playing the 5ths only it's like playing a deconstructed power chord between the bass and electric guitar.
Approach #4 - Root + 5ths, Stereo Guitars
Our next approach is an extension of our previous deconstruction of the power chord. This time, we can delegate one guitar to playing roots only, and another to playing 5ths only. I panned these two guitars out hard left and right on the recording to heighten the effect. I think this technique works great becuase we've got the basic power chord shape which already sounds good but with the added expressiveness of using all those aforementioned articulations that we can't usually use like vibrato, etc.
Approach #5 - Single Notes, Voice-Led
Our final single note approach involves using voicing leading to create a line comprised of roots and 5ths that moves through the chord changes. The goal of voice leading is to keep the movement of the linefrom chord to chord as economical as possible (in this case, using roots or 5ths). If possible, keep the note the same, or if note move by step. Additionally, it's nice to have a line that rises or falls. This technique provides a line that give a nice foundation to the rhythm section while also providing some interesting variety to catch the ear.
Approach #6 - Root, 5th, Octave
Now, lets start adding some notes to our power chord shape to create some different appoaches. This one adds in the extra octave to the shape. This thicker, fuller shape takes up a bit more space in the mix than the simpler root + 5th voicing. It's a subtle difference but worth investigating both sounds depending on the arrangement.
Approach #7 - Higher Root Positions
Most guitar players are familiar with power chords with roots on the E and A strings, but we can also build power chords with roots on the D and G strings too. These voicings are great because they shift the range of the guitar up in the arrangement. The higher register gives the power chords a more singing quality that punches through the mix. In the recording, I plucked the chords with my fingers rather than the pick. I love this sound becuase it softens the chord a bit and helps them sit back in the mix.
Approach #8 - High and Low Root Postions, Stereo Guitars
In this example, I recorded both the higher root position power chords from the previous example, as well as the lower root postion power chords from example #6 and panned them left and right. Orchestrating the power chords with two guitars across two octaves sounds huge and really fills out the mix. Depending on the arrangemnt, this amount of power chording could really be “too much power." Or maybe like pizza, you can have too many power chords??
Approach #9 - Low Inversions
The most basic variation of a chord is an inversion. You can think of an inversion as rotating the order of the notes in the chord so that a differen note is on the bottom. For a regular triad (Root, 3rd, 5th) there are two inversions, one with the 3rd and one with the 5th in the bass. Remeber that power chords only have two notes, the root and 5th, but this means there is an inversion with the 5th in the bass. When voiced low on the guitar, these power chord inversions have a very dark and ominous sound that lends itself to hard rock and metal. However, these voicings can work in any style when you are looking for a more grity texture.