How to Play Power Chords That Kick Butt!

Power chords, technically known as ‘fifth chords’, are widespread in rock and metal music.

Once you’ve learned the basic open chords, they’re usually the next thing a beginner learns (usually around the time they learn Smoke on the Water).

The good news is, with relatively little effort, they sound pretty cool.

In this article, we’re going to show you how you use them.

What is a Power Chord?

Power chords are the guitarist’s term for ‘fifth chords’ and as we said in the introduction, are used in a lot of rock and metal music, as well as other genres (punk, rock ‘n roll, indie, etc.)

They are called fifth chords because they are built from the first and fifth notes of a scale.

Guitarists tend to call them ‘power’ chords due to their ability to create a powerful, lively harmony.

A single power chord can change positions up and down the neck of the guitar and they’re named after their first or root note.

Power chords can be spotted easily as they have a ‘5’ in the title – for example ‘C5’ stands for a power chord in C.

Power chord terminology explained

If we look at notes in the key of C, we see the C5 notes come from the root and the fifth note. The root note is often repeated (called the ‘eighth note’) to fill out the sound, but not always.

Root Fifth and Octave Note - Power Chords

Types of Power Chord

There are three ways to play one of these chords, using 2, 3 or 4 notes.

2 Note Version

This one only uses the first and fifth notes of a scale (it doesn’t repeat the root note).

2 Note Power Chord

3 Note Version

By far the most common type, this one is the same as the above, only the root is doubled an octave up (an eighth note) for a chunkier sound.

3 Note Power Chord

Finding Power Chords

We’re going to focus on the two main ways to locate these chord, which is using the E or the A string. A good source of alternative patterns is here.

Using the E String

Let’s say we’re in the key of ‘C’, on the E string. Then you play it like so:

C5 Power Chord on E String

Using the A String

You can choose whether you play your power chord with the root note on the E string or on the A string. Where you go depends on the song you’re playing and which position it makes sense to get into.

See how we can play the same C5 chord using the A string as your root:

C5 Power Chord on A String

Fingers Positions

Now you know which notes to play in power chords, let’s take a quick look at correct finger positions for them.

Index, Ring and Pinky

If you want to use three fingers, to ensure clarity in your notes, this is the option for you.

Your index finger should cover the root note, your ring finger should push down on the fifth and your pinky can take care of the octave.

Power Chords - Index, Ring And Pinky Fingering

Index and Ring Barre

If you’re not afraid of barring more than one string with your ring finger, this way might suit you more.

Like with the three-fingered shape, your index finger should play the root note. However, your ring finger can now cover the fifth and the octave. They are on the same fret, after all.

Power Chords - Index And Ring Finger Barre

Index and Pinky Barre

The index and pinky way is just like the index and ring finger way of playing a power chord.

Your index finger pushes down on the root note, whilst your pinky barres the fifth and the octave. It’s probably the easiest one to move around, but if you’re not used to using your little finger, it can feel weird.

It may take your hands some time to get used to the positioning and the friction of the guitar strings however, keep practicing and it will quickly become easy. All the time your fingers are developing muscle memory, and protective calluses.

Index and Middle Finger Barre

A final option is to use your index and middle finger. This gives you the added benefit of being able to use your ring or pinky to play the classic Chuck Berry rock and roll riff.

Power Chords - Index and Middle Finger Barre

Strumming Technique

Unlike with some other chords, you don’t play many strings with these. Indeed, the only ones to strum are the ones that your fingers are touching.

So, if you opt for a two-note power chord, this does mean only play two strings at a time. If you go for the first, fifth and octave shape, that will be three strings at a time.

You can strum hard and fast, for an aggressive, punky sound, or you can pluck the strings individually for something more mellow. Whatever suits your style.

Practice

Now you know the two shapes and know how to go about fingering them, refer to the chart below and try playing some chords using root notes on both the E and A string:

Root Notes on the E and A Strings.

What Are Some Songs To Help You Practice Them?

Of course, while it’s great to practice playing the shapes up and down the fretboard, it’s just as satisfying to play songs that already use them.

And the great news is that you see them cropping up in all sorts of guitar-based music, especially rock and metal.

For example, in the iconic Iron Man riff by Black Sabbath, guitarist Tony Iommi uses power chords B5, D5, E5, G5 and F#5 to produce a mighty introduction to their epic track.

iron man chords diagram

Another classic example is demonstrated in Smoke on the Water by Deep Purple. The G5, Bb5, C5 and F5 chords are often one of the first riffs a beginner guitarist learns.

In punk, bands like the Sex Pistols, Ramones and the Misfits produce fast, aggressive riffs using fifth chords. The fairly simple structure and versatility of power chords really enables the high-speed shifting of harmonies used by punk bands.

In rock music, bands such as U2 also include fifth chords into their songs.

For example, in the hit single Vertigo, there’s an A5, E5, D5, G5 and G#5 power chord progression which creates a fun, sliding rhythm section. This works as a fantastic build-up to Bono’s “Helloooo, helloooo…. I’m at a place called vertigo!”

Can you Play Power Chords on an Acoustic Guitar?

It has to be said that yes they are a lot easier to play on the electric guitar. You also tend to find the style of music where these chords are played are often ones that use an electric (especially rock and metal) but there’s nothing stopping you playing them on an acoustic.

How Many Power Chords are There?

There’s no definite answer, as it depends on how many frets you have, how many strings you have and how you are tuned. On a 24 fret guitar, there are 49 notes. This means that you can play – if you wish – 44 different power chords!

Summary

Although they lack the texture of major or minor chords, power chords are highly versatile for this reason. They can produce a powerful harmony and are popular in metal, rock, punk, and indie due to their simplicity.

They can produce different types of music depending on strumming technique, and once you’ve memorized your root notes they really can be your key to nailing fretboard knowledge.

how to play power chords that kick butt!

Maddie Angel

Maddie is one of our resident senior writers at Zing. She plays guitar in a metal band and has a passion for flute and classical music. And yes, it's her real name :-)