The power chord is present in the majority of Rock guitar riffs. Punk Rock is probably the style that uses it most, and bands like the Ramones and the Sex Pistols have numerous songs with riffs made up exclusively of power chords.
Rock, Blues and Metal riffs also use power chords a lot though they are more likely to blend them with other types of chords.
So why are power chords so popular?
The obvious reply would be that they sound good, which they do, especially when used with distortion and techniques like palm muting.
Yet, there is another reason for their ubiquity. Importantly, power chords are probably the easiest guitar chords to blend in with others in a chord progression.
Let’s get into a bit of theory first.
Scales and chords
A scale is a series of (usually) 8 notes that follow a pattern of semitones and tones. A semitone is the distance of one fret on the guitar, for example, G to G#; while a tone is the distance of 2 frets e.g. G to A.
A chord is a combination of notes chosen from the scale.
Major and minor chords
The major chord is made of the first, third and fifth notes of the major scale.
Thus, since the C major scale is made of the notes C, D, E, F, G, A and B, the C major chord is made of the notes C, E, and G.
In case you’re asking why you play more than three notes when you strum the C major chord (or most other chords) on your guitar, the reason is that you are playing some of those same notes more than once, at different octaves, on different strings.
The C minor chord is also made of the first, third and fifth note of the scale, but this time the notes are derived from the C minor scale. The first and fifth notes (C and G) are the same in the minor and major scale but the third note in the minor scale is lowered by a semitone. In C major the third note is E but in C minor the third note is Eb (lowering the note by a semitone – from E to Eb in this case – is called flattening the note).
Thus, the chord of C minor is made from the notes C, Eb, and G.
That semitone lowered on the third note is what makes the difference between a major and a minor chord of the same name. That note changes the flavor of the sound. Major chords sound bright and happy while minor notes sound sad.
What makes the power chord different?
The power chord simply doesn’t have the third note of the scale included. Thus, the power chord of C is made of only the notes C and G, the first and the fifth notes of the scale. The power chord is usually notated as the name of the chord followed by the number 5. Thus the power chord of C is usually written as C5 on chord charts or tabs.
Since it is the third note of the scale that makes the difference between a major and a minor chord, the power chord is neither.
How does that make power chords more convenient?
When writing songs using major and minor chords, you need to blend them well together. For this, most of the time you need to stay within a particular key. For instance, try playing the chords Dm, G, and C after each other – they’re going to sound good, because all the chords are in the key of C. You may not know the theory behind all this yet but your ears will tell you they sound good. Now, try changing the D minor chord for a D major chord, when writing music in the key of C…it won’t sound so good.
Sometimes it may, depending on the context it’s being used in, but most of the time it will sound bad, like a chord that shouldn’t be there.
When writing music using major and minor chords you have to spend time trying to find chords that fit – either by trial and error until your ears are developed enough to guide you, or until you have enough knowledge of music theory. (You should be both learning music theory and developing your aural skills, but you don’t need to wait until you reach a high standard in either to start writing your first songs. Songwriting is a craft you mostly learn by doing, so start developing those creative juices now!)
Since the power chord is neither a major nor a minor you don’t have to worry about all that. Using the example above, the D5, G5, and C5 could replace their respective major or minor and sound good, whatever key the song is written in. Even better than that, quite often you don’t even need to be in a key when playing riffs/songs made of power chords. There are countless riffs written with power chords where you can’t specifically say what key they are in!
Don’t make these 2 mistakes though…
If you want to improve your skills, either as a guitar player or as a songwriter (ideally you are working on both – they are different skills but they go hand in hand), avoid making these two mistakes in your way of thinking. I made these mistakes at different points of my musical journey. The reasons I consider these ways of thinking as mistakes are that they put limitations on what you learn and how to use it.
The first mistake I did was that I started to feel so comfortable writing songs using only power chords that I stopped bothering to learn new chords or enough music theory to understand how the process works. It was not a good idea. Power chords are great but don’t limit yourself to just playing consecutive power chords. The more chords (arpeggios, scales etc) you learn and the more you understand how things work and how they blend together, the more choices you have when writing or playing songs.
The second mistake came as a consequence of the first. After having spent a lot of time writing songs using little else but power chords (I was into Punk music a lot back then, so power chords satisfied my musical needs), I got bored of them. Without even consciously realizing I was doing it, I started avoiding power chords, dismissing them as beginner stuff.
This is simply not true. Bands like Iron Maiden and Helloween have a lot of riffs made mostly, or even entirely, of power chords – riffs which are anything but easy to play correctly!
In a nutshell, learn power chords, use them, and milk them to the full, but don’t rely on them alone. If you want to become a better guitar player, musician, and songwriter, you should always be adding techniques to your palette and using what you know already in a better and more creative way.
Once you feel a bit fluent in playing power chord riffs, you may want to learn how to add some major and minor triads to add more interest to your playing.
And if you don’t know from where to start, use this method to write your first guitar riff.
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