What are power chords and how do they work?

Hello, my friendly friends! Tyler Preston here, coming back at you with another lesson. Today we’re going to talk about power chords. What are they? What are they good for? and how do we play them? Let’s get into it.

A power chord is an easy, movable chord shape that is common to rock and blues music, though it can be found in other genres as well.

Technically, a power chord is not actually a chord

Bear with me here.

The name “power chord” is a slang term. When we say power chord, what we really mean is a 5 chord. And a 5 chord is not actually a chord, though we treat it as one. Why is that?

Well, a chord is combination of at least three different notes.

A 5 chord” on the other hand, has only has two notes. It’s just an interval, or a combination of two notes spaced a specific distance apart. In this case, the two notes are the one—also known as the root; this is the note for which the chord is named—and the five, the interval for which this “chord” shape is named.

Here’s the funky thing though: even though we’re only playing two notes, we’re using three strings.

“How is that possible?” you ask.

Well, one of the strings is playing an octave of the one, which is the same note, just a whole octave (or 12 semitones) higher.

Anyways, I’m getting a bit far out there with the theory now— let’s skip over the additional technical details for the moment and learn how to actually play this shape.

How to play a G5 chord AKA a G power chord

To play the G power chord:

  1. Place your index finger on the 3rd fret of the low E string— that’s the note G;
  2. Place your ring finger on the 5th fret of the A string— that’s the note D; and finally
  3. Place your pinky finger on the 5th fret of the D string— that is the note G, an octave higher than the one your index finger is fretting.

Go ahead and strum all three strings together and… voila! A G power chord.

Cool chord! How is it useful?

Power chords are useful because they’re the first moveable chord shape that you learn, and they’re the building blocks of barre chords.

Here’s the difference: whereas barre chords are either major or minor, power chords are neither. This is becuase of what I spoke of a moment ago, how the so-called power chord (or 5 chord) is actually an interval. Power chords use the one and the five notes, but they’re missing the third note or interval that would make them into a true major or minor chord. Ironically, this third interval is called the third.

We won’t go into it too much here, but thirds come in two flavors: major and minor. Include a major third, and your chord will be major. Include a minor third, and your chord will be minor. Use the one and the five without a third and you will get a 5 chord, or what we refer to as a power chord.

What’s really valuable about power chords is that they’re movable.

For instance, you can take this G5 shape we just learned, slide it up one whole step (or two frets) and now you’re playing an A5 chord.

Move the whole A5 shape up one string, and now it’s a D5.

Pretty cool, huh? All you have to do is locate the root of the chord, which is the note that you’re playing with your first finger, and whatever note that is is the name of the particular power chord you’re playing.

Here’s another thing that rock about about power chords: you can substitute a power chords in for any chord in any song you’re playing.

It won’t be as harmonically rich as a proper major or minor chord, but in a pinch a power chord makes a great substitution, especially when you’re still working on conquering your full barre chords.

And of course, the last thing power chords are great for is riffing, which is when you slide back and forth between different power chords to create riffs. That’s where rock music comes from! We’ll talk about that more later.

As always, if you enjoyed this post, please share it with a friend. And if you have any questions or comments, feel free to hit me up on Twitter @MrTylerPreston, or shoot me an email at tyler@tylerpreston.com .

And until next time, my friendly friends: good luck, have fun, and happy strumming!

Tyler Preston

Tyler Preston

National touring singer-songwriter & music teacher. I'm a country boy at heart, but I paid my dues singin' the blues. Find me on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.