If you’re a guitarist of the rock, metal, punk or even blues persuasion, one of the first things you learned was probably a power chord or two. Combining these easy-to-finger chords with a hefty dose of distortion and volume not only provided hours of fun, but probably annoyed the hell out of your neighbors too. Power chords are effective but easy to dismiss due to the abundant use of one shape; however, I recently revisited power chords and discovered a multitude of ways to use them.
The classic power chord, which some say was invented by Link Wray in the late 1950s, appears to have already been used by blues guitarists Willie Johnson and Pat Hare in the early 1950s. What is certain is that this classic grip paved the way for rock, blues, the early harder rock/metal of the late 60s and 70s, as well as punk.
A power chord contains just two intervals, the root and the fifth, which can be doubled for a heavier sound. Here’s the classic (G) power chord with just the root and the fifth, then with the root doubled:
To conjure up more variations of this grip, we can move it vertically across the fretboard. What you’re going to see is the same chord shape distorted by the guitar’s tuning. One of the keys to unlocking the fretboard is to understand that the major third gap between the G and the B strings causes shapes, patterns and scales to warp on the fretboard. I call it the warp zone, and you can find more on it here. Watch how the fretboard warps this G power chord as we move it across string sets:
It remains the same when we move it to the 5-4-3 string set, but watch what happens when it moves to the next string set and the B string is involved:
The note that falls on the B string is shifted up one fret to compensate for the guitar’s tuning. This is the same shape – only warped by the fretboard.
On the top three strings the B string again shifts the note up one fret with the E string following suit. These power chord variations are incredibly useful when writing guitar parts and when there is more than one guitarist in the band, or you need to make space (or get out of the way) of other instruments.
The Eric Johnson Power Chords
I call these the Eric Johnson power chords because he’s well known to use these and other spread voicings instead of a regular close-voiced power chords like the ones above.
You’ll hear Eric use this type of power chord in Cliffs of Dover and various other tunes; he also slides up and down the fretboard with them when improvising. Again, we have just the root and the fifth but arranged to create a different sound. If your muting is versatile, you can strum this one, or alternatively play it finger style or like Eric does with fingers and pick. If we move this down a set of strings, it will look like this:
Here’s another variation he uses:
The G Chord Power Chord
Here’s a power chord you can make from one of the first things you learned on guitar: the open G chord. Just be sure not to play any of the open strings for this one.
This is a great way to combine the heavy low end with higher register notes to really fill out the sound.
The CAGED Power Chord
I call this one the CAGED power chord because it reminds me of the C Shape from the awful CAGED system; however, this shape is actually useful:
The Classical Power Chord
In this shape we double up the fifths instead of the root which gives (to my ear) a more classical sound. I’ve definitely seen Ritchie Blackmore and Alex Lifeson use this kind of spacious power chord. I really like the sound of this one.
Remember, all these shapes are movable, simply shift the root note (in red). If you’re moving horizontally up and down the fretboard, the shapes will be the same; but, if you’re moving across the fretboard, you’ll need to take the warp factor into account.
Happy power chording, and happy christmas!