Power chords are an easy, fun, and accessible way to start playing songs on the guitar. That’s why I included power chords in my Ultimate Guide to Learning Guitar. In that guide, I cover guitar technique, beginner guitar chords, how to solo, and plenty more. Be sure to check it out!
In this lesson, I’m going to show you the basics of power chords, like…
- How to play a power chord
- Different power chord shapes
- An easy, no-sweat song that uses only power chords.
Once you are familiar with power chords and their shapes, you’ll be able to apply power chords to tons of different music styles.
Whether you’re into bluegrass, folk, country, rock, blues, jazz, or all of the above, power chords can be used in almost any genre.
What is a Power Chord
Think of a power chord as a simpler, straight-forward version of a chord.
- Only two notes are played at a time (three, if you count the octave).
- There is no major or minor tonality to it.
- Utilizes only the root and the 5th scale degree of a chord.
The Theory Behind Power Chords
I won’t get too detailed, but I just want to explain a couple of concepts surrounding power chords.
First off, think of scale degrees as the do-re-me-fa-so-la-ti-do. If you don’t know what this is, I’ll let “The Sound of Music” explain it really quick.
So, each of those sounds has a corresponding scale degree.
- Do = 1st scale degree
- Re = 2nd scale degree
- Mi = 3rd scale degree
- Fa = 4th scale degree
- So = 5th scale degree
- La = 6th scale degree
- Ti = 7th scale degree
- Do = Back to the 1st scale degree — but, up one octave!
Power chords utilize the 1st and 5th scale degree (Do and So). When played together, they create a powerful, warm sound that has very little dissonance in the chord.
The major and minor tonality comes from having the 3rd scale degree in a chord. Because the 3rd scale degree isn’t used in a power chord, it has no major or minor tonality.
That should clear things up on the theory side of things. The most important part about learning power chords, especially for a beginner, is to feel comfortable using the shapes.
So, without further ado, let me introduce some of the power chords shapes for the guitar!
Power Chord Shapes
There are three common ways to create a power chord. Most of the power chords utilize the same shape, but they use different fingers to play the notes.
The great thing about learning power chord shapes is that they can be applied up and down the fretboard.
Most chords can’t be moved to different frets, but power chords keep the same shape to move up and down the fretboard.
Power Chord Shape #1
The first power chord you’re going to make is a simple power chord on the 5th fret of the low E string. If you need a refresher on string names, the low E is the thickest string. Additionally, if you need help reading a chord diagram, click here!
- Start by placing your index finger on the 5th fret of the low E string.
- Place your ring finger on the 7th fret of the A string.
- Strum just the low E and A string.
That’s it! You’ve just played an A power chord…pretty powerful, right?
When you’re playing power chords, your index finger is always going to be the root, or 1st scale degree, of the chord.
In this case, since your index finger is on the 5th fret of the E string (an A note), you’re playing an A power chord. Your ring finger is playing the 5th scale degree in an A major scale: a D note.
Like I said earlier, you can move this shape around to different parts of the guitar and it will still sound great.
For example, you can play a power chord with your index finger on the 10th fret of the A string and your ring finger on the 12th fret of the D string, and you’d be playing a G power chord!
For now, try to stick to just playing power chords on the lowest 2 strings, that way you don’t overwhelm yourself with too many options!
Power Chord Shape #2
The next power chord shape builds off of the first one.
You’re going to start at the same place but add an additional finger.
- Place your index finger on the fifth fret of the E string. That note is going to be your root.
- Place your ring finger on the seventh fret of the A string.
- Tuck your pinky finger on the seventh fret of the D string. That note is the octave of the note your index finger is playing.
In this chord shape, we added the octave of our chord to give it some more, well, power!
The tonal quality of the chord stays the same, but it sounds a little louder and beefier because you are duplicating the root note. This three-string power chord shape should sound fuller than the two string version.
It can be tricky getting your fingers in the right area for this power chord, so make sure you practice building this power chord shape.
Power Chord Shape #3
Now, you may notice that the chord diagram above looks very different. That’s because it uses a barre to cover the notes on the 7th fret.
Barring with your ring finger can be a challenge, which is why I recommend everyone try to play the first two power chord shapes first. Once you feel comfortable playing those shapes, feel free to try the barre shape.
To simplify the diagram, we’re playing the same chord as power chord shape #2, except you’re using the ring finger to play the 7th fret on both the A and D string — instead of using your pinky.
Using your ring finger to barre can feel awkward, especially if you’ve never made a barre chord before. The important thing to remember when trying something new on guitar is to practice consistently.
I like to recommend people play 10 minutes a day, regularly, at the same time and place, to build the habit. You can read more about my practice philosophy here if you aren’t convinced!
How to Play “Louie Louie”
As far as songs that use power chords, “Louie Louie” is instantly recognizable and easy to play.
The 1963 cover of “Louie Louie” by The Kingsmen launched this song into popularity; however, it was originally recorded by Richard Berry eight years earlier.
Even if you don’t have tons of experience on the guitar, you’ll have tons of fun playing this song.
To play Louie Louie, you’re going to use three power chords, all of them using any power chord shape you want (in the video, I use power chord shape #2).
Start by making an A power chord.
- Place your index finger on the 5th fret of the low E string, ring finger on the 7th fret of the A string, and your pinky on the 7th fret of the D string.
- Play the A power chord 3 times, using all downstrokes. (Think 1 2 3 in quick succession).
- Move the entire power chord shape over by one string. Your index should now be on the 5th fret of the A string, your ring on the 7th fret of the D, and your pinky on the 7th fret of the G.
- Play that D power chord 2 times using downstrokes.
- Finally, move the entire chord shape up two frets.
- Play that E power chord 3 times.
- Descend back to the D power chord 2 frets below.
- Play the D power chord 2 times.
That’s how easy “Louie Louie” is! I think it is a great place to apply power chords to a song. There are endless examples of power chords in songs, especially as your move towards punk, metal, etc.
Moving Forward on your Acoustic Journey
Power chords are a versatile and easy way to start playing chords on the guitar. Be sure to continue working on all the different power chord shapes — you’ll never know when you need a specific one!
If you’re looking for more guitar instruction like this, I want to tell you about Tony’s Acoustic Challenge. I won’t get into the details, but it’s a guitar lesson plan like no other. If you’re looking to get better at acoustic guitar click the link to learn more!