What’s A Power Chord? – Acoustic Lesson

What’s a power chord? The name kinda gives it away, but what exactly are they and what makes these chords so powerful?

Power chords are very popular in rock music. Black Sabbath, The Who, Led Zeppelin… Those guys revolutionized the power chord. It’s almost impossible to find a rock song without power chords nowadays.

But despite its name, it’s not so much the chord itself that’s powerful. Power chords, in fact, are very simple and minimal. It’s the distortion that makes them powerful.

An acoustic guitar doesn’t have distortion, but a power chord can still be really cool on its own.

This lesson I’ll be explaining power chords, and why I think they’re also an asset on the acoustic guitar.

What’s A Power Chord?

Technically, the power chord isn’t a chord. An actual chord exists of three notes or more. A power chord only has two notes. “Power intervals” just doesn’t sound as good as power chords, so we’ll neglect the technicalities for now.

Still, it’s important to be aware of the fact that a power chord is basically just an interval between two notes. Which notes are those?

The Root And The Fifth

The root note of a chord is the starting point of the chord. It’s such an important note that the chord is named after it. Any note on the neck of the guitar can be a root. We’ll use G as our example.

As long as your root is on the first three strings, the fifth can always be found in the same place. You go up one string and go up two frets. The fifth of G is D.

The root note is usually played with the index finger. The fifth can be played with either the ring finger or the little finger. I advise you to try the ring finger first.

The power chord above exists of a root and a fifth. It’s also possible to add an octave. The octave can be found one string above the fifth and will be played with the little finger.

You’re now playing three individual notes, but technically your chord still exists of two notes: G and D.

Whether you play two or three string power chords is just a matter of taste. The bigger your chord, the opener it will sound, so it will depend on what type of sound you’re trying to achieve.

Power Chords vs. Barre Chords

If you’ve learned about barre chords, power chords might look familiar to you. That’s because there are power chords inside of barre chords. Let’s take the F major:

If you take away the three highest note, you get an F power chord.

The interesting thing is that if you take an F minor:

And take away the three highest note:

You get the exact same power chord.

This is interesting because this means a power chord is neither major or minor. This is because there is no third in a power chord. The third is the interval which decides if a chord is major or minor.

Where To Find Power Chords?

So we know what power chords look like. We know how to make them. We find a root, take its fifth, maybe add an extra octave, et voila. But it’s not always that easy to find the roots. Where’s the E? Where’s the C?

This is not something you can magically learn on the spot. This takes time and experience. I made a lesson about where to find the notes on the fretboard, which might be helpful to you. For now, I’m going to post a picture, which has all the notes on the first three strings before the fifth fret.

Power Chords On Acoustic Guitars

On electric guitars, power chords are used to achieve a powerful sound. They’re often used in the louder sections of the song. On acoustic guitars, I think it’s the other way around. You don’t have distortion available to you on an acoustic guitar. You can try to play power chords as loud as you want, but you’d be better of playing full barre chords. The more strings, the more noise…

I think it’s important to be aware of this. Power chords do not sound powerful on an acoustic guitar. Yes, they sound bad if you use them the same way people use them on an electric guitar. But finger picking on an electric guitar with distortion also doesn’t seem logical, until you see Mark Knophler do it in such a way that it somehow seems to work.

The way to make power chords work on an acoustic is to use them in a restrained way. To use them subtly, as a part of something bigger. Because that’s what they are: a simplified version of bigger chords.

Use them in a build-up of a song, or use them in the first half of a measure and play the full barre chord in the second half of the measure. Maybe you’re playing together with another guitarist… How does it sound if he plays full chords, and you play power chords or the other way around?

There are many options. Learning power chords will not hurt your playing. They will make you a more versatile guitarist. Just ask Tenacious D:

Outro

The fun thing about power chords is that they are easy. So have fun learning them. Of course, don’t rely on them too much. That also goes for electric guitarists. Power chords can be awesome and really helpful. Understanding the theory behind them on its own will already make you a better musician. But only playing power chords is like only eating pizza for an entire year. It’s fun the first few weeks but after a while, it will get kinda boring.

Still, pizza’s rock and power chords do as well.

I hope this lesson was valuable to you. If you have any questions, feel free to leave them below.

Happy strumming,

Timo

4 thoughts on “What’s A Power Chord? – Acoustic Lesson

  1. Hi Timo, 

    First, let me say this, adding that video of “Tenacious D: Master Exploder” is awesome. It is so funny. This is a great way to add humor to your website. Well, done. 

    I grew up listening to Black Sabbath, The Who, Led Zeppelin, and my favorite, KISS. Thanks for making it easy to understand what “Power Chords” are and how to play them. The explanation of ” Power Chords vs. Barre Clouds” was helpful.

    For a complete beginner is it best to learn on an acoustic guitar over an electric guitar? Or does it even matter?

    Good job, thanks. 

    johnny, the Grey Wolf. 

    1. Hey Johnny! Thanks for the kind words! 🙂

      In theory, it’s easier to go from acoustic guitar to the electric guitar than the other way around. So people often say it’s better to start out at an acoustic guitar. But in a honesty, just pick the one that seems the most fun for you. Looking at the bands you listed, I can imagine you’d have a lot more fun on the electric guitar.

      Timo

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