Power chords


Recall, that a chord is a collection of notes within an octave that are usually played at the same time.(may 3rd)

Recall also that we are using numbers to describe notes in relation to the root note ( the letter used in a particular chord/scale/etc.)(int.lesson - building a context)

Recall that a major chord is a chord made up of the notes 1,3,5. (May 10th)

Recall that a minor chord is a chord made up of the notes 1,b3,5. (see last lesson)

Recall, that an octave is the shortest distance between two different notes with the same name. (int.lesson - building a context)

Now, I will define a power chord as the chord having the distinct notes 1,5,8(1). These notes being the root note (1), the perfect 5th (5), and the octave.

Power chords are denoted with a 5 after the letter name (and nothing else). Ex. C5 = C power chord, Eb5 = Eb power chord.

Now, there seems to be a misnomer, in that as we defined chords, they are made up of at least 3 distinct notes, and an octave of a note is not considered distinct. The way it was explained when I first came across them (which was in a keyboard magazine) was that each note was essential, including the octave, and that if you were missing one it wouldn't be a chord, but merely an interval (a perfect 5th). It went on to say that they were usually heard as left hand voicings (that means they're heard in the lower to mid range), this is fairly true. Now, if that answer doesn't suit you, I understand.

Now, having said that, things are handled more loosely on the guitar. Not every guitarist plays the octave note. And the rationale for playing them is not so much to create a heavy-stable sound in the bass range, as it is to avoid excessive dissonance from added gain/distortion to the notes. While "excessive dissonance" may seem subjective, if you have a distortion pedal/rack, you understand. Turn the distortion all the way up and try playing these two chords:
Cmaj9#11 = X32432
E5 = 079900
Which sounds better with the distortian all the way up? The one with fewer distinct notes (maj9#11 = 1,3,5,7,9,#11; 5 = 1,5,8). The power chord sounds better, most would agree.

Recall that the octave patterns are created from the tuning, and that we've learned all the chromatic notes in a relative wayto the root note in 5 positions based on open major chords (major chords,pentatonic major scale,minor chords,pentatonic minor scale,diminished chords (next lesson),major scale). So here are the power chords in the 5 positions we've been looking at.

Power chords "E-shape"(root note on the 6th string)

|-1-|---|---|
|-5-|---|---|
|---|---|---|
|---|---|-1-|
|---|---|-5-|
|-1-|---|---|

Power chords "D-shape" (root note on the 4th string)

|---|---|---|---|
|---|---|---|-1-|
|---|---|-5-|---|
|-1-|---|---|---|
|-5-|---|---|---|
|---|---|---|---|

Power chords "C-shape" (root note on the 5th string)

|---|---|---|-5-|
|---|-1-|---|---|
|-5-|---|---|---|
|---|---|---|---|
|---|---|---|-1-|
|---|---|---|-5-|

Power chords "A-shape" (root note on the 5th string)

|-5-|---|---|
|---|---|---|
|---|---|-1-|
|---|---|-5-|
|-1-|---|---|
|-5-|---|---|

Power chords "G-shape" (root note on the 6th string)

|---|---|---|-1-|
|---|---|---|-5-|
|-1-|---|---|---|
|-5-|---|---|---|
|---|---|---|---|
|---|---|---|-1-|

Notice, that not only do the root notes form the octave patterns (Scales archive, interval lesson), but the perfect 5ths do also. In fact, this is a good opportunity to start leaning the intervals (all 12 chromatic notes) in a relative way on the fretboard if you haven't been already. You could start with the octaves , then learn the P5's (this lesson), then the M3's and the m3's, then the P4 and m7, the M2's and M6's, the tritone, the M7 and the m2's and m6's.

You might also notice that these look slightly different than the ones you've seen. I've not really discussed the concept of "voicings", but the short and quick version is in order to fully play a chord you need to play at least one of each distinct note. many times, you have more strings than distinct notes. You could either double a note (add an octave of a note) or not play the string. All the different possible variations would be called different voicings of the same chord.

The most common voicings for power chords are the following (by shape):

"E-shape"(root note on the 6th string)

|---|---|---|
|---|---|---|
|---|---|---|
|---|---|-1-|
|---|---|-5-|
|-1-|---|---|

"D-shape" (root note on the 4th string)

|---|---|---|---|
|---|---|---|-1-|
|---|---|-5-|---|
|-1-|---|---|---|
|---|---|---|---|
|---|---|---|---|

"C-shape" (root note on the 5th string)

|---|---|---|---|
|---|-1-|---|---|
|-5-|---|---|---|
|---|---|---|---|
|---|---|---|-1-|
|---|---|---|---|

"A-shape" (root note on the 5th string)

|---|---|---|
|---|---|---|
|---|---|-1-|
|---|---|-5-|
|-1-|---|---|
|---|---|---|

"G-shape" (root note on the 6th string)

|---|---|---|-1-|
|---|---|---|-5-|
|-1-|---|---|---|
|---|---|---|---|
|---|---|---|---|
|---|---|---|---|

You might ask, How do I play (finger) that?
For the E,D,and A shapes, use your index finger for the 1, your ring finger for the 5, and your pinky for the other 1. (For the E and A shapes you could barre the 5 and 1 with ring finger).
For the G-shape, play the lower 1 with the index finger and barre the 5 and 1 with the pinky.
For the C-shape, play the 5 with the index finger, the higher 1 with the middle finger, and the lower 1 with the pinky.
These fingerings all follow the finger-per-fret rule.

Ok. So what can I do with power chords? You can substitute them for any chord that contains a perfect 5th. For example, I could replace an E chord with an E5 chord, or an Em chord with an E5 chord, etc.
(major = 1,3,5; minor = 1,b3,5; 5 = 1,5,8)

Polytonality
Usually when you see a "slash chord", it means play the top chord with the following note in the bass (ex. C/G - play a C major chord with a G in the bass). There is one exception. And you'll know it when you see it. And that is polytonality, which is an advanced concept of playing multiple tonal systems at the same time.


Remember how earlier I said that if you play a large chord through heavy distortion it will sound bad? Somebody somewhere found a loop-hole. split the chord up among several players. the simplest being two players. Consider if one guitarist plays a power chord, and another guitarist plays a power chord a M3 higher, the combined chord is equivalent to a major seventh chord. Both guitars heavily distorted, with no excessive dissonance. way cool. It's notated like a slash chord.
E5/C5 = Cmaj7 ( maj7 = 1,3,5,7)
Eb5/C5 = Cm7 (m7 = 1,b3,5,b7)
Throw in a bassist playing a different note and you could have a 5 or 6 (distinct) note chord, heavily distorted with no excessive dissonance. you need to understand not only what intervals are formed with the root note, but also between other notes in the chord (what kind of interval exists between the 3 and 7 for example).

Extra - Tritones
Recall, from last lesson that the tritone (b5) is an interval whose distance is a 1/2-step smaller that the P5. Many times, metal players will pl;ay tritones the same way they play power chords. I don't know a good notation for this as a chord (-5 perhaps, or o(no 3) is a bit better). But for kicks, you could try:
1.) Playing these chromatically (think looney tunes)
2.) Playing them along with corresponding 5 chord (E5-Eo(no3)-E5).

Here are the common E and A shapes.
See if you can figure the other shapes out for yourself.

o(no3) "E-shape"(root note on the 6th string)

|---|---|---|
|---|---|---|
|---|---|---|
|---|---|-1-|
|---|b5-|---|
|-1-|---|---|

o(no3) "A-shape" (root note on the 5th string)

|---|---|---|
|---|---|---|
|---|---|-1-|
|---|b5-|---|
|-1-|---|---|
|---|---|---|

Peace,
Chris Roberts


How do I change all those numbers to letters (for notes, chords, etc.)? Here's a transposition chart simianmoon.com/snglstringtheory/guitar/8theory3.html

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Previous Lesson - minor chords
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Last updated December 31, 2002.
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