14 Ways to Escape the First Four Frets, Part 8

14 Ways to Escape the First Four Frets, Part 8:
Escape #7: Power Chords (and not just the ones your aging, AC/DC-junkie uncle uses...)

Picture it: A Peavey Bandit amp sitting on my unmade bed. I plug in my shiny new, dark blue Carvin DC200 with a Floyd Rose tremolo that I'd just gotten via UPS, paid for by bagging groceries the entire summer before my 9th grade year. I turn up the distortion just like the guy at the music store did. I'm feeling like Michael J. Fox at the beginning of Back to the Future, only without the puffy vest.

Here's the moment of truth. The amp's turned up to 11. I'm sure I'm only getting one chance at this before my mother breaks down my door because her kitchen windows are rattling. I've got my Fender tortoise shell pick poised over the 6th string. I rake my right hand down the strings like fierce Bruce Lee Kung Fu chop shown in slow motion. And there I was: standing like rock star, ax slung low, head back, soaking in the sound of pure sonic...poo. Heck, my mom didn't even complain about the volume. It was probably out of pity that she ignored the noise.

Funny thing. I chose to play the first chord that I had ever learned. But that open C chord that sounded so pleasant on my acoustic barfed out of the amp like a wounded wail of a dying sea lion. (OK, I've never heard a dying sea lion...but just go with me here.)

I discovered two things that day. One, the electric guitar and the acoustic guitar are two very different instruments - not tuba and spoons different, but still different. That's a whole future workshop in and of itself. The second thing I learned is that a power chord wasn't just the cable that connected to our Apple IIe to wall socket (you know, power cord...nevermind).

For a number of years on my journey, power chords belonged in the realm of my electric guitar and never found their way to my acoustic playing. But like the first person to dip french fries in her milkshake at McDonald's and find that ice cream was indeed an acceptable, yea, even delectable condiment, I found that power chords tasted great with both the acoustic and the electric.

Before we get into power chords - let's talk mechanics. A power chord is the poster child for the adage "less is more." A power chord is simply two notes. The root and the fifth. Here it is power chord in musical notation terms:

The C is the 'root' and the G is the 5th. It is a C power chord, or C5, as it's commonly designated. Here's what it looks like on your guitar.
So back to the "sonic poo" I talked about early. Why does this chord sound great with overdrive/distortion, while it's close cousin, the open C, often sounds like mush. At this point, we could start talking equal temperament tuning, consonance/dissonance and overtones in relation to the difference between 3rds and 5ths. But at the risk of oversimplifying, let me just say this: the major 3rd interval, which is less stable than the perfect 5th interval, tends to sound muddier with distortion, especially in the lower registers.

This doesn't mean you can't use major and minor chords with distortion. It just means you need to trust your ear, tweak your amp and decide what sounds best. But the stable power chord will always deliver.

(if you have any deeper insight on this topic of why 5ths work better than 3rds, please chime in with a reply to this post...) 

One more point before we go on to start playing these power chords. Because there is no 3rd, power chords are what I like to call "gender neutral." They are neither major or minor. Let's say you're playing this chord progression: C, G, Am, F (1, 5, 6m, 4). You would simply play C5, G5, A5, F5. Even though these are all neutered chords, they will all sound a bit "major-ish" with the exception of the A5. It will sound slightly "minor-ish". That's because our ears have become accustom to hearing the 6 chord as a minor chord.

Enough theory and mechanics. Let's look at power chords.

Notice the "shape" of the C5 - and by "shape" I mean the 2-string/2-fret spread. This is the most common power chord "shape". This shape can also be played on string sets 6-5, 4-3, and 2-1. (Strings 3-2 require slightly modified shape because of the different interval between strings 3 and 2.)

This shape is most commonly played on strings 6-5 and 5-4. If we play the shape on string set 6-5, we call these a "6th-string root" power chord. The 'root' is on the 6th string. (And you've likely figured out that a chord is named after its root note.) And likewise, if we play the shape on string set 5-4, then we've got a "5th-string root" power chord.

This is where knowing the notes on the fretboard comes in handy. To learn the entire neck, see this training. But while you're systematically learning all the notes on the neck, there's something to be said for knowing the 5th and 6th string notes in a more linear way. Here are two charts to help you learn the 5th and 6th string notes. Click on them to produce a hi-res print version.


As an example, here are the power chord of the 1 - 6m - 5 - 4 progression discussed above:

Here is the same progression on the fifth string:

Just like we talked about with barre chords, if we only used one string set to play these power chords, we'd be doing some serious jumping around. But with a combination of 6th string root and 5th string roots, we can avoid big jumps.

A common variation of this power chord shape is made when the root is on an open string. Here are the three most common "open" power chords:

As you play these different power chords, notice that the same chord will sound different, depending on where it's at on the neck. The open D5 has a different quality to it than the 5th string root version. And the 6th string root version of the D5, up at the 10th fret, has a distinct sound from the other two. As a rule of thumb, the lower on the fretboard you play, the crisper the chords sound. As always, trust your ear.

Another variation of this shape can be created by adding the octave. This adds a bit more depth to the sound of the chord:

It doesn't matter how many roots and fifths are added. If that's all the chord contains, then it's still a power chord. Doubling the roots and fifths gives us a few "full" power chords that are nice and beefy.

It's now with these fuller power chords that we see the chance to escape the mid-range that gets over-crowed by multiple guitars, keyboards and voices. The upper parts of the A5, D5 and G5 will cut-through the mid range. But what about the other 90% of the time when we aren't playing one of these three specific chords?

This where the "4th string root" power chord comes in handy. To get the highest tone possible in each chord, we'll add the octave to the 4th string root power chord. Because of the non-fourth interval between the G and B strings, we have to modify the shape.

Check out the video (coming soon) to see this chord in action. Below is a chart (click on it)  to help you navigate the notes on the 4th string.

One last power chord (that's not really a power chord) is the "first inversion" power chord. It's used to walk the bass note from one chord to another. Most often, it takes us from the 1 chord to the 6m chord (C, G/B, Am). Here it is in context of a progression:
This is another common way you'll see the first inversion power chord used:

This video shows you how to use the first inversion power chord in the song Beautiful One.

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