Power chords are not technically chords. They are actually an interval between two specific notes, that is, the 1st and the 5th degree (or note) of a Diatonic Major Scale (see power chords below). Note: There are also other interval possibilities for power like chords, but this article focuses on the common 1st and 5th-degree type of power chord.
Power Chords and Five Chords
Technically, one needs at least three different notes to specify a chord type, commonly known as a Triad. A guitarist typically calls them power chords for mainly two reasons: Bass string usage and distortion usage – otherwise, they should be referred to as five chords such as G5 or B5. Sometimes power chords are referred to as G (no 3rd), i.e., a G major chord without the 3rd note added.
Common Power Chords
The common power chord forms are easy to play, they involve using usually the bass strings on the guitar which give a great driving and powerful rhythm to a lead pattern played over them. The common three-note power chord form includes the Root, the 5th, and the Octave (1st degree, 5th degree, and 8th degree of a major scale).
For instance, in the key of C (C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C), the Root is C, the 5th is G, and the Octave is C. Hence, a C power chord (or a C5 chord) has the following notes: C root, G 5th, C octave. A guitarist can also put the 5th note in the bass for a nice effect. Moreover, a guitarist can drop the octave note to make a power chord easier to play.
Tablature of Power Chords
TAB#1 (G5: 1st and 5th, dropped Octave note – Easy Power Chord):
TAB#2 (G5: 1st, 5th, and Octave – Common Power Chord):
TAB#3 (E5: 5th, Root, and Octave – 5th note in the Bass):
Note: Lead patterns (solos) will not only use the bass strings of the guitar but will focus on the treble strings as well. This mix of bass strings (in the Rhythm, where the driving power is in a power chord, especially with distortion added) with treble strings (in the Lead solo) is a great technique. In short, power chord usage creates a nice thick sound over the thin sound of the treble strings.
Neither Major nor Minor Chords
One can think of playing power chords as the driving rhythm of the song. The neat thing is that power chords are consider neither major nor minor since they are missing the important 3rd, among other possibilities. A guitarist can take any chord progression and convert it into simple power chords.
When playing power chords on an electric guitar, distortion or overdrive is added that brings out the driving tone of a power chord – especially when the octave is included in the power chord. In addition, palm muting can be added for a nice percussive effect.
Smoke on the Water by Deep Purple
The classic song Smoke on the Water by the band Deep Purple is a great song that demonstrates the use of power chords. In fact, only four power chords are needed to create the famous intro: G5, Bb5, C5, and Db5. Note: It is possible to think of the G5 power chord (G major, no 5th) as a D suspended 4th (no 5th) chord when played inverted, i.e., with the D in the bass.
When a guitarist plays the open D and open G strings together, the ambiguity in the naming can arise. The best name is a G5 (inverted) power chord, but it is acceptable (as an alternate name) to refer to it as a D sus 4th (no 5th) power like chord. The G5 is the common choice and fits the overall structure of the Smoke on the Water song.
There are other forms of the five-chords, but we do not typically call them power chords if we are playing these intervals on the treble strings. They are thin sounding and we just call them a five of 5th chord usually.
Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Guitar Strings
The root for power chords is easily found on the fifth or sixth string, i.e., the thickest strings. Thick equals power and presence. One may assume that is why the late great Stevie Ray Vaughan played with 13-gauged strings (0.013, 0.015, 0.019, 0.028, 0.038, 0.058). The sounds he was able to create were amazing.
Power chords are a great way to play chords. A guitarist can select a few power chords — add some distortion, and then create a catchy rhythm. Afterward, a guitarist can add a few riffs over the power chord progression. In the end, a new and interesting song may develop. As one can conclude, power chords can be very useful in song creation.