Power chord

Power chord
power chord
Component intervals from root
perfect fifth

E5 power chord in eighth notes About this sound play

In music, a power chord About this sound Play (also fifth chord) is a chord consisting of only the root note of the chord and the fifth interval, usually played on electric guitar, and typically through an amplification process that imparts distortion. Power chords are a key element of many styles of rock music.[1]



When two or more notes are played through a distortion process which non-linearly transforms the audio signal, additional harmonics are generated at the sums and differences of the frequencies of the harmonics of those notes.[2]

When a normal chord (for example, a major or minor chord) consisting of three or more different degrees of the scale is played through distortion, the number of different frequencies generated, and the complex ratios between them, can cause the resulting sound to be messy and indistinct.[3]

However, in a power chord, the ratio between the frequencies of the root and fifth is extremely close to 3:2 (see interval) . When played through distortion, this leads to the production of harmonics closely related in frequency to the original two notes, producing a more coherent sound. Additionally, the spectrum of the sound is expanded in both directions, producing a richer, more subjectively 'powerful' sound than the undistorted signal. With large amounts of distortion, the fundamental can appear to be an octave lower than the root note of the chord played without distortion, again giving a more bassy and powerful sound.[4]

Even when played without distortion, the simple ratios between the harmonics in the notes of a power chord can give a stark and powerful sound.

Power chords also have the added advantage of being relatively easy to play (see "Fingering" below), allowing fast chord changes and easy incorporation into melodies and riffs.


In a triadic context chords with omitted thirds may be considered "indeterminate" triads.[5]

Theorists are divided on whether a power chord can be considered a chord in the traditional sense, with some requiring a 'chord' to contain a minimum of three degrees of the scale. When the same interval is found in traditional and classical music, it would not usually be called a "chord", and may be considered to be a dyad or simply an interval. However, the term is accepted as a pop and rock music term, most strongly associated with the overdriven electric guitar styles of hard rock, heavy metal, punk rock, and similar genres. The use of the term "power chord" has, to some extent, spilled over into the vocabulary of other instrumentalists, such as keyboard and synthesizer players.

Power chords are most commonly notated 5 or (no 3) . For example, "C5" or "C(no 3)" refer to playing the root (C) and fifth (G). These can be inverted, so that the G is played below the C (making an interval of a fourth). They can also be played with octave doublings of the root or fifth note, which will make a sound that is subjectively higher pitched with less power in the low frequencies, but still retains the character of a power chord.

Another notation is ind, designating the chord as 'indeterminate' [5]. This refers to the fact that a power chord is neither major nor minor, as there is no third present. This gives the power chord a chameleon-like property; if played where a major chord might be expected, it can sound like a major chord, but when played where a minor chord might be expected, it will sound minor.

Although the power chord is associated with a distorted sound, most guitarists would consider that a power chord fingering can be called a power chord whether played through distortion or not.


There is disagreement over which was the first record to feature power chords. Link Wray is commonly cited as having introduced power chords with his 1958 instrumental hit "Rumble". Wray used a pencil to punch holes into the loudspeaker of his amplifier in order to replicate a distortion effect first improvised at a show in Fredericksburg, Virginia.[6] Wray pioneered electric guitar distortions, like overdrive and fuzz, and was the first guitarist to use power chords to play a song's melody.[citation needed]

However, power chords can also be found in earlier, less commercially successful recordings. Robert Palmer has argued that blues guitarists Willie Johnson and Pat Hare, both of whom played for Sun Records in the early 1950s, were the true originators of the power chord, citing as evidence Johnson's playing on Howlin' Wolf's "How Many More Years" (recorded 1951) and Hare's playing on James Cotton's "Cotton Crop Blues" (recorded 1954).[7]

A later hit song built around power chords was "You Really Got Me" by the Kinks, released in 1964.[8] This song clearly demonstrates the fast power chord changes that would become typical of heavy rock riffs:

The Kinks' "You Really Got Me" guitar riff. About this sound Play

Early heavy rock bands such as Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple also helped to popularize power chords.[citation needed] Examples include Deep Purple's "Smoke On The Water" while examples from other genres in the 80s include the Cars' "You Might Think".[9] In these genres rather then being emphasized through distortion the "austerity" of a power chord may be emphasized, "by muting the strings and plucking the chord repeatedly."[9]

Pete Townshend, having been influenced by Link Wray, is often credited for introducing the term and the power chord in general and is an avid user of them.[citation needed] "My Generation", live versions of "I Can't Explain", and "Baba O'Riley" are good examples of the sound produced.

Performance techniques

Power chords are often performed within a single octave, as this results in the closest matching of overtones. Octave doubling is sometimes done in power chords. Power chords are often pitched in a middle register. If they are too low, they tend to sound unclear and boomy. When played too high they lack depth and power.


Shown are four examples of an F5 chord. A common voicing is the 1-5 perfect fifth (A), to which the octave can be added, 1-5-1 (B). A perfect fourth 5-1 (C) is also a power chord, as it implies the "missing" lower 1 pitch. Either or both of the pitches may be doubled an octave above or below (D is 5-1-5-1), which leads to another common variation, 5-1-5 (not shown).

See also: Spider chord.


Perhaps the most common implementation is 1-5-1', that is, the root note, a note a fifth above the root, and a note an octave above the root. When the strings are a fourth apart, especially the lower four strings in standard tuning, the lowest note is played with some fret on some string and the higher two notes are two frets higher on the next two strings. Using standard tuning, notes on the first or second string need to be played one fret higher than this. (A bare fifth without octave doubling is the same, except that the highest of the three strings, in parentheses below, is not played. A bare fifth with the bass note on the second string has the same fingering as one on the fifth or sixth string.)

        G5     A5     D5     E5     G5     A5     D5     A5

An inverted bare fifth, i.e. a bare fourth, can be played with one finger, as in the example below, from the riff in Smoke on the Water by Deep Purple:

     G5/D Bb5/F C5/G   G5/D Bb5/F Db5/Ab C5/G


Another implementation used is 5-1'-5', that is, a note a fourth below the root, the root note, and a note a fifth above the root. (This is sometimes called a "fourth chord", but usually the second note is taken as the root, although it's not the lowest one.) When the strings are a fourth apart, the lower two notes are played with some fret on some two strings and the highest note is two frets higher on the next string. Of course, using standard tuning, notes on the first or second string need to be played one fret higher.

        D5     E5     G5     A5     D5     A5     D5     G5

With the drop D tuning--or any other dropped tuning for that matter--power chords with the bass on the sixth string can be played with one finger, and D power chords can be played on three open strings.

In order to maintain the alternating dominant and recessive notes, they almost never consist of more than 3 strings.

     D5      E5

Occasionally, open, "stacked" power chords with more than three notes are used in drop D.


See also

Further reading


  1. ^ "Glossary of Guitar Terms", Mel Bay Publications, Inc. "A chord consisting of the first (root), fifth and eighth degree (octave) of the scale. Power chords are typically used in playing rock music."
  2. ^ Doug Coulter (2000). Digital Audio Processing, p.293. ISBN 0879305665. "Any non-linearity produces harmonics as well as sum and difference frequencies between the original components."
  3. ^ "Distortion – The Physics of Heavy Metal", BBC.
  4. ^ Robert Walser (1993). Running with the Devil, p.43. ISBN 0819562602.
  5. ^ a b Benjamin, et al. (2008). Techniques and Materials of Music, p.191. ISBN 0-495-50054-2.
  6. ^ Zitz, Michael. Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star. Fredericksburg, VA. "Fredericksburg Offered up Fertile Spot for Rock's Roots" December 20, 2005.
  7. ^ Robert Palmer, "Church of the Sonic Guitar", pp. 13-38 in Anthony DeCurtis, Present Tense, Duke University Press, 1992, pp. 24-27. ISBN 0822312654.
  8. ^ Walser, Robert (1993). Running with the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music, p.9. Wesleyan University Press. ISBN 0-8195-6260-2.
  9. ^ a b Stephenson, Ken (2002). What to Listen for in Rock: A Stylistic Analysis, p.88. ISBN 9780300092394.

External links

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