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How to improve at guitar ... forever!

Perfect Power Chords from Beginner to Band!

Thumbnail picture for Taplature power chords guitar lesson
Like a kid thrashing a tennis racquet in front of the mirror again!

A little knowledge and some just-above beginner level skill can go a long way. In this post we'll build step-by-step but quickly from what may be your first power chord to playing some proper band-level classic rock.

Power Chords - The Easiest Way to Play Guitar?

A decent grip on power chords is enough to play basic but solid guitar for just about any song you like. No need to worry if chords are major or minor and we can just ignore all those complex looking numbers! One shape fits all. Find the root note and plant your power chord there. It's not fancy but it works, as we'll see below.

Click to view the companion video to this article.

Your First Power Chord?

Below I'm playing an "A power chord" (A5 for short):

A5 power chord played at fret 5 on guitar
An A5 power chord ready for thrashing!

which looks like this on my Desktop Fretboard (click pic to zoom):

guitar fretboard diagram showing A5 power chord
Played on the root note A here but just move the shape up, down or across for all the power chords!

The Right Way to Play Power Chords!

The big question with power chords is, what to do with the strings we're "not playing"

Many tabs might write this A5 power chord as shown on the left but that misses out the hidden stuff needed to play it properly. What's actually played (at least 99% of the time) is shown on the right.

the right and wrong fingering for guitar power chords
The wrong, and right way to play power chords on guitar!

The "x"s are a key part of the power chord and its sound. We'll be playing those strings with relish as part of the chord but they'll be muted out by the fretting hand index finger.

This allows us to strum all the strings, allowing only those we want to, to ring. The muted strings will give off a clicking sound which will mostly be hidden behind the sound of the ringing strings (but which would be missed if it wasn't there).

Now we can really loosen up with the strumming hand, just like all the best "air guitarists"!

Behind the Scenes!

Looking up the neck at the index finger my power chord position looks like this:

power chord index finger position for muting
Index finger plays the low E string while lightly muting all the other strings.

My index finger is bent just enough to play the fret 5 note on the low E string while keeping light contact with the other 5 strings so that they are stopped from ringing i.e. "muted".

To help find that position you can first get comfortable with that index finger placement on its own. The following "chord" can even be useful for playing single note lines on the bottom string as it allows you to strum, rather than pick, them for a much bigger sound.

how to mute strings with the index finger for power chords on guitar
One note, 5 clicks up close. For me, a slight arch leaning left.

Seek Out the Right Angle!

I like to arch my index finger slightly and find it's best to lean it somewhat towards the head of the guitar; this also causes the knuckles of fingers 3 & 4 to lean in that direction and makes it easier to push their tips up towards fret 8 where the pressure required to get solid notes is less. More on that here in the video.

A5 power chord viewed from behind showing angle of slant
The angle that works best for me with power chords.

Experiment to see what works best for your hand and arm! Before moving on you'll need a position in which you can hit all 6 strings hard while being sure that each is ringing or clicking (thanks to the mute) as it should.

Adding Rhythm to Power Chords

As with any "closed chord" (no open strings involved) where we have full control of all 6 strings, we have the opportunity to mute all strings and strum rhythmic clicks (muted strums). In this post I'll stick to standard 8th note strumming terms (along the lines of a "basic strum" ... click through for a primer if this is new to you). Let's look at a single beat which matches a down-strum on the beat with a muted up-strum on the offbeat. This can be written in one of two ways (the second way is easier for me so I'll stick to that from now):

A5 power chord with muted strum pattern
An important building block for no end of strum patterns. 2 ways of writing it.

Taplature Instructions:

1. Strum down through the A power chord, while you tap your foot and say "One" out loud.

2. Relax the fretting hand ensuring you stay in contact so that all 6 strings are muted. Strum up across the muted strings while lifting your foot and saying "and" out loud.

Repeat at whatever speed you need to (zero miles per hour if necessary) until you are sure that everything is operating perfectly as described.

Over to Tappy for a Word on Patterns!

You may have spotted how everything moves in sync; strumming arm, foot and chord together.

1. DOWN) As the foot taps down the arm moves down through the strings and the power chord is pressed down to the fretboard.

2. UP) As the foot lifts up the arm strums up through the strings and the now relaxed chord is pushed up from the fretboard by the force of the strings.

Everything goes down followed by everything goes up ...what could be simpler? Your brain loves patterns like this so focusing on them is the quickest way to get things mentally filed where you want them!

We're back!

Make sure you can feel it ... nothing moves unless everything moves; that will make it easy to tie all those down and up movements tightly to the rigid clicks of a metronome plus to ensure you get the right sound!

How Do You Measure Up?

Once Ex.1 is functioning perfectly you're ready to let a metronome do the out-loud counting for you, adding the requirement of doing it in perfect time and allowing us to measure the top speed at which we can keep things perfect. When that works then so will doing it with a band! Practise right and it won't take long until you reach well over 200bpm but what's your (perfect) top speed today? Keeping track of your "high score" allows you to see progress and also lets you know if you hit a roadblock somewhere. I've included all the examples presented in this article, along with "benchmarking" boxes for each to track your progress, in the free download "Discover Taplature" sent out to all subscribers to this website.

Click the pic to download "Discover Taplature" for free!

Using Your New-found Skill! Chugging a "Backbeat"

With the mechanics of Ex.1 functional let's put them to good use in a simple but infectious pattern you can use in any 4 beat song forever and never get bored of playing it!

The "backbeat" of any 4 bar rhythm is beats 2 & 4. Listen to a band playing in 4 beats and you'll hear how drummers often accentuate the backbeat by hitting their snare on those parts of the bar. Here's an easy (and for me the best!) way to play a backbeat on guitar using what we've just seen above:

simple way to play a backbeat on guitar using power chords
A "backbeat" played on guitar. All muted strums except for on beats 2 & 4

You'll recognise beats 2 and 4 as being what we already learned above as Ex.1. Beats 1 & 3 are played through with the chord relaxed, giving us muted strums on both the down and up foot.

Once the backbeat rhythm shown above is under your belt we're almost ready to start using it in full songs. First let's take a look into how we'll need to change chords while strumming a backbeat.

How to Change Between Power Chords

We can play any power chord using the shape we've already learned, just by moving it so the index finger sits on the correct root note. When playing the A5 power chord above we put the index finger on the A note on the low E string fret 5.

fretboard diagram showing root notes on the low E string
Root notes A and D on the low E string ready for their power chords!

To play a D5 power chord we could simply move the same shape up the string until the index finger lands on the D note at fret 10. Nothing else changes!

D5 6th string root power chord shown on fretboard
A different power chord at every fret. Here's D5!

As discussed in greater detail in the Taplature blog article How To Improve Chord Changes on Guitar ... Forever! we can use a muted strum to get ready for the next chord in a sequence. This makes the 5 fret move between our A and D power chords easy!

how to change between power chords on guitar
Move while strumming the mute

The same pattern Tappy highlighted above (everything down, everything up) is still in play but now we're also moving to the next position (aiming for the next chord) as the finger pressure is released upwards from the fretboard.

The Eyes Have It. A "Hidden" Tip!

We're moving a fair distance up and down the neck. Here's the "trick" of looking ahead that makes hitting the right fret easy:

As soon as your hand reaches fret 5,

stare at the D note at fret 10.

As soon as your hand reaches fret 10,

stare at the A note at fret 5.

Example 3 with "look ahead" (click here for video demonstration)

That might feel strange to begin as your eyes (and even your whole head too) move separately from the chord but it's a system that you can use for any large position jumps on guitar; always looking a step ahead. Start slow and as you see your top speed rising you'll realise it's fast becoming a habit.

Closer to Home!

We can get all 12 power chords in music just by placing our power chord shape with the index finger on the fret of the low E string containing the root note we want. There's an alternative though. Instead of moving up the neck we can find a D root note right next door to the A.

Using root notes on the bottom 2 guitar strings to place power chords
Why jump up 5 frets when we can just move one string across?

The same power chord shape can also be used on the A string giving us a choice of places to play any power chord. Here's the D power chord made from exactly the same 3 notes we played above (in Ex.3 on the E, A and D strings) but now presented on the A, D and G strings.

D power chord 5th string root shown on fretboard
D power chord played with root note on the 5th string

The only real physical difference here is that we now need to use the tip of the index finger to mute out the low E string.

D5 power chord played on 5th string root
The same power chord shape ... this time on the inside lane. "X" marks the mute!

This might be a little trickier for a while but measuring to monitor progress will let you know if things are moving in the right direction. Here's the same change we examined in Ex.3 but now played exclusively at fret 5!

changing A5 to D5 at fret 5 on guitar
A little more craft, a lot less movement!

Strumming a Backbeat While Changing Chords

You should now be ready to put it all together and keep the backbeat strum we saw earlier ticking along while alternating a bar each of A5 and D5 power chords:

Try it with the D5 at both frets 5 and 10. The more adventurous of you could also seek out an A5 power chord built on the root note A at fret 12 of the A string. They all work similarly and trying out all the combinations can only be a good thing!

Bigger Is No Harder!

It's not really any more demanding to plug the same idea into a longer chord sequence; apart from first learning where to place the power chords correctly, not much else changes.

As an example here's the main sequence of "Day Tripper" by The Beatles which works a treat with just power chords played in a backbeat rhythm throughout.

how to play day tripper beatles chord chart
Day Tripper - try it with major barre chords too if you know them (or 7ths throughout)

If the line at the end looks scary then try coding it in numbers. Playing the power chords with their root notes on the low E string, the frets at which we play those four bars are 5, 4, 9 and 7 and it won't take long to remember that sequence.

Your Next Challenge - Into Reverse!

Don't worry, you're safe with Taplature!

If we swap the strums from Ex.1 around we now get a muted down-strum on the beat (foot tap) and an up-strummed live power chord on the "off-beat" (foot lift).

Run it slow to begin and you'll notice that everything is still moving in sync. This time we can picture the knuckles of the fingers tied to the downs and ups of the arm and foot and see all three body parts moving together.

Any discrepancy between the top speeds at which you can play this offbeat pattern and its mirror image (Ex.1) is giving you information that will push you to improve. How fast can you do them both perfectly? I discuss one fine hit of yesteryear where the guitarist uses this (almost?) exclusively here in the video.

Mix and Match - A Very Famous Example!

It's common to find both the single beat patterns we've examined above in rhythm guitar parts. Here's the classic "Smoke on the Water" riff played generously with power chords. You'll spot both Ex.1 and Ex.7 being used liberally here:

how to play smoke on the water power chords guitar lesson
The most famous riff of all time?

This one turns "upside-down" on itself, switching from initially hitting the power chords on the down-foot to hitting them on the up-foot. Even the 2 bars shown may be too much to easily take in at once and so it's back over to Tappy for his advice:

Tappy Says:

advice to break down power chord guitar parts for faster learning
If needed then the smaller the better!

You'll always get things learned exponentially quicker by chopping them into smaller segments. Let's focus in on just the first of the 2 lines presented above.

I've added instructions to be observed at each step. Beat 3 is what I call an "E- gg" (as explained here) in which we strum the chord on the downbeat and keep it ringing through the offbeat by lifting the strumming arm but missing the strings (a "ghost strum"):

breaking down smoke on the water riff into two for easier learning
A problem halved is often a problem solved!

Try walking through the above example applying the Taplature "Million Pound Challenge"! How slowly do you have to go to get everything 100% perfect? If it feels like hard work getting it right then good ... that's why it makes you better!

Once all the required details are absorbed and the pattern is ready to bring up to speed it's often useful to code things in a simple mantra, describing what we're doing. Chanting the words written in purple below (I've shortened "Bb" to "B" for ease of chanting) as you play highlights what you should be doing at each point.

speaking instructions out loud to help learn smoke on the water riff
If you can say it (while tapping your foot) you can play it!

All the skills you need to play the full riff are used in this representative loop, so once this bar is up to speed you'll be easily able to master the whole thing in double-quick time!

Name That Classic Rock Riff!

Let's put the skills we learned above to the test! Everything shown below should now be understandable ... and do-able!

Follow the Taplature instructions correctly and these old but gold riffs will soon be recognisable to most. If you're too young to have come across them before then your parents (or grandparents) should be able to help!

Name that Riff 1

This is pulled from a track that's a rhythm guitar masterclass from start to finish:

how to play pinball wizard power chords guitar lesson
No crazy flipper fingers required!

Name that Riff 2

One of the first big power chord riffs, this is famed to have been played with distortion achieved after the guitarist cut through the speaker in his amp with a razor blade. Here we don't get the respite of the mute ... an instant change (or three) is required!

you really got me power chords guitar lesson
You got this one! You really got this!

Name that Riff 3

A great twist on the common chord sequence that spawned a million songs, here's the first half of this floor-filling 70s rock anthem presented using power chords:

how to play since youve been gone power chords guitar lesson
Nothing here too hard. Could I be wrong?

Name that Riff 4

Here's half of the power chord riff that kick-started the grunge scene. Once you have these 2 bars looping you can add exactly the same pattern but 3 frets higher to complete the full riff!

how to play nirvana smells like teen spirit power chords guitar lesson
Not sure about the smell but sounds like ... ?

Name that Riff 5

Adapted from the record to use power chords, this still captures the "feel" of the original perfectly, especially if you can bend your index finger up just enough to allow in the open E string where notated (in purple).

how to play space oddity guitar break power chords guitar lesson
Space may be the final frontier but it's made in a Hollywood basement!

Who Noticed that We Skipped the Theory?

1) To place the power chord shape used here we only need to know the names of the notes on the bottom 2 strings. That doesn't have to take long if approached correctly and for the swiftest indoctrination see the article on my private tuition website, "The Quickest Way to Learn the Fretboard?".

2) For anyone interested in the basic music theory of power chords, they occur early on in my easy-to-follow Free Interactive Crash Course in Chord Theory for Guitar also published over on my private tuition website (desktop/laptop recommended).

And That's All You Should Need!

Another long article but there's nothing here that anyone can't master in a fairly short space of time with focus and "Effective Practice" however ...

It's rare for me to meet a new student (no matter how long they've been playing) who has a solid grip on the basics presented here. Don't underestimate their importance ... a good guitarist does the simple things well!

Anything I missed?

Any questions or problems?

Join me in the comments below or here in the Taplature Forum!

Enjoy! Old Swanner.


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