The Music Theory of POWER CHORDS

Powerchords are the building block of rock and metal. They get a bad rap for being simplistic, but the reality is that their simplicity gives them unparalleled versatility- the ability to accommodate both major AND minor tonalities instead of being limited to just one. Applying this ambiguity just requries a little bit of knowledge about scales and fifths, as well as the chords in a key. This video will go over the music theory of powerchords and how they fit into your scale concepts, as well as general ideas and applications of power chords and their variations. 


Please note, this transcription was computer generated and has not been checked for errors. However, I do hope you find it helpful. Be sure to check out The Ultimate Modal Poster!

There's a lot more to power cords than just Green Day and Nirvana songs. In fact, if you start applying some of the music theory, you know to the power cord concept, you'll find that writing with power cords is actually a very rich and fertile ground to be writing in there's a lot of options a lot of cool things we can do that. We can't do when we're working with full chords.

So in this video really what I want to do is tackle the music theory of power chords. What are they? What are the variations that we see? How can we use them? And how can we write with them? So let's get started here. All you have to do is pick a route. I'm going to pick the note G and if You go up five notes of your major. Scale 1 2 3 4 5 that gives us a fifth. That's the note D. So a root and a fifth that is what a power cord is if you play a root and a fifth at the same time, you have a power cord now to me, that's kind of underwhelming when I first heard the word power cord. I expected something like, you know epic and massive and glorious and then I got this and that really didn't sound too power infused for the word power cord.

But really, all you got to do is just throw some distortion on that if you play a distorted Our record something magical happens get that sound right there glorious and really the foundation of rock and roll is if we double that let's have another guitar play a G power chord and let's have a base play a low G note at the same time as a kick drum hitting on a drum set with a crash cymbal and you'll get this awesome, which is the greatest thing ever. That's the foundation.

Of like every rock and roll song right there just this giant wall of noise. And that's what comes out of just playing a G power chord. Now. Here's the thing a G power chord is not a cord that name is deceptive chords need three notes. We're only playing two notes were playing G and D.

If we look at a G major chord, well that has a g identity in it, but it also has a be in it and we're not playing at the if we look at a G minor chord a G minor also has a g in a D in it, but it has a B-flat as well. So when you see G and D you're playing.

Two-thirds of a major chord or 2/3 of a minor chord, but we don't know which one it is. So this could substitute as a G major is could substitute as a minor really if another instrument is playing one of those other notes one of those thirds the b or the B flat then this will transform into the sounding like one of those chords. So listen, here's a G power chord, but Imma have another guitar play the note B and you'll hear that sounds like a major chord now same thing again play the G power chord, but have another guitar play the note B flat.

And you'll hear this is functioning as a minor chord. So it's really important to remember that power cords are not major chords or minor chords, but they could be either depending on how you treat them. They're very transformative like that. So this is the first way I would recommend you use power cords use them as substitutes for major chords or minor chords. Nothing else not diminish not augmented just major or minor. You can sub in a power chord instead. So take a chord progression. You already know turn it into power cords, and now you've got like a punk rock version of that song or like a metal version of that song, for example, Hotel California classic chord progression all major chords and minor chords nothing too fancy in there. So we should be able to take those same chords and transform them into power forwards and get a heftier grittier versions of those exact same words, right?

And if you wanted to make like a Metallica version of this, all you got to do is just play some PAW me. It's on it and do your best James Hatfield impersonation.

So in addition to just using power chords as cord substitutes, I like to think of power chords as just big fat notes just giant notes.

So think don't stop thinking about keys and chords. Just think about if you've got a sequence of notes you like.

So let's just do okay. So I'm basically doing like Inspector Gadget. All right, I like that sequence of Which I just stole from Inspector Gadget. But if I wanted to turn it into power chords, let's just literally take every note and add V to it.

And you can hear that's very indicative of the stuff that you hear and you know Megadeth Iron Maiden Metallica, we hear this kind of stuff all the time. We have a cool line of notes and then it just becomes a series of power cords instead think of the song Iron Man the main riff. There's just these slid power chords, but this is The Melody of the song later on we hear it's just a single notes. So it's like a smaller version of the power cord version. So pretty simple stuff just take a simple sequence that you already like and just turn every note into its Power board by adding a fifth on top of it. The next thing you'll see a lot with power cords is to invert them. We know a power cord is just a root and a fifth. But if you play the fifth on the base instead, then you get a really cool sound you get this nice inverted power cord effect. So let's take a look at our G power chord. We were playing this before. It's a Joon daddy, right? But what if I play the D right here, I'll keep the D there, but I'll play the G above it instead and I get this and this is the kind of thing. We hear a lot in like I think ZZ Top music. I think of Smoke on the Water Smoke on the Water is all inverted power chords. If you look at this first sequence, it's just a zero and a zero, right? It's a d and a g and that's just a G power chord. So a G power chord and to this is the suspend inverted.

So here's the original power cord version of Smoke on the Water.

If I invert every one of those power cords, I get that grungy ZZ Top cool.

Were to it. I hope you hear the difference there. There's a lot more grit in an inverted power cord than there is in first position power cord.

Also a cool thing about inverted power chords is that you can access like lower tones that are even legal on your guitar. For example, like my guitars in standard tuning right now. So if I wanted to play something like AC power cord, I can't do that. There's no Lo see the lowest see I can find us here.

But if I play an inverted C power-chord I could just do this which actually Ali with the help of your bass player your bass player can thump away at a really low see you can do this and it's a good substitute for a really low gentie C power-chord, even though you don't have access to a low C. So by understanding that you can just you know, use these low strings in a different function that you normally do. You can actually like right in riff slower than you're supposed to and standard and still it'll still feel like a power cord as long as you know, your bass player can assist you by filling in that little bass note now before I go any further. I just want to present to little shapes here. Yeah, we're going to call this a diminished power cord and we're going to call this a stretched-out power cord when explain what those mean here in just a minute, but I want to introduce that first off those artificial names. That's just what I'm going to call them but they're going to kind of come in handy for the next section here. So very similar concept of what we were just doing with these big notes is to take the scales. You've already learned and just take every note and turn it into its own power cord. So you can write in that scale just using power cords. So like I really like phrygian dominant right and if I just take every one of those notes It's and turn it into a power forward. I have a really nice sequence of notes to compose with and I'm really not even thinking about chords. I'm not thinking major minor. I'm just thinking is this note in the scale? Yes. Okay. Let's turn it into a power cord and you can get some cool results out of that. Now here's where the theory helps out. Let's say we're composing an A Minor I can take any note in my a minor scale and I can build a power cord off of it and V that I end up playing will always be in the scale. Look when I play an A Power.

My fifth is Annie and he is in the key of A minor when I play a d power cord. My fifth is a an obviously a is in the key of A minor. So this applies everywhere except the second note. If I try playing a power cord off the second degree, which is B then my ring finger V ends up playing an F sharp and F sharp is not in the a minor scale.

So this entire video I've just been saying ignore it just play power chords where we want their big notes, and that's true, but you do want to keep in mind that in. In a minor, we have a be diminished chord and that's where this little diminished power cord is going to help us out. There's no such thing as a diminished power cord, but that's what I call it. Any guitar player will know what you're talking about. It's just a tritone. You've got a root and a tritone and that's going to imply that diminished to chord which is totally different than just playing a power cord on my second degree. And actually I think there's a lot of really cool options here because I love diminished chords, especially coming from that to position back to the 1 so hopefully you here. That this is a lot more flavorful.

It's a lot more mystery behind this than there is just playing right that's big. That's huge. That's a rock and metal.

This might be a little more neoclassical little more dramatic little bit more Melody going on by using this diminished to this also applies in major, right? If I was in a major the 7th note is supposed to get a diminished chord and if I try playing a power cord from my seventh note in major then all of a sudden my ring finger. Is playing a D sharp and that's not allowed in the key of a major there is no D sharp in the key of a major. So if I play a diminished power cord instead starting on that seventh note. It can help resolve me to my tonic now in my experience. This is kind of rare to see I don't see a lot of salmon one progressions what I do see a lot in punk rock is the stretched out power cord. So here's my a power cord. Right? What if I just took my first finger and stretched it out to hit that a flat or that G sharp hear what I get.

I get this really nice little movement of my leading tone coming back up to my tonic and you'll see this a lot in metal. You'll see this a lot in Punk and I need you to know that when you see a stretched-out power cord like this. The important thing to remember is to look at the note the look at the highest note right now my pinkies playing it that note is the actually the root of this chord.

This is actually a major chord substitute any time you see something like this my pink he's playing Annie. My first finger is playing a G sharp those Two notes of an E major chord and that's usually what this shape is doing when you see it when you see a stretched-out power cord. Look at the pinky note and ask yourself. What note is that and chances are you're probably playing that major chord. So here was an a power cord, right? And then if I stretch it out, this is not an a power cord. This is most likely an E major chord and it could help me go down to F sharp and then to a real so I could do something like a TIA. Over G. Sharp F sharp pretty cool stuff. Now, let's go back to the minor scale here for a little bit because if you know about Minor Keys, you know that that fifth chord is naturally supposed to be a minor chord, but we often make it a major chord because it's the dominant chord and it helps us back to the top so we could imply this major five chord. We can apply this dominant chord by doing are stretched out power cord even in minor keys. So here's an A Minor or here's an a power cord. We're thinking of it.

Flying a minor and then we can think of this as an E major being the dominant chord in the key of A minor. It's the same thing. I just did right and now I'm calling it minor. But remember we don't have contacts. There's nothing else playing those extra notes in the background so we can make this we could make this sound like major just by adding in the right notes in the background adding and C Sharps, you know G G-sharp some other notes of a major and this was suddenly sound like an a major professional take a listen.

Now here's that same chord progression. But this time in the background. I'm just going to fill in notes of like C natural G natural notes from a minor and take a listen to how drastically different that same chord progression sounds.

Now, let's go back to that Hotel California progression because we can kind of put all these ideas together here. Now I said the first chord in Hotel California is a B-minor we can imply that by playing a b power chord the second chord IS F sharp major. I can imply that by doing a stretched-out power cord like so the next chord is a major. I can apply that with an a power cord.

The next chord is an E major I can apply. That with another stretched out power cord and so on. Here's a G major.

Here's a D major that's implied and then an E power chord and an F sharp power cord, so you can actually see now some of the cool Chrome a decision that's imbued into this chord progression. Look.

You can hear it a lot easier to now that we've set it up this way. So I think when you start learning all these different options on how to play power chords you provide some really cool ways to play Simple chord progressions like that. That's a big jump E chord progression, but now it's the slidy descending Rift.

Kind of sounds like a 38 specials so painted room, but it's really cool to hear.

That same chord progression without all of the thirds and fifths present all the time what it turns into and the last thing I want to note here is that this stretched out power cord does have other contacts.

If you look at these two notes, I'm playing I'm playing an A flat in an e g sharp attorney. These could be two notes of a G-sharp augmented chord, right? So it's not like this has to be any major and I just want you to be aware of this these could also be kind of implying a minor Flat 6 chord, but in my experience anytime you see this most of the times you see this just take a look at that highest.

And think to yourself major chord. Hey my pinkies playing Ernie. So this is really an E major and nine times out of ten. That's the function that that little shape is being seen in so I personally think power cords are really cool things because there's so many options when you see a power cord pop-up, it's not major. It's not minor it could be either or you can play with that as a composer and you can really mess with people's expectations and come up with really cool, you know, interesting effects because of the ambiguity of a power cord and they also sound awesome. So if you're in a rock and Metal And just big epic sounding stuff. You're really going to want to no power cords and all their variations.

So I hope you enjoyed this video, and I hope you learned something. If you did like this video, you can think my patreon supporters for making it possible.

Thanks and see you next time.


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