Power chords are the foundation of rock guitar. But — after serving well for millions (I imagine) of songs, I can’t help but feel like “been there, done that.” There is nothing wrong with it, but as a guitar-based songwriter I am always looking for fresher sounds — and these 3 simple variations help me deviate away from the tried-and-true while still maintaining the charm of power chords — neither being major chords nor minor chords.
Add 5th Below the Root
Credit goes to my one-time bandmate Josh Wardrip (who was an amazing guitarist) for showing me this technique — it’s so simple yet powerful, though I don’t hear it being used thus far.
Basically, you add a 5th below the bottom root note. So it only works when you play power chords where the root is on the 5th string. Assuming you’re in standard tuning, it’s on the same fret as your index finger so it’s just the matter of extending it to cover the same fret on the 6th string.
I love playing power chords this way — it’s so dense, thick and aggressive. Perhaps I rely on it too often, but still, I’d rather play power chords this way than the regular way. Check it out in action with my modern prog piece “Bleeding Redwood” below — the riff kicking in around 1 minute mark is all power chords with lower 5th.
Add 5th Below the Root — and Omit Everything Else
It’s a variation of the above, but since power chords are essentially root and 5th (how ever many times they are repeated in various octaves) you can omit everything except the root and lower 5th note — you get a 2-note voicing that you can play with one finger. Makes for a much nimbler approach.
Add 9th for “Colorful” Power Chords
Andy Summers popularized the use of 9th in rock songs, but this one’s a rather aggressive twist to it. It may require a bit of stretch if your hand is small but instead of playing the top root note by fretting the same fret one string above the 5th, you can go up two frets and make the chord root-5th-9th. So in case of a E power chord, it’ll be E-B-F#.
Play a whole string of power chords with the 9th on top and you get this very colorful, ambiguous yet aggressive sound.
I love this sound also. So much that I came up with a tuning that’ll allow me to play 9th power chords with one finger — the “Cello” tuning. Named that way because the bottom 3 strings become tuned the same way as those of a cello.
This tuning makes a great alternative to the popular Drop-D tuning — same concept, yet heavier, fresher riffs.
The techniques above really form the foundation of my rock guitar writing. Instead of relying on heavy distortion to convey my aggression, I can use aggressively voiced chords to get the same effect. They are so simple yet contain as much possibility as the classic power chords.
I hope you enjoy writing with them! Let me know if you have other ideas to spice up power chords, or end up writing some cool riffs using the techniques above.