Power chords consist of the tonic (i.e. the root of the chord) and the fifth note in the scale, which makes it to a two note chord. Therefore, the power chords are named with a five, such as C5 and D5. As you can see in the diagram, the power chords can be played with two or three fingers. Only two notes are involved in both cases, but in the second shape (see picture below) you play the tonic note twice, in different octaves.
Power chord shapes
= Index finger
= middle finger
= ring finger
= little finger
= don't strum
Shape 1 includes the root and the fifth while shape 2 uses the root note twice, the second time one octave higher. There's no right or wrong in this case, it's up to your own taste and what sounds best in a specific arrangement (for simplifying matters, from now on we will only use the shape including three fingers).
The power chords are frequently used in music styles like rock, heavy metal and punk rock. So simple to play but newer the less they deliver a full and intensive sound. And the best result is given when you're plugged in with an electric guitar to an amplifier with distortion. Also, using palm muting once or twice in between will bring a cooler sound.
Like barre chords the power chords are movable. You can use the same shape as showed above all over the fretboard. The only exception is playing a power chord including the fifth string (B-string):
The next tab picture shows you where to find each power chord on the right fret and root strings according to the notes of the guitar.
With the help from the diagrams and the tab we looked at you should be able to play power chords with any root note you wish. See also the fretboard overview for more details.
Examples of common 5th chords
See more diagrams in power chords chart.
Power chord progressions
It is relatively easy to come up with progressions once you have learned the shapes. Just to give a few examples:
G5 - D5 - E5 - C5
G5 - C5 - B5 - D5
A5 - G5 - E5 - C5 - D5
A famous guitar riff that you could play with solely power chords is the intro to "Smoke on the Water":
A5 - C5 - D5 - A5 - C5 - Eb5 - D5 - A5 - C5 - D5 - C5 - A5
Power chord progressions with non-diatonic chord
When you are looking for progressions with more different chords it will not always sound good transforming minor chords to power chords and play the typical progression you may be used to play with open chords. Instead, you can throw in some chords that are non-diatonic (i.e. not key related):
A5 - E5 - C5 - D5
Eb5 - C5 - G5
G5 - E5 - C5 - D5
As a comment to the first of the examples above, C5 is the not-diatonic chord.
An alternate chord shape
A musician often strives for some kind of variation. For open chords you can alternate with sus chords, but this is not the case for the fifth chord. But there is a kind of "sus-chord" that you can use in this context also:
You play this chord shape by holding your index finger over the two lowest strings and release the finger from the second string. When you could alter between a power chord and this alternative (what happen in theory is that we change from tonic, fifth, octave to tonic, fourth, octave).
There is actually no major or minor when we are playing power chords. It may sound strange, but it depends on that there is no third. The great thing is that you don't need to consider major/minor. That's another reason for the popularity of these chords. Still, some refer the chord below as a minor power chord:
Actually, this is part of barre chord and could be useful in a situation there you want some kind of "minor sound" between the power chords.
See also Punk chords.