It's Not Just About Power Chords!

Having power chord after power chord in your song will get boring... here's a guide to help you really spice up any riff you're working on.

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I don't mean to be a narrow-minded person; power chords are quite good. They're possibly one of the best chords invented for guitar, and they certainly sound nice. It's just that overuse of them in songs nowadays (and even in the older days) has led to their use becoming really unoriginal. Now, don't get me wrong, there's nothing really wrong about power chords. Go ahead, use them if you want, but I just want to emphasise the fact that overuse of them will get boring and quite monotonous. Besides, there are plenty of other types of chords you could put in place of a power chord and it would still sound relatively the same, though in most cases it actually sounds better. Here are a few things you could just pop in there instead of a power chord and it would still sound great.

Full Chord

Since a power chord consists only of the root note, the fifth, and occasionally octave, the chord simply cannot be major or minor. If you want your song (or just a part in your song) to specifically sound major or minor in key (e.g. major if it is seemingly happy or uplifting, minor if it should be depressing in some way), then it would be much better to play a full major or minor chord. For instance, if you want something to sound specifically C major, then just play a C major chord. A C power chord won't quite sound either major or minor, it will be teetering on the fence, but that extra stress of major will be enough to push it over the edge. Though in most cases the full chord is harder to play (especially to form the chord shape in time), but this is quite worth it.

Perfect Fourth Double-Stops

What exactly is a perfect fourth double-stop? It's when you just play the root note and then the perfect fourth, at the same time. For instance, sticking to C, a C perfect fourth double-stop would call for a C and then an F. So, in other words, a 5th string 3rd fret and 4th string 3rd fret is a perfect fourth double stop. Anyway, these really spice up your song. If your style is metal, then double-stops such as these go great in your rhythm guitar parts. They provide a much "heavier" sound than a power chord. Some great examples of good use of perfect fourth double-stops in metal would be the main riff for Metallica's "Creeping Death" and the opening riff for Iron Maiden's "2 Minutes To Midnight". These double-stops also sound good in solos, particularly anything country and blues. If you're doing, for instance, a hammeron in between two notes, just whip a perfect fourth up above your first note and hold it when you hammeron to the next note. Sounds great in most cases.

Move the Bass Line While Keeping The Same Riff

There's nothing worse than an extremely repetitious riff played over and over and over for an unnecessary amount of time. That being said, don't include a really great riff just once or twice, because that leaves the listener wanting more and then feeling disappointed. If you do happen to have a really great riff, it's nice to repeat it a while; in fact, it may be crucial to repeat it because most listeners will like it. So how do you repeat a good riff and not make it get old and sound monotonous? Move the bass line around. You will still keep the same riff but it will sound a bit different if, say, the bass goes down two steps, comes back up one, and then goes back to the original bass line. Iron Maiden are prime examples for this, and this technique is used in a mass number of their songs. To name a few, "The Trooper", "Aces High", and "Die With Your Boots On". So, if you're ever stuck with a great riff that repeats twenty times before your verse or something (or, in most cases, if it's for the intro), just move the bassline around each time you repeat the riff, so the riff will be the same, but it won't always sound exactly the same because of the bass.

Harmonize

Any riff can pretty much stand on its own, but it never hurts to harmonize. In many cases harmonizing can take a riff to new heights, and really make it shine. When harmonizing, experiment harmonizing with fifths, fourths, major and minor thirds... just about anything. They sound so much better than just one set of notes. Once again, Iron Maiden were probably the pioneers of this concept... either them or Thin Lizzy. Speaking of Thin Lizzy, think about the harmony interludes in between each chorus in "The Boys Are Back In Town". Think how bland they would have sounded if just the lower notes or just the higher notes had been played. Sure, it still would have sounded decent, but harmonizing it really makes it sound a hundred times more interesting. The great thing about harmonizing is it can be used in both rhythm parts and lead parts. Doing rhythm in lead parts can be strenuous, because you'll probably have to have two guitarists play two different sets of notes and stay in perfect in-synch tempo. Overdubs, however, can be done during the recording process and are probably much easier than trying to get both guitarists to play every note at just the right time. But when you pull it off, harmonizing sounds beautiful.

Inverted Chords

Inverting a chord is exactly how it sounds: invert the order of the notes. Staying in C, the notes of a C chord are CEG. If you play any other combination of those notes (EGC, CGE, GEC, GCE, EGC), you're still playing a C chord, only the different combination of notes can sometimes sound quite a bit different than the original combination. Experiment with them sometimes, you may just find a great combination.

Chord-Shape Variations

Whether you're a beginner guitarist or not, learning first-position chords is important, no doubt. But later down the road you're going to find that different chord shapes form interesting variations to just the regular first-position chords. Try each root note higher up on the neck, trying to map out where each next note will fall. Since you know a C chord is CEG, you know you need to find a C root note. Here is a lits of every single C root note on the neck: 1st string: 8th fret, 20th fret 2nd string: 1st fret, 13th fret 3rd string: 5th fret, 17th fret 4th string: 10th fret, 22nd fret 5th string: 3rd fret, 15th fret 6th string: 8th fret, 20th fret Knowing that those are all the root positions for your C chord, you can use any one of those as your root note and try to find the E and the G that goes along with it. And, of course, E and G could also be your root note, just so long as you stick with CEG, so you can start on any one of the CEG's on your fretboard and form the other two notes and you've got your C chord. Countless combinations. A good example of different voicings would be the intro to Megadeth's "Hangar 18". It starts off with a chord progression of D minor, D minor #5, D minor 6, and A minor add 11. Only after those four chords are played, they are played again in a different chord variation, giving them a higher-pitched sound. Whereas just playing those four chords twice for one phrase, they were translated into different voicings to make them sound different, yet they are the same chords. Pretty amazing, huh? Well, those are the main things you can do instead of a boring old power chord. Of course, there are many others, such as barred chords, chords with different notes in the base (or bass? Or both?), augmented and diminished chords, flatted/sharped chords, usage of different intervals in double-stopping, and maybe the verse in major and the chorus in minor or something like that. Hey, it's your song, do with it whatever you want. Just letting you know that some of the greatest and most influential bands of just about any given era would have thrown up at the thought of constant power chords.

145 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    negrotaurist
    nothing else matters isnt realy happy or sad, its just like thought provoking. It gets me pumped man.
    nightrune
    great article, but i love power chords, but i dont use them like punk rock, way too over used, i hit it like once or twice and then throw a lil fill in the key of the chord
    aboywhodestroyd
    I know this has been said, but it needs to be said again. Iron Maiden did NOT pioneer harmonizing, its been done since classical. However, I will agree with the statement that Iron Maiden pioneered harmonizing guitar parts in rock music (used very generally), but this needs to be cleared up, because everything uses harmonizing. If I sing a melody and play chords at the same time, then I'm harmonizing.
    Sum1
    Nothing Else Matters is a happy song? pshh...
    yes, if you didnt know it was about love, thats normally a happy song, unless its "i love death" or "i love pain" did you think it was a sad song?
    manson2482
    hello i dont mean to sound rude or nothing but all iron maiden is, is power chords. sorry to say it
    acknowledge_me_cas :(
    Although, there are exceptions. I think Alice in Chains did a great job of using power chords, and not sounding bland or overused. I mean hell, Angry Chair and What's My Drug Of Choice are all power chords for the most part. Otherwise, yes, powerchords get a lil unimaganitive.
    burndttoast
    Is it still pedophilia if the kids dead?
    No. It would probably be "pedonecrophilia." Hah. As far as the article goes: nice. You elaborated on this subject superbly.
    SethMegadefan
    manson2482: hello i dont mean to sound rude or nothing but all iron maiden is, is power chords, sorry to say it
    You name one--ONE--Maiden song that's all power chords. Go ahead, do it. You can't. Sorry; I didn't mean to sound like a complete Maiden freak because that's really not what I'm like, I just thought their style fit many of the examples I listed. And when I said they pioneered harmony, I meant in metal/rock/whatever. This article was geared more towards guitar players writing their own rock songs; not people writing symphonies. Although classical music will give you a hell of a lesson on music theory.
    MetallicAhead
    ive started to use power chords alot recently, ill try some of the stuff suggested in this article, hell it cant make my playing any worse than it is now . . .
    Drazil
    Nice article. Does anyone know Billie Joe Armstrong's e-mail address? This article might come in handy for him. I mean, his most popular full chord progression is a rip off from Wonderwall, after all.... Peace, Mike
    scarified53
    good article but you should have givin a deeper explaination about harmonising, apart from that, 4 stars, well done
    scumfuc_69
    If there's nothing wrong w/ just powerchords, then why all this? I'm not complaining about the article, so don't respond w/ bullshit
    bigrd15132
    I gave you 4 stars. You could've covered a little more about adding the major or minor 3rd to the power chord itself. Yea, I have nothing else to say.
    gmsje
    Very helpful in many ways, both for full and power chords which I didn't understand at all.
    5:15_Whofan
    correct me if i'm wrong, but isn't a perfect fourth double stop just 5th power chord but the root is the fifth instead of the tonic? for example: C p.f.d.s. goes CF but F 5th just goes FC, i was just wondering. good article by the way, 5 stars. also, i think think that IlIk2plygUItAr is a poet
    shadowofbodom
    that was awesome. only thing is a visual would have helped kinda... i still understood it all though. 5 stars
    Guitar_Poet
    Sum1: full chords dont always sound good in a distorted mode, and just cause you use a minor chord doesnt kill the whole mood of a happy song, ie Nothing Else Matters..
    Nothing Else Matters is a happy song? pshh...
    quesoso
    To 5:15_Whofan - you are partly correct. It depends on the context, whether or not a chord voicing with C and F is a 5 chord or a 4 chord. If the chord you're playing the voicing on is a C7 chord, then you'd be playing a 4 chord. If the chord was an Fmaj chord, you'd just have your standard 5 power chord. Extra music theory for those interested: The 4 is not usually played on a dominant seventh chords. Voicing a dominant seventh such that you bring out the 4th is called a suspended chord, or sus4 for short.
    cucumber1990
    Good Article but in some genre's power chords that sync up with the bass is all the guitar part is but it's mostly old Punk and Hardcore from the 80's(bands like Minor Threat and State of Alert) but most of those songs were too short to have anything else
    mikeman
    Iron Maiden pioneered harmony? F.uck that! Bach Pioneered harmony. Stupid Article that everyone should know.
    whitebluesboy
    another cool chord thing to do is to split hte notes chord in half using either another guitarist with different tone, or a bass.....like some plays the rote and the 3 and another plays the 5th and the octave
    metaljunkie
    FlyingBeerman: What the hell are you talking about? With funk becoming an increasingly important component of today's rock scene, the bass player is more prominent than ever. Hell, I'd say even Green Day lets their bass player play louder and more noticably on CDs than Led Zeppelin or The Beatles ever did. I'm not comparing bands or anything, just saying it's a lot easier to hear the bass player today than it ever was before. I concur on how the bass is getting louder, being a bassist, it makes me happy! but yea metal is starting to do that, but there is a little too much distortion that is sounds like a guitar tuned really far down, but then again would that make it a bass?
    Spity90
    yea this is a great article 5 stars.. i use a melody instead of a riff in most of the songs i come up with.. gives it the whole 2 violins effect lol great article keep it up!
    lacey_the_crazy
    Great article, I'm glad you actually offered practical advice rather than simply complaining about the overuse of powerchords
    aldude
    this reminds me of when me and my freind made a song and then at the end we realized that it sounded extremely emo... what a waste of time.. this should help us a lot in maknig songs 5 stars!
    FlyingBeerman
    Someone said many of today's bands (Top 40 Rock) neglect the bassist, so so so true. You almost never hear a bassist anymore.
    What the hell are you talking about? With funk becoming an increasingly important component of today's rock scene, the bass player is more prominent than ever. Hell, I'd say even Green Day lets their bass player play louder and more noticably on CDs than Led Zeppelin or The Beatles ever did. I'm not comparing bands or anything, just saying it's a lot easier to hear the bass player today than it ever was before.
    Any riff can pretty much stand on its own, but it never hurts to harmonize. In many cases harmonizing can take a riff to new heights, and really make it shine. When harmonizing, experiment harmonizing with fifths, fourths, major and minor thirds... just about anything. They sound so much better than just one set of notes. Once again, Iron Maiden were probably the pioneers of this concept.
    Iron Maiden pioneered harmony? WTF? Other than that, good article.
    KnightValor
    I liked it... But if I'm doing them right, Perfect Fourth Double Stops are NOT heavier than three note powerchords! Close, yes... but no cigar.
    The master
    First of all im new to this site and i would just like to say this was a very good artical allthough i dont argee with some parts if a song has power cords you are basically a just starting and you dont now how to do anything else but im also contradicting my self when i say they can livin up a song...NIRVANA USES WAY TO MANY AND I THINK HES WAY OVER RATED AS A GUITARIST!...good article.
    KnightValor
    Good article... Powerchords ARE way overused... But I think you are going a bit too black and white. Nirvana was a great hit, whether you like them or not, whether you think Kurt cobain (The Master: no, his name wasn't "nirvana") was overrated or not... And Perfect Fourth Double stops are NOT heavier than three note powerchords. Otherwise, good review.
    mikeofthechimps
    nice, but i'm sure that when most of us use powerchords its because we're using distortion - 3rds are just too thick and sound too mushy while a powere chord sounds (ahem!) powerful! but hey, you're right, they are a little overused
    spunkeymonkey36
    Yeh I agree, I fed up with the Kurt Cobain style 3 power chord long songs and a bearded shouting man. Very unmusical. What ever happened to Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin or Guns N Roses sort of guitaring, i.e sweet child of mine. I dont see how anyboby could prefer mindless powerchords to the magic that Eddie Van Halen or Slash could come out with. Probably thanks to the wierd youth culture known as punks who were the kids who hated pretty much anything tasteful. We can only thank Cobain for the crappy teenage bands we have today.
    sexihobo
    IlIk2plygUItAr wrote: Good article. Perfect length. Its like what a girls skirt should be like: long enough to cover everything, but short enough to be interesting.
    haha good way of saying it. nice article by the way
    Vaul96
    Double stops are power chords, just without the root note on the lower string. One thing alot of people don't realise, and this comes from my theory training, are that a 4th and a 5th are the same thing, just that the power chords 5th note becomes the 4ths root note and the power chords root note becomes the actual 4th. For some great power chord work, and I'm agrreing with the author here, Creeping Death is a stand out track for me. As well as "Skin O' My Teeth" by Megadeth. Mustaine and Hetfield widely popularised the use of power chords, although it was already being done by the original metal guitarists, Iommi, Page and Young
    Vaul96
    Double stops are power chords, just without the root note on the lower string. One thing alot of people don't realise, and this comes from my theory training, are that a 4th and a 5th are the same thing, just that the power chords 5th note becomes the 4ths root note and the power chords root note becomes the actual 4th. For some great power chord work, and I'm agrreing with the author here, Creeping Death is a stand out track for me. As well as "Skin O' My Teeth" by Megadeth. Mustaine and Hetfield widely popularised the use of power chords, although it was already being done by the original metal guitarists, Iommi, Page and Young. Those 3 used power chords all the time, but very innovativeley