Beginner guitar: how to play powerchord riffs

Beginner guitar: How to play powerchord riffs
(Image credit: Future)

“Obvious question. What’s a powerchord?”

Powerchords are slightly different to the major and minor chords you already know. Hopefully you remember that major chords have a bright, happy sound and minor chords sound dark and sad. Well, by leaving out the most colourful notes, powerchords have a more solid, neutral sound. Perfect for rock and metal, then!

“Can you give me some examples of songs with powerchords?”

Sure! Powerchords can be heard everywhere so there are virtually limitless tracks to check out. For a classic option, listen to the verse in Black Sabbath’s Paranoid which features Tony Iommi’s palm-muted powerchords. 

The verses in Queens Of The Stone Age’s Go With The Flow also stay on powerchords. Following an intro of ambient arpeggios and melodic riffs Tool’s 7empest settles into powerchord grooves at 1:46. Slipknot’s Unsainted is way down in drop B tuning but the pre-verse and verse riffs are still powerchord-based.

If you’re struggling with a stretch, try practicing higher up the neck where the frets are closer together

“How do you play powerchords?”

There are a handful of shapes to learn and these alone will cover thousands of powechord-based songs. Take a look at the examples below where we’ve outlined four shapes for you.

“The last two shapes are a bit harder.”

If you’re struggling with a stretch, try practicing higher up the neck where the frets are closer together. Gradually move lower down to improve your stretch. It’s also worth knowing that you don’t have to play every note. Try playing just the lowest two notes of each shape. Or just the highest two. It won’t sound as heavy as the full three-note shapes, but the history of rock is littered with two-note powerchords.

“Got it! Shall we play some music?”

Yes! Take a look at our first tab example below where we’ve used two-note powerchords in the open position. It should be fairly easy to play.

“It’s pretty easy, but these aren’t the same shapes we just looked at.”

That’s because they’re down in open position. That just means the root notes are played on open strings. Take a look at the B5 shape - it’s a powerchord with its root note on the fifth string. A5 is the same, just two frets lower.

“I get it. What’s next?”

The second tab example includes full three-note powerchord shapes. Keep an eye out for the root notes - they’ll help guide you as you change position.

Ex 1 - Open position powerchords

In bar 1, the root notes are open strings, which makes these powerchords easy! Bar 2 ends palm-muted; use the side of your pick hand to deaden the strings.

(Image credit: Future)

Ex 2 - Three-note shapes

We’re using two powerchord shapes here - with fifth- and fourth-string root notes. Switching between the full shape and just the root note adds shape to the riff.

(Image credit: Future)

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Chris Bird

Chris has been the Editor of Total Guitar magazine since 2020. Prior to that, he was at the helm of Total Guitar's world-class tab and tuition section for 12 years. He's a former guitar teacher with 35 years playing experience and he holds a degree in Philosophy & Popular Music. Chris has interviewed Brian May three times, Jimmy Page once, and Mark Knopfler zero times – something he desperately hopes to rectify as soon as possible.