If you wanna rock, the mighty power chord is one of the first things you need to learn.
But although power chords are usually considered beginner (read: easy) shapes, things can get a little dicey when you need to move them quickly from side to side.
These lateral shifts are very common in the rock repertoire, so it’s a technique that’s definitely worth studying and developing. Here’s just a short list of songs that require fast and accurate power chord moves:
“Iron Man” by Black Sabbath
“Layla” by Derek and the Dominoes
“You Really Got Me” by Van Halen
“Seven Nation Army” by White Stripes
“Enter Sandman” by Metallica
“Vertigo” by U2
Why do we so easily seem to lose our positioning, miss the frets and generally get jammed up with these simple shifts?
That, fellow six-stringers, is the million dollar question. Luckily, there are some easy answers.
Ready to power up? “Uno, dos, tres, catorce!”***
Fundamental Concept #1 – Eyeball Your Target
When shifting power chords – or any moveable shapes, for that matter – job one is always to make sure you “eyeball” your target fret.
The trick is to shift the focus of your eyes before you shift the chord.
Since you’re already holding your current chord, you don’t have to look at it anymore. But so many players get kind of “stuck” there. Un-stick yourself by actively looking for your new target. This will dramatically increase your number of hits and reduce your number of misses.
Shifting attention is absolutely critical when you are moving longer distances along the fretboard – 4-5 frets or more – but it’s still important with shorter distances of 1-3 frets. Over shorter spans, your eyes may take in both frets simultaneously and kind of bounce their attention back and forth with the chords.
Fundamental Concept #2 – Maintain Your Position
All of the elements detailed below will get you playing quick lateral power chords with relative ease. But there’s one other overarching concept that must be at least touched on: you must maintain your power chord position from fret to fret.
Finger 1 must stay in a slightly-curved, “laying down” position across the strings. Fingers 3 and/or 4 have to stay two frets away, arched, with bent knuckles and sitting on the sweet spots of the fingertips. You can’t allow your knuckles to flatten or allow those fingers to pull closer than a two-fret distance from finger 1.
If your basic power chord technique is flawed, then this entire lesson goes out the window. Be vigilant about your hand position!
Shifting Like a Boss
After you’ve got the two fundamental concepts down, it’s time to move on to some finer details. Here are three power moves to get you shifting >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
POWER MOVE #1 – PIVOT ON THE THUMB
If we want to shift power chords easily, we must minimize friction.
Therefore, we lighten the pressure, both on the strings (Point of Friction #1) and from our thumb on the back of the neck (Point of Friction #2). Excess friction just slows us down and “constipates” the process.
However, quick shifts – especially ones that bounce back and forth between two chords – require us to take it up another notch. In order to gain real speed and freedom, we have to entirely eliminate Point of Friction #2.
We do this by pivoting on the thumb.
Almost every rookie guitarist tries to make short, fast shifts by releasing the thumb and moving it with the chord. But even in the best case scenario, there is still enough friction behind the neck to gum up the works. The secret is to pivot on the thumb and let the chord move on its own.
Try this: Hold the thumb firmly in place and pivot on it, so the chord can move side to side, “windshield wiper-style”, on the strings. You’ll notice that when the chord moves to the left, the thumb will turn a bit to the right. As the chord moves to the right, the thumb will now turn to the left.
NOTE: This technique is appropriate for common shifts of one to two frets (even three) but NOT for shifts of longer distances. In those cases, the thumb must be released.
For me, this was a true “light bulb moment” – no more power chord constipation!
POWER MOVE #2 – GET COMPACT
This is a tip that has pretty much changed the way I do all things power chord.
Whereas most folks stick strongly to the standard two-finger shape with fingers 1 and 3, I almost always default to fingers 1 and 4. I call this the “pinky power chord”.
I’m in Good Company Note: If you look at the image of U2’s guitarist, The Edge, at the top of the lesson, he’s rockin’ the pinky power chord too.
In a nutshell, the pinky power chord makes everything very compact, thereby relaxing your hand. The standard grip of fingers 1 and 3 is perfectly fine, but if you compare, you’ll notice that it requires a bit more tension, since your fingers are spread laterally. Less tension equals easier lateral movement and, as a bonus, less hand fatigue.
Combine the pivoting thumb with the pinky power chord and your lateral moves are now totally maximized, with minimal friction and a compact hand position. Score!
POWER MOVE #3 – STICK THE LANDING
The final component of any type of chord change is the ability to “stick the landing”.
Like a gymnast at the Olympics, you have to land in your target position cleanly and hold that position with a feeling of stability. If you’re feeling out of control at all, then you haven’t learned yet to stick the landing.
Try this: Move to your target frets slowly and settle into position. Now wiggle the chord a bit when you settle in, to make sure that you feel balanced and strong. Adjust if you need to. When you achieve maximum stability, memorize that feeling.
I know that seems overly simplistic, but it’s really not. Playing guitar is all about muscle memory and your sense of touch – pressure and finger positioning. It’s not enough to just keep trying over and over with no focus; instead, settle into your new position, wiggle it a bit to test your stability and memorize how that feels.
Let’s Go to the Video!
Want to see this lesson demonstrated on video? Want some exercises to put these concepts into action? Check out Power Moves with Power Chords.
***If you recognized that the “one, two, three, fourteen” in Spanish was a reference to one of our example songs, U2’s “Vertigo”, then you get an Internet high five!
QUESTION: Have you taken the plunge with pinky power chords? Do you find any advantages that the traditional shape has over them? Leave me a comment below!