Power chords and barre chords for guitar – how and when to use them

Power chords and barre chords will both add power and dimension to your guitar playing, especially when playing with a group. There are a few differences between these two heavy hitters and when you should use them.

Power Chords

Think of the unforgettable riff of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. The distinctively grungy sound is achieved through a series of power chords (and plenty of distortion). 

A power chord includes the root note and the fifth of the root note, with the option to add the octave of the root note. On a guitar, this forms a specific shape, which is easy to move up and down the guitar neck to create different chord progressions. 

You can find the “fifth” of a root note by counting five notes up the scale from the root. So if you’re playing a “C” power chord, the power chord will contain C (the root note), G (five notes up from C), and C one octave above the root. 

Since power chords don’t contain a third note, they’re neither major nor minor. Power chords are usually written with a “5”, i.e. A5, C5, etc. 

Power chords aren’t solely the  purview of rock music – they can be found in all genres, including pop. They can also be played on piano. 

You can master power chords with this Power Chord Workout for Guitar. 

Barre Chords 

Barre chords are a little more complex than power chords. To play a barre chord, you’ll need to press your index finger along a fret, holding down five or six strings at once. Some chord positions may call for you to barre just two or three strings, which you can do with the tip of your index finger.

“A♯ minor chord on guitar with barre” by Lucian Popescu is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Doing this essentially shortens the guitar’s strings, allowing you to play a chord without being restricted by the tones of the open strings. This helps create chords with different tonalities, like minor, sharp, flat, and 7th chords. 

Most barre chords are “moveable”, meaning you can play them up and down the neck to play different chord progressions. 

If you’re just starting out playing barre chords and having a hard time, don’t stress! Properly barring a fret is one of the trickiest tasks for a new guitar player, but your fingers will gain strength the more you practice. 

Try this course to learn some easy barre chords for guitar! 


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