Shred­ded Metal

Australian Guitar - - Contents -

The hum­ble power chord is a sta­ple of heavy metal rhythm gui­tar. Se­ri­ously, noth­ing feels bet­ter than crank­ing up a Mar­shall and ‘chunk­ing’ out a low E5! Whilst power chords are by far the most com­mon chords used in metal, the mu­sic the­ory be­hind them is often over­looked by metal mu­si­cians. For this col­umn, rather than dis­cuss flashy ‘shred’ gui­tar licks, I want to ex­plain how power chords are con­structed, along with some dif­fer­ent vari­a­tions.


A power chord is built from the first and fifth notes of a ma­jor (or nat­u­ral mi­nor) scale. As such, they are often re­ferred to as ‘root/fifth’ power chords. What makes them in­ter­est­ing is that they don’t con­tain the cru­cial third de­gree (the note that de­ter­mines whether a chord is of a ma­jor or mi­nor tonal­ity). There­fore, power chords are ‘neu­tral’ or ‘un­de­ter­mined’ chords.

Power chords are so com­mon in heavy metal since when played with heavy dis­tor­tion, mul­ti­ple string ma­jor/mi­nor chords will sound messy and muddy, whereas power chords still sound crisp and clear.

Ex­er­cise #1 il­lus­trates some dif­fer­ent ways to play an E5 chord. In its sim­plest form, a power chord will con­sist of the root note as the low­est note (in pitch) and the fifth de­gree (Bar #1). You can also dou­ble up the root note by play­ing the oc­tave (Bar #2).

Power chords can eas­ily be moved around to dif­fer­ent keys by shift­ing the shape up and down the fret­board to the ap­pro­pri­ate root note, and they can also be played on dif­fer­ent groups of strings (Bars #3 and #4: root fifth string. Bars #5 and #6: root fourth string).


An awe­some power chord vari­a­tion is to voice the fifth de­gree in the bass (Bar #1). The chord would there­fore be in the first inversion (E5/B).

This adds some ex­tra ‘grit’ to power chords that have the root note on the fifth string. It’s im­por­tant to recog­nise here that al­though B is the low­est note, E is still the root (and if you’re play­ing in a band, the bass gui­tar would play an E). The re­main­ing chords are all dyads. A dyad is sim­ply a two-note chord, how­ever they can im­ply more com­plex three or four note chords. Dyads can be great for adding more colour to metal riffs, as op­posed to just us­ing power chords. Nam­ing dyads can be a bit tricky, but I’ve used a nam­ing sys­tem that hope­fully makes sense.

De­pend­ing on what note you con­sider the root, the dyad in Bar #2 could ei­ther be con­sid­ered an E5 in first inversion or a B fourth in­ter­val. Bars #3 and #4 out­line an aug­mented (#5) fifth and di­min­ished fifth (b5) in­ter­val re­spec­tively. The last two bars are ba­sic ma­jor and mi­nor third dyad shapes.


I’ve writ­ten a short riff that in­cor­po­rates all of the above men­tioned chords from Ex­er­cise #2. The first two bars fea­ture E5, Eaug(no3), Edim(no3), with a de­scend­ing barred line of Bb5/F, A5/E,G5/D, E5/B. Bars #3 and #4 are sim­i­lar, but here, three-note E5/B, F5/C, and Eb5/Bb chords are used. The next line starts with an Esus4(no3) dyad fol­lowed by a se­ries of di­a­tonic ma­jor and mi­nor third dyads (Bars #5 and #6). The riff con­cludes with a vari­a­tion of the open­ing bar, and then a low open E5 (Bars #7 and #8).

One of the best ex­am­ples of a song that ex­pertly mixes power chords with dif­fer­ent types of dyads is Me­gadeth’s “Holy Wars… The Pun­ish­ment Due”. Check that out, and try to write some sim­i­lar riffs of your own!

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