One of the essential rock guitar techniques is the good ol’ fashioned power chord. These are chords that remove notes (anything but the root and the 5th) in order to sound clear and strong with a lot of distortion. Most guitarists play these in the form of “barre chords” (or “bar chords”).
These chord shapes are great because you only have to memorize a handful of them and you can just move them all around the neck (see any Green Day song for an example of this).
But they have a couple of problems. The first is that they don’t sustain (ring out) as well as open chords. Longer string lengths will sustain longer than shorter ones, and you can’t get any longer than open, ringing strings.
The second issue is that you can run into intonation problems, particularly as you move up the neck. A guitar can never be perfectly in tune all the way up the neck, so tuning a guitar is an exercise in compromises. Since most of us tune with open strings, it makes sense that you’ll have fewer intonation problems with open chords.
You can take a page from the playbook of Angus Young and Eddie Van Halen and start replacing your “closed” barre chords with a couple of open-string alternatives. Take at look at the chord diagrams below. On the left is the typical open chord voicing most players learn when they first start. You may people refer to these as “cowboy chords”. On an acoustic guitar or a clean electric they sound good.
Plug in and crank your amp up. On a clean setting, the voicings on the left sound fine, but with some grit and distortion they get muddy. Now try the voicings on the right and listen to how clear and powerful they sound, even with lots of gain. The voicings on the right imply the same tonality as the ones on the left, but remove notes that muddy up the tone.
￼The ringing 1st string is optional on this A chord.
The note on the 1st string is optional on this G chord.
Take a look at the voicing for the C chord on the right hand side—it’s a little unusual. Instead of fretting the 1st fret on the 2nd string (a C, the root), we’re fretting the 2nd (the D). This is typically how Eddie Van Halen frets an open C power chord. A music theoretician would call this a “C2” or “Csus2” chord. For the music theory nerds, the 2nd is the same interval from the 5th as the 5th is from the root. They are both 5ths and sound great with distortion.
You might be wondering how to mute strings that are in the middle of the chord. Depending on the chord shape, you can use the inside of a finger that’s already fretting a note to lightly rest on that string (see the voicing for the E chord). Another technique is to use the tip of one of your fretting fingers to silence an adjacent string, like silencing the 6th string with the finger that frets the 5th string in the C chord voicing.
Another advantage to these voicings, is that they use the higher (thinner) strings which gives you a clearer tone that cuts through. Fretting notes on the 5th and 6th strings gets comparatively muddy-sounding as you move up the neck. Play a barre chord style A power chord rooted on the 5th fret of the 6th string, then play the equivalent open power chord and listen to the difference? The second one has a brighter tone. In a band context this can make a difference between clashing with the bass and fitting right in that sonic pocket between the bass and the singer.
Next time you plug in and crank your amp up, try out these voicings instead of the usual barre chords. You may find that you’ve just taken your ass-kicking up a notch.