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I've been playing guitar for a while but haven't yet actually learned to play any songs featuring hard power chords. Now I'm trying to learn some songs by Metallica and AC/DC, and I don't have to tell you they're full of 'em.

I'm wondering what the "right" way to play power chords is, concerning muting. I have some problems with accidentally striking unwanted, unmuted strings when I play power chords, and find this very inhibiting.

My question is therefore whether the solution is a) improving my aim with my strumming hand or b) muting all unwanted strings and not worrying so much about what strings I happen to strike.

I understand that there may exist different philosophies between different genres and different guitarists, but in that case please just give me your personal views!


Below is a description of how I play two specific chords, for reference:

Let's take the E5 and the A5 as examples:

E5: 022XXX
A5: X022XX

To play the E5, my natural impulse is to put my left index finger over string 4 and 5 (from the bottom). I thereby also unintentionally press down string 3 and - a little bit - string 2. If I accidentally strike too many strings when I play the chord, these will of course ring.

To play the A5, I put my index finger over the strings in the exact same way, but one string down, so to speak. I also put my thumb over the neck to mute string 6. This way, string 6 will be muted but strings 2 and 1 might accidentally ring.

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one thing I have noticed since using computer amp sims is that certain simulation setups really accentuate muted strings and they actually muddy up the sound. The cleaner you play, the better off you are in the long run. –  horatio Sep 20 '11 at 21:32
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3 Answers

up vote 10 down vote accepted

You're definitely going to want to work on your accuracy. From the technical player's or perfectionist's standpoint this is a must, but it also just makes things better for you. Improving your accuracy here will help you on other chords and even when picking single notes; it will probably also positively impact your timing and help you to play faster or for longer due to less motion and obstruction.

While not unique, my method of chording power chords is a bit uncommon. If I were to play G5 for example I'd have the tip/end of my index finger on the 3rd fret of the E string, the tip of my ring finger on the 2nd fret of the A, and the tip of my pinky on the 2nd fret of the D, and my fingers arched. Quite different from the barre or partial barre many use with the fingers laying flat, but consistent with how you'd play many chords like a standard G (320033).

This makes it nearly impossible for me to mute the other strings, and I don't try to anyways, meaning my accuracy has to be "perfect". "Perfect" in quotes because there's really still quite a bit of leeway with the gaps between the strings and so on. It's easiest to play power chords based on the E string, and I tend to prefer the sound of the lower strings, so I'll often play 799xxx rather than x244xx for a B5 and so on.

There are three basic methods of avoiding hitting the other strings while strumming:

  1. Halting the strum after hitting the strings you wanted
  2. Strumming on an angle to avoid the other strings
  3. Strumming on a curve to "swoop in", hit the strings you want, and "swoop out"

(1) is pretty obvious, but I felt like making a picture anyways:

arrested strum

For the 799xxx example you'd just hit the E, A, and D strings before cutting the strum short. This is hard to get right initially and it can be tiring since you're adding in the effort of stopping your momentum so suddenly. It's also quite difficult to play fast. I consider this sort of a hack, although in certain cases it's useful. It allows you to give all 3 notes in the chord essentially equal power with a bit of a harsher sound, and you can create a nice effect by adding in a palm mute when you stop your momentum (essentially smashing into the strings). Finally it's pretty difficult to play chords that aren't based on the E string; to strum straight without hitting the E you need to rest your pick between the E and the A strings before the strum, which doesn't give you much room to accelerate and so on.

(2) is my preferred method when playing chords based on the E string. Basically you're hitting the strings like so:

angled strum

This is pretty easy to do; once you get the angle right, you just repeat ad nauseam. It allows to to make powerful strokes with as much of a windup as you want (windmilling and so on) if you want to, as well. It allows you to put more emphasis on the bass note of the chord since you're hitting it more solidly with the pick than the other strings. Obviously, it won't work for a chord with a muted E string and so on.

(3) is like this:

curved strum

This is the most difficult and also the best method. By altering the shape of the curve you can emphasize any of the three notes in the chord and it allows you to play chords based on any string easily and consistently. To play this right you need to get really familiar with your instrument — the size of the gap between strings, how much a particular pick rebounds when you hit a particular string at a particular angle with a particular force, etc. — and you can only do that via practice, practice, practice.

It's easiest to use this method by strumming largely with the wrist, which allows for soft chords much more easily than the other methods. Harder strumming can get tiring and even painful if you rely only on your wrist, though, so you'll have to learn how to twist your wrist just enough and with the right timing that you "swoop" in and out hitting only the right strings during the strum. Again, this takes practice. It really shouldn't take you too long, but you do need to purposefully focus on it in order to get it right.

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Thanks a lot for your thorough answer! By the way, at about 2:21 in this clip - youtube.com/watch?v=IdkKmTXATjA - Hetfield is playing a chord based on the A-string, and doesn't seem to be muting anything. He's probably using method 3 there, right? –  andreasdr Sep 22 '11 at 21:29
    
@andreasdr Looks like it, he's twisting his wrist quite a lot though which I would caution against till you've built up enough strength in your wrist. –  Matthew Read Sep 22 '11 at 21:39
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The technique used by Metallica and a lot of others is to aggressively mute with left and right hands, but not really to stop unwanted strings ringing - it's main use is to damp the played strings, giving that "chug" sound. In saying that, when playing a series of powerchords it can make life easier if you use palm muting with your right hand on the unwanted strings. With both Metallica and AC/DC, this is actually quite straightforward for a lot of their songs.

What you want to do is practice so that you only hit the strings you want to. This will come with time and you'll find it can be pretty easy. Even while learning, you won't need to mute all the other strings, maybe just the one next to the strings you want to play - in case you overstrike.

A key aspect of Metallica's work is a heavy use of downstrokes - this gives a more powerful sound, but also helps you if you want to be accurate: downstrokes can be much easier to control, especially for your A5 chord, for example.

Rock also has a tradition of not being as technique-perfect as, say, classical guitar. While it is very good form to play the chords 'correctly' as @Matthew describes, often what you'll find is short-cuts are taken in order to make a more powerful sound, or to speed up a movement, or possibly because the guitarist has to plan a jump off a stack of Marshalls.

A final thought - while the rhythm part in AC/DC songs is often chuggy, muted power chords, the lead chords played by Angus are often deliberately open and ringing to bring in many overtones. He is very good at choosing chords based around low and high notes.

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I meant to mention the "chug". +1 for that and the Metallica-specific knowledge. –  Matthew Read Sep 20 '11 at 15:38
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Definitely do this. Even if you in theory have perfect accuracy, you'll still want to do this because of sympathetic vibrations (resonance). Suppose you play an E-power chord on the A string at fret 7, but you want to to be quick and then stop. Not muting the other strings, the low-E, high-e and b strings will continue to ring out even after you've lifted your fingers off the fret board.

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That's a good point (+1) but also an entirely different reason for muting. Muting strings you strike will still result in a sound, for example. What are you opinions on improving accuracy? –  Matthew Read Sep 21 '11 at 19:41
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True, they will still produce sound (harmonics at the 7th fret for example), but typically they get drowned out by the notes you intended to play anyway. I notice a lot of time when I play the Bark at the Moon intro, I hit an extra string sometimes, but I never actually hear it. I think Chris Broderick may have mentioned this in his Chaos Theory videos. Of course I am for improving your accuracy, it helps with your overall control. If people would work on this more, maybe they would shy away from anchoring. –  MGZero Sep 21 '11 at 19:49
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