This article focuses on playing rock music on the guitar and gives you instructions about chords and riffs that are ingredients in rock songs.
Power chords and double-stops
Rock guitar can be far from rocket science. It's rhythmic feel, attitude and some musical knowledge. You can go far with the three power chords presented in diagrams below combined with some speeded hammer-ons and palm muting (only A5 with the right bite and distortion on the amp will take you pretty far into the land of primordial ooze).
There are, of course, many different styles of rock music. In the first part we look at it from a more punkish and primitive way, with AC/DC as one of the inspirations. Plug in to an amp, turn up the gain knob and try this:
When you need some variation:
Other chords that come handy to put in the game:
G5: 3X0033 / 3X0003
One famous song to try with these chords is "Highway To Hell", which use the following progression for its main riff:
A5 – D5/F# – G5 – D5/F# – G5 – D5/F# – G5 – D5/F# – A5
A more complex way of using power chords together with relative chords in a progression:
C#m/E (046XXX) – Esus2 (024XXX) – A5
Distorted rock beyond power chords
To mix it up and create a diversity of note colors; to make it a little more "sophisticated", we can add some other chords that either can be combined with power chords or work alone.
Progressions including some of these chords:
C/E – Em – C/E – Em
Am (X025XX) – F5/C (X335XX) – G5/D (X557XX)
The second "package" of beyond-power-chords ideas (with a reminiscent of Foo Fighters):
E5 (022XX) – C/E – Dsus4/G
E5 (X79XXX) – Esus4/A (579XXX) – D5 (X57XX) – Dsus4/G (357XXX)
Yet another concept with double stops and three-strings sus chords:
D5/A (XX77XX) – Dsus4/A (XX778X)
You may want to check up the alternate Drop D tuning in which these chords can be practiced with less stretch for the hand.
To get a rock sound we don’t need more than a few chords. Some open chords, including A, D and E are well suitable for rock songs that goes for a heavier sound.
By using common open chords, you can play songs like “Wild Thing” by The Troggs:
A – D – E – D – A – D – E
... or the verses to Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World":
Em – D – C
Customizing the chords for rock style
Some open chord can, however, work less well in rock styles. The trick is to avoid chords with many open strings, or, adjust to only play the bass notes or use alternative shapes. For example, instead of the regular G major with three open strings, these are two options:
The first diagram has one less open string than the other common version (320003). And in the second version, the third (B) is removed altogether, which makes it to a power chord version, G5.
The regular C major can be replaced with Csus2, played like one of the versions below:
These shapes aren't optimal in the key of C, but works well when the key is G or A, for example. One of these can be matched agasint chords such as G (3X003X), D5 (X0023X), A (X0222X).
Suspended chords (sus chords)
Suspended chords are common in many music styles including rock songs. These chords are almost identical with the major chords, but a slight difference – in general you just move one finger to change the chord, for example D Major to Dsus4.
There are Suspended 4th (sus4) and Suspended 2nd (sus2), the names depending on which note in the scale that are in the chord – the second or the fourth. On the pictures below, you can see some common sus chords suitable for rock music.
Suspended chords are often used together with their relative major chords. Two famous songs written by Tom Petty can be used as examples:
The first song, "Free Fallin'", uses the following chord sequence in most of the song:
D - Dsus4 - D - Asus4
The second song, "Feel a Whole Lot Better", has a distinct riff in the verses:
A - Asus2 - A - Asus4 - A - Asus2 - A
Barre chords progression
A fatter sound can be accomplished by the use of barre chords. An elemental rock progression can go like:
Eb – Bb – Ab
Here we use the barre chords positions: X68886 (Eb), 688766 (Bb), 466544 (Ab). Often when barre chords are used in a rock context the highest or the two highest strings are not played.
By doing some of the strums with muted strings, you can create more rhythm interest to the sound.
Various progression in the rock genre:
C - Bb - F - G
B - G - D - A
G - Bb - F
A progression such as C - Bb - F is also suitable as a shuffle. All progressions can of course be transposed to other keys as well and could be played as power chords. In rock, some chords that normally aren't combined become new options whereas other options become less common; the table below summarize this for various keys.
Key chart for rock guitar
More rock progressions could be found in the 500 Guitar Chord Progressions ebook.
Strumming techniques and effects
Important as well is how you play the chords and how the guitar is configured.
Two ways to make your strumming sound right for rock is to play mostly downstrokes and with partial palm muting. The downstrokes enable you to play more aggressive and the palm mutings could make it sound cool. One of the fundamental strum patterns is the straight-eights involving eight down strums with the third and seventh strokes accented.
To get the right character in the sound, you will probably need some distortion. You can do this by turning the tone knob on your guitar, or, which will really make a difference, use a distortion effect.
Four popular models seen on images below:
Boss ST-2 Power Stack (1)
EarthQuaker Acapulco Gold Dist (2)
MXR M104 Distortion Plus (3)
Ibanez SMMINI Distortion Super Metal Mini (4)
The jam tracks are for rock guitar and involves only drums.