With its roots in the dirty, unpolished side of rock music, punk boils rock and roll down to little more than its most essential ingredient: attitude. Punk has mutated into many different sounds and subgenres, but a sneer and a healthy disrespect for oppressive authority have linked the various forms that it has taken over the years.
Despite its fast tempos, punk can be one of the most beginner-friendly genres to learn to play. This piece is going to be a primer on how to play punk guitar, primarily aimed at players who don’t necessarily have too much experience playing the genre. In it, we are going to cover power chords, palm mutes, punk strumming, and riffs.
The Power Chord
We are going to start with power chords. Power chords are in many ways much like the chords you likely already know, but they have some key differences. The notes that make your classic open chords major or minor are removed from power chords, meaning that they don’t fall squarely into either shape.
Additionally, power chords are movable shapes. This means that you can move your power chord shape up and down the fretboard, and it’ll still be a power chord wherever you put it. However, it’s important to remember that which power chord it is will change based on where you put it (for example, a G-power chord starts on the 3rd fret of the 6th string, but that same shape up on the 8th fret is going to be a C-power chord). With all that in mind, let’s get into power chords.
We’re going to start with an A-power chord, which is also referred to as A5 (if you see a chord name with 5 on the end of it, that means it’s a power chord). In order to play an A-power chord, place your index finger on the 5th fret of the 6th string (also known as the low-E string). Next, place your ring finger on the 7th fret of the 5th string and your pinky right next to it on the 7th fret of the 4th string. And that’s it!
You can see that shape in tablature here:
In order to play your power chord, just strum those the strings you see in the above tablature (6th string, 5th string, 4th string). Just make sure not to hit any of the three skinny strings by accident It’s a common mistake when playing power chords.
Now try moving that power chord shape up and down the frets on those same three strings and listen to how it sounds in different places. You’re still playing chords, just different power chords. In order to know which power chord you’re playing, simply find the name of whichever note you’re playing on the 6th string (that’s your root note).
Once you’ve done that, let’s go back to the A-power chord that we started on. Keeping the same frets in the same order, trying moving your shape over one set of strings, placing your index finger on the 5th fret of the 5th-string, your ring finger on the 7th fret of the 4th-string, and our your pinky finger on the 7th fret of the 3rd-string. You’re now playing a D-power chord.
You can see that shape in tablature here:
Now try moving your power chord shape up and down this set of strings. It works exactly the same as the power chord that starts on the 6th-string works. However, if you try this power chord shape down yet another set of strings (so that you’re starting the shape on the 4th string), you might find that it doesn’t work so well. That’s because you’re now touching the 2nd string with your pinky. The second string is tuned a little differently than the other 5 string on the guitar, which means that shapes that work on your other strings won’t work quite the same once your second string comes into play.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t play power chords that use your second string, just that you’ll need a slightly different shape to do so. But for now, let’s just focus on the power chords that have their root notes along the 5th and 6th strings.
The Punk Strum
One of the calling cards of punk guitar playing is its distinctive, no-nonsense approach to strumming. While many variations on and counterexamples to the following exist, the archetypical punk guitar strumming pattern is going to be eight even eighth notes all strummed down.
Let’s go back to the A-power chord we learned earlier, starting on the 5th fret of the 6th string. Now try strumming that chord in nice, even eighth notes, down-strumming each one. Once you’ve got that going, we’re going to add one more element to that strum: palm-muting.
Palm-muting is when you use your palm to dampen to the tone of your notes and stop them from ringing out so much. But make sure not to let the name fool you; while you are dampening the strings, you are not fully muting them the way who have learned to mute notes in the past. While palming, it is important that you can still clearly discern the pitch of the notes you’re playing, even though you are stifling them a bit.
To create a palm mute, rest the edge of the palm of your strumming hand near the very base of your guitar strings, by the spot where they feed into the body (which is called the bridge). Once your palm is in position, try strumming that A-power chord with the palm mute. It might take a minute or two to get that nice, crisp palm-mute sound, so spend some time playing with it and readjusting the position of your palm as needed. Once you’ve got a solid palm mute, try playing your A5 chord in eight notes again, except now palm muting them.
You can see that in tablature here:
Once you’ve got all of those variables together, try playing a full measure of that on your A power-chord (as tabbed above), then moving the shape so that it starts on the 5th fret of the 5th string (thus playing a D power-chord) for half a measure, then move it up two frets so that it starts on the 7th fret of the 5th string (you’re now playing an E power-chord).
You can see that in tablature here:
While many punk songs use power chords to create progression similar to traditional chord progressions, such as in the progression above, many punk songs implement much quicker changes with their power chords. By doing this, these songs arrange their power chords into something called a riff. A riff is essentially a short musical phrase.
While riffs are often more associated with metal than with punk, the history of punk is filled with iconic riffs that are part of the fabric of the genre. Riffs are especially prevalent in an offshoot of punk called hardcore punk (more commonly referred to simply as hardcore), which is exactly what it sounds like. It’s punk that’s heavier, angrier, often faster, and well, more hardcore!
We’re now going to look at a pretty typical power-chord-based punk riff. This riff is reminiscent of the main riff from “Nervous Breakdown” by hardcore icons Black Flag. It’s a bit trickier than the “Blitzkrieg Bop” style progression above, so stay on your toes while playing it!
You can see the tablature for the riff here:
While this riff is mostly just two chords, it’s the other two, very brief chords that make playing it tricky. The brief chord happens on the and-of-two on both measures. When you get to the brief chords, simply hop your hand up one set of strings while staying on the same fret. Then strum the new chord before returning back to the old chord. The same goes for both the first measure of the riff and the second measure. The only difference between the two measures is that your power chords on measure-one start on the seventh fret, and in the second measure they start on the fifth fret.
You can still use everything from the previously discussed punk strum in this riff. It’s still all even eight-notes that you can play by strumming down. The only difference is this riff you really don’t need to palm mute (Black Flag doesn’t). However, the riff does sound pretty cool palm-muted, so if you like the sound of it palm-muted, then knock yourself out!
Writing Your Own Punk Riffs
We’ve learned power chords, palm muting, riffing, and two pretty classic slivers of punk guitar. If that’s all you were looking for from this piece then that’s totally cool, but if you’re interested in writing some punk songs yourself, then please read on!
There are obviously many more ways to write a punk riff then the way we are about to discuss, but this is a great and easy way to get started. Below will be the tablature for all of the notes up to the 12th fret on the 6th and 5th strings that are in the key of G-major/E-minor. Please take a moment to play through them.
Now that you’ve played through the notes in the key on those strings, try making some power chords that start on the notes you’ve just played. It doesn’t matter which ones! Try a bunch of different power chords from the key, and see how they sound next to each other. Once you find a pattern that you like, try playing it the things we learned about today, such as eighth notes, all down-strums, and palm mutes.
Here is an example of I riff that I wrote using this exercise:
Punk is a whole genre and its guitar-playing goes much further than what we discussed in this piece, but all this material is a great place to start with punk guitar and I hope you had fun learning it!
Looking for a way to stay busy and stay connected to the world while social distancing? Try a 1-on-1 online guitar, bass, ukulele, drum or voice lesson with one of our world class instructors for just $20! Same world class instruction, live from your living room!