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The Power Chord: Creating Musicians Since 1951

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This article was originally posted on Medium.com.


I’ve always prided myself on being a bit of a renaissance man. Playing music, programming, writing, crocheting, picking locks… I want to learn how to do it all. In my short life, I have developed a talent for picking up new skills in 24 hours flat using, what I like to call, the Power Chord Theory.

The History

When I was in the fifth grade, I wanted nothing more than to be in a band. I begged my parents for months to buy me a guitar, and on Christmas morning, I woke up to a brand new Peavy guitar under the tree. The following week, I was enrolled in guitar lessons and was learning how to play Frosty the Snowman. For the next year, I learned guitar basics, but it wasn’t until I discovered a magic chord, called the “power chord,” that I truly felt like a musician.

Originated by Willie Johnson in 1951 on Howlin’ Wolf’s “How Many More Years,” the power chord is a two note dyad that makes up a key element in many styles of rock music. Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, The Who, The Kinks, The Cars… The list of bands who have utilized the power chord to build their careers is endless, and I had their secret. I had spent a year suffering through Frosty the Snowman and Saving Grace, but the introduction of these two little notes turned my two songs into twenty overnight.

The Theory

Since my power chord moment, I have learned to look for the power chord in every new skill I decide pick up. The Power Chord Theory isn’t about becoming an expert in a new skill, but rather, it is about finding the fundamental secret behind the mechanics of that skill. With the guitar, it was the power chord. When I learned to pick locks, raking was the key. Photography taught me the rule of thirds, and the power chord of crocheting is the double crochet.

Research, Research, and More Research

Discovering a power chord isn’t always easy. Often, it takes research to figure out the secret to a new skill. Luckily, the key to a new skill is often found in the underlying material about it. When learning the guitar, the abundance of songs composed of power chords is so pervasive that spotting the recurring theme is fairly easy. The trick is to read between the lines and truly understand the fundamentals the teacher (or book, or blog) is using. We see this type of recurring theme a lot in fitness blogs. While there are a million different techniques and tricks out there, many of them can be boiled down to “eat less, move more.”

Practice Makes Permanent

In elementary school, I had a music teacher who would constantly tell us that “practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent.” What he was trying to instill in us was the importance of doing something right, not just doing it. When you’ve discovered your power chord, it is important to strive for accurately right from the start. The reason for the emphasis on perfection over repetition is that the more you practice something poorly, the harder it will be to break those bad habits in the future. If you ever intend to be great at something, it is very important to learn the fundamentals right the first time around.

Learning is one of the most exciting things we can do as human beings, and I believe that life is just too short to spend all of our time on only one subject. I love to collect new talents, and the excitement that comes from understanding a new skill is one of the greatest feelings in the world. Never stop learning and experimenting, because your ability to adapt and grow will open up countless doors in your life.