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Four Hot Licks That Use a Droning D

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A “drone” in music is a constant note, sustained or repeated as other notes change against it. This is a technique that works very naturally on the guitar, because we can move along the neck on one or more strings and also strike an open string at the same time. Drone notes can add all kinds of cool colors to chord progressions, or give us a way to create a fat, full-sounding melodic riff. This week we’ll look at four examples of signature drone riffs in the key of D.

One important thing to understand about these types of riffs is that we’re approaching melody on the guitar in a linear way. Think about how you might usually play a scale, playing two or three notes at a time on each string as you move across the neck. A linear approach to melody means that you simply move up or down along the same string. The key of D works particularly well for this kind of thing, since the middle pair of strings are heavy enough to create a big sound but the lighter G lets us move up high enough to give us some melodic range.

Open D Drone Lick Example

Our drone note is always going to come from an open string, in this case the open D. The drone might be struck every time, or might alternate with the melody notes as they do in example 1:

Exercise 1

Full Speed Demonstration

Since the two strings we’re using aren’t struck together in this example, the D drone could be considered part of the melody. But if we look at the notes on the G string alone, you’ll see that we’re just descending a scale: in this case, a D mixolydian:

D
E
F#
G
A
B
C
D

Technically, we’re only using the upper half of the scale, so we don’t actually know whether the first half of the scale would use F or F#. But if you play the descending scale on the G string – fret 7, 5, 4, 2 – you should hear a strong dominant tonality because of the use of the flatted 7th C on the 5th fret. This implies the mixolydian mode, which is the scale that corresponds to a dominant 7th chord (more simply referred to as a 7th).

Watch the rhythm in this one, and notice how certain notes of the melody are emphasized when they follow the open D. You could play the entire riff with one finger, but it might be smoother to play the 7th fret note with the ring finger and use index for the rest. Notice the hammer-ons in measure 2 from the open G string to the 2nd fret, and then from the 4th to 5th fret of the same string.

D Major Drone Lick Example

Example 2 uses the same two strings but moves up the neck to work with the first 5 notes of the D major scale on the 3rd string.

Exercise 1

Full Speed Demonstration

Here are the melody notes we’re pulling from, but notice that we don’t actually use the 12th fret G:

D 7th Fret
E 9th Fret
F# 11th Fret
G 12th Fret
A 14th Fret

This gives us a nice separation between the low drone and the higher melody notes. Notice how this time the drone D is sometimes played with the melody notes and sometimes alternates. You could use one finger to play the entire riff, but a smoother fingering might be to play the 9 to 11 slide with the ring finger, the 7th fret D with the index, and the 14th fret A with the ring or pinky.

To match the sound of the recorded example, use a light palm mute with the picking hand.

Drone Lick with Moving Melody

Example 3 uses the same basic idea we’ve been working with: a droning bass note against a moving melody on the next string. However there are two new elements:

  • 1. The melody includes notes on other strings as well
  • 2. This example is in drop D tuning, where the 6th string is lowered a whole-step to a low D. It should be relatively easy to tune the 6th string to low D by comparing it to the 4th string D as you lower the pitch; you’ll likely hear when the notes start to blend. When you reach the low D, you should hear a clean octave between the 6th and 4th strings, with no “beating” or interference.
Here’s our example, in the style of a familiar song by one of the most important bands of the 1990’s:

Exercise 3

Full Speed Demonstration

This melody part can be played entirely in the 9th position, with the four fingers covering frets 9 through 12. Notice how the drone stops at the end of measures 2 and 4 to allow the melody notes to continue on upper strings. Also notice the tied melody notes connecting measures 1-2 and 3-4; the melody note is held over as the drone continues on the 6th string.

Drone Lick with Moving Melody

Drones can appear on upper strings too. In example 4, we have a constant D bass note with moving chords above it, but each chord also includes the open E string. So as the D drones on the bottom, the open E drones on top and adds color and texture to the chords:

Exercise 4

Full Speed Demonstration

The chords are played as two-finger shapes, even though the addition of the drone notes creates four-note chords. Try playing the first two shapes with the middle and ring fingers, and the next two with ring and pinky. Play the bass notes with a sharp, consistent attack, using repeated downstrokes.

These examples are just a taste of what you can do with drone notes. If you’re feeling ambitious and would like to try a more challenging example, check out Mark Lincoln’s lesson on the Goo Goo Dolls’ hit “Iris”, with its prominent signature drone part:

Goo Goo Dolls: Iris by Mark Lincoln

Taught by Mark Lincoln

In this lesson Mark Lincoln teaches the famous Goo Goo Dolls song, "Iris."

Remember, this is a technique that you can use creatively as well! Try droning on any open string as you slide one finger or a chord shape along the next string or strings, you’ll discover all kinds of new and interesting sounds. Have fun!

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Thanks for reading.

Thanks for reading! Have fun with your rigs this weekend and be sure to leave any questions or comments you might have in the comments below!

Cheers,

Dave Isaacs
Nashville Session Musician

Dave Isaacs Nashville Session Musician In a community full of world-class musicians, Dave Isaacs is known around Music City USA as the “Guitar Guru of Music Row”. The New York native has called Nashville home since 2005, and has built a reputation as an ace guitarist and top teacher, mentor, and musical coach. Dave has helped countless aspiring and pro musicians, songwriters, and performers expand their musical knowledge, improve their performance skills, and achieve dynamic new levels of success.

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