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Using drone notes on a guitar

Using Drone Notes

Let me introduce you to the concept of using drone notes on a guitar.

Voice leading is a topic rarely discussed by guitarists.  It is a simple concept; each note within a chord is viewed as a separate voice.  When changing chords, the thought is about how each voice changes, rather than how each chord shape changes.  Voice leading provides the music with a smooth flow.  The reason guitarists never discuss it, is that we don’t think about our instrument that way.  But we can still apply some of the principles to enhance our playing. 

If we choose to have one note in every chord which never changes, then this is a very basic form of voice leading, because one voice always remains the same.  This one note is also known as a drone note or sometimes a pedal tone.

Why use drone notes?

Here are some chords in the Key of D, which all use D (2nd string, 3rd fret) as a drone note.

D Drone Chords in Key of D

Notice how the 3rd finger never leaves the 2nd string, 3rd fret (which is the note D).  It is this which creates the drone effect.

Why bother using drone notes at all?  They provide something different that the standard chord voicings cannot.

Chord progressions sound ‘together’

When there are common notes between two chords, the change between them sounds smoother. For example, consider changing from a C major (notes C, E, G) to A minor (notes A, C, E). This is a very easy-sounding, smooth transition.  In simple terms, there is only one difference between these chords, exchanging an A for a G, the other notes remain the same.

Using a drone note within a chord progression forces a common tone between all the chords, therefore giving all the chords a smooth transition and the sound of ‘togetherness’. For example, the chord diagrams above all include the D (2nd string, 3rd fret); this note creates the sound of ‘togetherness’.

More interesting chord voicings

Where the drone note is not part of a standard chord voicing, it creates an extended chord.  For example, adding a D drone to an A chord will form an Aadd11.  Sounds advanced, doesn’t it?  But you do not need to know what this means; you just need to know if it sounds great.

When using basic major and minor chords, the drone note will feature within 3 of the standard chord voicings.  For example, a D note is already part of the chords D major, G major, and B minor.  In these chords, the D will not, by itself, create an extended chord.  But any other chords in the key of D will extend the chord and create more interesting sounding chord voicings.

Easier chord changes

For a beginner, one of the hardest things is changing between chords.  All the fingers are expected to move to new positions simultaneously.  Drone notes can make these chord changes much more accessible.

In the chord diagrams above, the 3rd finger remains in the same place in every chord (and the 4th finger is never used).  This leaves only two fingers to put into the right place. Much easier… right?

No silence between chords

When changing chords, there can be a short period of silence when the fingers release the strings, dampening the notes, before forming and strumming the next chord.  This is especially prevalent when changing between barre chords.  This small silence can be used to great effect, but can also destroy the ‘feel’ and ‘flow’ you want to convey in the song.

When the same finger remains in the same place, there is no need to release the string, and therefore the note can keep ringing, even when changing chords.  There is no longer silence, so it creates a fuller and more professional sound.

When are drone notes used?

Specific styles of music tend to contain more drone notes than others.  Sometimes they are even a core element that creates the ‘feel’ of the music.

Acoustic guitar + Capo – Drones sound great when using a capo higher up the fretboard on an acoustic guitar.  There are lots of examples of pop songs that use this method.

Celtic Music – It is very common to find drones within Celtic music.  They are one of the key features which make the music sound Celtic.

Ambient – Drones are not just for acoustic instruments.  Ambient guitarists use them extensively to create rich volume swells and new sound textures.

Worship music – The modern praise and worship movement loves to use drones to create interesting acoustic and electric guitar parts.

Download the drone chord shape reference guide

Why not download the drone chords reference guide to help you get to grips with drone notes?

Drone Chords eBook

58 Chord Diagrams

Includes the 5 common CAGED chords