Droning On

Yes, I know, it’s a predictable title, but it makes sense.  I love a drone. I love working with them and incorporating them into our music, there’s something about the underlying repeated note or barely changing background that just adds depth to a piece in my ears. 

Of course, folk music has had drones from the beginning.  I’m not going to go into throat or overtone singing, but the drone is there – we’ve been using drones since we could sing and we could probably sing before we could speak.

In the more modern day, of course, bagpipes are one of the most well-known examples of a drone.  The tune is played on one pipe, the chanter, and the other pipes provide a continuous set of notes beneath (usually A).  Uillean pipes are similar, but they add the ability to change the drone notes while playing.

With stringed instruments, we have the early bouzouki and the balalaika.  The three string bouzoukis are typically tuned DAD and the balalaika EEA – they’re chromatic instruments like guitars or ukuleles, but the tuning allows you to pick out a melody on one string while playing the other two open.  A similar approach is taken by the Appalachian dulcimer or ‘strum sticks’, however they are diatonic instruments, which makes it even harder to go wrong.  The instrument is fretted so that each note is in the scale of the instrument.  E.g., an Appalachian dulcimer in D will give you fretted notes of E F# G A B C D from an open string of D.  The two drone strings are tuned to D.  So basically, any note you press on the instrument while strumming all three strings will sound right.  This is fine, as long as you stay in the same (or related key) – different keys will require different tunings or instruments.  Some Appalachian dulcimers have two necks in order to save time switching.

You can get a similar effect on a guitar with various different tunings.  For example, on The Cutty Wren, a song we play in D, I use a guitar with the two E strings tuned down a step to D (sometimes known as dropped D or even double dropped D).  That means I always have two drones available to me as I strum or I can just hit the lowest string hard and the sustained note can carry through whatever I play next.  A similar tuning also drops the B string a tone, giving you ‘dadgad’ tuning.

Of course, it’s possible to achieve a drone effect on a standard tuning by simply constructing a chord shape and moving one set of fingers up and down a scale. That’s harder on the bigger instruments, but doable on the uke to some extent.  For example a G shape on the ukulele gives you some scope for playing tunes on the A string.

There are also instruments that are purely designed to drone.  The example that’s best known to me is the shruti, an Indian instrument, which is basically a limited concertina or harmonium.  It’s a set of bellows with 13 reeds and sliding covers that sound or mute the note.  You can set any note or combinations of notes on and then move the bellows backwards and forwards to make the note or chord. You can achieve the same effect with an Indian harmonium, by holding down the keys.  But the harmoniums are more expensive, less portable and you have to hold keys down all the time (or use tape), on the other hand, changing the drone notes is easier.  I have seen several singers using a shruti, including Jackie Oates and I’ve seen Karine Polwart using a harmonium.

I remember seeing a singer at Jericho Folk club in Oxford doing a similar thing with a cheap electric organ and jamming keys down with five pence pieces.  And of course, Keith Emerson would do the same, only with a Hammond B3 and daggers (apparently Lemmy’s idea). The same effect is available for guitarists.  Electro-Harmonix do a pedal called the ‘freeze’.  In essence it’s a looper with a very short recording time – play a chord, press the pedal and while you hold it, it loops a very small sample into a continuous drone.  It’s a simple, but very clever effect and I’ve only ever seen it on that pedal and the Boss ME-80, which is surprising.

An alternate way of getting drones on an electric guitar, albeit single strings, is the venerable e-bow.  The e-bow uses a magnetic field in conjunction with a pickup to vibrate the string for as long as you want.  For a long time this was the only choice you had.  But, recently TC Electronic have released the Aeon and Joyo the Infinite Sustainer and if you want to go the full Radiohead, there is always the Sustainiac pickup, which is very similar in effect, but built into the guitar.

If you’re only working in the studio and not necessarily looking to re-create the effect live, there’s any number of ways of getting a drone going with midi instruments and some studio software.  When we made a jingle for Adrian Bell (the excellent Progressive Alternative show on Brooklands Radio), I started with a drone that used a built in Logic Pro instrument (C-Beams Glittering) which moved through three chords.  I then copied it and pasted it twice but offset by two seconds and then changed the instruments of the two copies.  The effect is one of movement and build up.  We used similar techniques used on a couple of tracks on Warp and Weft (Slowing Down was one) and there we would also use a phaser to give us some movement around the single note.

At the time of writing this, we have just finished working on ‘riverrun’, which, although relatively short (about 4 minutes), pretty much uses all of the drones that I’ve covered so far.  The piece started as a fairly simple run down a Ukulele C string with a drone from the other three strings

A    5   5   5  5
E    3   3   3  3
C    5   4   2  4
G    0   0   0  0

There’s a little bit more to the tune than that, but you get the idea.  Basically, two strings held down, one left open and a tune running along the C string.  It’s easy enough once you’ve got a fingering you’re happy with, but I found it tricky getting back to that shape after the chorus which is completely different. With that, Cath used an 8 string uke to follow the C line, but using the G E strings open as drones and that provided the basic instrumentation that we used to arrange, rehearse and then live test the song.  And this duo approach was how we started the recording, with those as a guide.

After that it was a case of, as Cath is fond of quoting – “if less is more, imagine how much more, more would be” (James Dean Bradfield). A capo on the balalaika to take it up to G G C gave us another three string drone. Then, to fill out the bottom end a bit, I tuned my guitar to C (C G C G C E) and that was another set of drones accompanying a tune on the C string.

Cath played the shruti under the whole thing in one take and then we took a copy of that and sent it through a phase effect, which makes the single note oscillate. 

And finally, as much because it was there as anything else, I put my feeble fiddle playing skills on trial and played a single note which was then looped to provide yet another base layer.

The end result was the most involved thing we’ve recorded to date and made for a challenging mix, but we think the work has been worthwhile.

If you’re interested in other drone recordings – Gizeh Records are a good place to start with Adrian Baker.  And there are early examples from Tangerine Dream like Birth of Liquid Plejades from Zeit.

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