February 03, 2011

Sticks and Stones

Sympathy for the devil's instrument.Lately I’ve noticed a few music podcasts talking about a nice “drone” effect in some new songs. It seemed strange, since I couldn’t recall anyone outside of piping or beekeeping mentioning drones before.

I was reading the excellent autobiography Life by rock legend Keith Richards (thanks, Briana!) recently, and came upon a passage in a part of the book where he discusses the distinctive sound he created with the Rolling Stones. It’s a result of “open” tuning he took from southern blues guitar technique in which only five strings are used and they’re tuned very differently. Examples of the sound can be heard on “Street Fighting Man,” “Brown Sugar,” “Gimme Shelter” and many other Stones’ songs. Keef writes:

The beauty, the majesty of the five-string open G tuning for an electric guitar is that you’ve only got three notes – the other two are repetitions of each other an octave apart. It’s tuned GDGBD. Certain strings run through the whole song, so you get a drone going all the time. And because it’s electric they reverberate. Only three notes, but because of these different octaves, it fills the whole gap between bass and top notes with sound. It gives you this beautiful resonance and ring. I found working with open tunings that there’s a million places you don’t need to put your fingers. The notes are there already. You can leave certain strings wide open. It’s finding the spaces in between that makes open tuning work. And if you’re working the right chord, you can hear this other chord going on behind it. While actually you’re not playing. It’s there. It defies logic. And it’s just lying there saying, “$%&# me.” And it’s a matter of the same old cliché in that respect. It’s what you leave out that counts. Let it go so that one note harmonizes off the other. And so even though you’ve now changed your fingers to another position that note is still ringing. And you can even let it hang there. It’s called the drone note. Or at least that’s what I call it. The sitar works on similar lines – sympathetic ringing or what they call sympathetic strings. Logically it shouldn’t work, but when you play it, and that note keeps ringing even though you’ve now changed to another chord, you realize that that is the root note of what you are trying to do. It’s the drone.

So, essentially, the secret to the Rolling Stones’ distinctive sound is what Highland pipers have known forever. The allure of a well-tuned drone sound was borrowed, it seems by blues guitarists and then co-opted by Richards who, judging by what he writes above, pretty much kept it a secret.

There’s little wonder then why hardly any other band sounds like the Rolling Stones and no instrument on earth sounds like the Highland pipe.


  1. Excellent post!! However I would infer that rockers [specially from this particular generation] borrowed the drone idea from Eastern sitar musicians, not from the pipes – the modern sitar employs sympathetic strings that create the very effect described by Richards above.

    Furthermore, the concept of a pedal background note [or chord] may sound obvious to the righteous piper, but when you’re a rock’n’rolla with countless illegal chemicals in your bloodstream baffling proper cerebral function it must be quite a find indeed… ‘Whoooooooa duuuuuuuude, check out this wah-wah!’

  2. I believe, in the book “Life”( which is as you stated Andrew is excellent). the old blues guys got this idea from the Banjo players, the blues players left the 6th on the guitar but never used it. Keef started playing with only 5 strings on his guitar. He went as far as to have custom guitars made that were only 5 string. What I did find very interesting in this book is that Keef spent a great deal of the early years picking other players brains, hence the discovery of open tuning. The thirst for the “Stones” sound, certainly does remind me of the big grade 1 PM’s striving to get “their sound”

    How this man is still alive defies logic , but there no denying the impact he has made.

  3. The Edge does the same thing (only better imho). I always chalked it up to the “celtic influence” heard in so much of U2’s work. But he is also an avid student of the blues, so it all makes sense.

  4. Going out on a limb with this one as there really is no way to verify this. I would think that the droning sound is as old as music itself. Probably started with the droning tone of the first drum and/or single note wind instrument, such as the Aussie Digerido, that was ever created, with humans chanting along in some form or other. This basic beginning would have evolved as more complicated instruments were invented, following us all the way to the present day. In many ways, the bass line (no, not the fish, or the drum…) of many a tune acts as the anchoring drone sound for various musical forms today. One example that springs to mind right now is LED Zepplin’s “The Rover”, or AC/DC “Sin City”. Admittedly, the fact that the bass notes are broken by rhythm by strict definition means that they are not a true drone sound, but I believe that the underlying concept is really along the same lines.



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