From Bach to Buck: "Drone Strings" Throughout Musical History

Mar 26, 2021

Photo: Johann Sebastian Bach (L), Peter Buck (R).  Both played LOTS of Drones.

By the 1720's Johann Sebastian Bach had clearly stumbled on a basic principle of stringed instruments:

"Drone strings sound COOL!!"

Bach used an open E string drone most famously in the Violin Partita in E Major.  

He also employed the high string drone in the climax of the Prelude to the first Cello Suite, a more approachable example for the student mandolinist.  This is the first passage in the demonstration medley I perform in the video:

Jump forward to 1971, and we find a famous example of drone strings used on the mandolin in the British rock band Led Zeppelin's "Goin' to California." 

The song features John Paul Jones' mandolin playing, and the following iconic riff.  

The riff has an open A-String drone on every upstroke, while the downstrokes play a simple melody plays on the D-String.  Let's take a look:

Twenty years later, the U.S. rock group R.E.M. released "Losing My Religion", perhaps the most well-known recording featuring the mandolin.

Peter Buck, R.E.M.'s guitarist was already known at the time for his "jangly" guitar sound.  The technique behind this "jangle" was often an open drone string ringing above or below a riff played on an adjacent guitar string.

So, it is not surprising that Buck's famous mandolin riffs from "Losing My Religion" are also drone-fests.  This is the third tune in the medley I play in the video.  Let's take a listen...

What's not written on the score above is the open E-String played on every single 8th note throughout the intro.  You'll have to play the E in the melody on the 7th fret of the A-String to achieve the effect.

The same open E-String drone is what makes the mid-song mandolin breakdown sound so cool.  Again, Buck plays a simple melody entirely on the A-String, with open E-String on every single 8th note:


Now that you know what drone strings are, I bet that you can think of several examples of them in your own record collection!



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