Posted by: worshipguitarguy | November 3, 2006

Drone Riffs

st-francis.jpgLong, Long ago in a galaxy far, far away…

(Scratch the galaxy part, I’m going for an effect here.) 

Well, anyway… a long time ago in a place called Europe there lived these guys named monks, and they were the original worship music guys.  Except compared to modern music standards, we’d probably not consider them too creative here.  After all, the only thing they seemed to sing was some “Ahhhhhhh Ahhhhhh Ahhhhhh” type thing, made up of only two or three notes.  Their type of music was called chanting.  (If you can imagine, they’d walk throughout a monastary doing this for hours on end… one would think they would’ve learned a few more notes with all that practice.)

Fast forward several hundred years… we’ll run through names like Bach, Handel, Mozart, Charles Wesley, Fanny Crosby and Bill Gaither.  Now we’re in the days of names like Tomlin, Crowder, Camp, and dare I say it, Michael W.???  But there is something that ties modern worship music with the chanting of those old monk guys…  we’ve learned a few more notes between then and now but we still take advantage of this whole idea of monotone droning.

As guitarists, the idea of drone notes is a great way to add rhythmic leads in worship.  Playing drone note riffs usually consists of playing two strings in a rhythmic pattern… one is usually left open, and the other is fretted and moved around to create a melodic riff.  In worship music, the droning note is usually the tonic (I) or the dominant (5) of the key the song is in. 

For example, the key of G is a very common key for drone style riffs.  In standard tuning, you’d leave the G string open, and you might fret the B string on the 8th fret (which is a G note.)  Then you could slide up and down the notes of the G major scale on that string while strumming both strings percussively.  Droning riffs are very popular as fill riffs during songs, and choruses.  (Check out the chorus of “All We Need” by Charlie Hall on the Flying into Daybreak album.  Charlie’s lead guitarist Kendall Combes is playing drone patterns throughout it.)

For examples, drone riffs are extremely popular with Dan Carson, Chris Tomlin’s lead guitarist.  Listen to anything Chris has done in his last few albums and you hear Dan playing drone riffs throughout.  Two examples that came to mind are here:

Holy is the Lord: 
Outro riff tab file

This is a pretty common type of droning riff… it’s found at the end of the song after the repeated “Earth is filled with His Glory” parts.  Just slide around on the B string.  (I did this off memory, I can’t remember what key Chris does this song in, but I put it in G since you can drone without a capo.)

Your Grace is Enough:
Lead riff tab file

Chris’ version of Matt Maher’s Your Grace is Enough has a very memorable droning lead riff at the beginning and end of the song.  The riff itself is syncopated so it might take a little getting used to for you to play it right.  It’s a fun one to play live though, and it really gives the song it’s character.  (ditto on key as above, also I did both of these parts from memory so they may not be perfect.  Just listen to the songs to get the right rhythms for the riffs.)


Note:  After a little more research, I realized that I used the tone “drone” as a blanket term, and in music theory, my applicaion isn’t totally correct.  If the note that is “droning” is the lowest note in what your playing, it’s technically called a pedal note.  If the note is musically in the middle or higher than the moving notes you’re playing, it’s then called a drone note. 



  1. WGG – You ROCK! I’ve been playing acoustic in our praise team and now as a leader for the past 6 years, but I’m now stepping into role of lead guitar and leader. I need all the tips I can get to provide some accent playing and easy leads so that I can focus more on leading and less on playing.

  2. Double that! Nice work. You inspire me to more creativity guitar guy!

  3. That’s cool. I love playing the intro and outro riffs on Your grace is enough. Our violin player can even play it – gives it that Beatles Eleanor Rigby string quartet vibe thing!

  4. PS thanks so much for the blog link.

  5. Aww thanks y’all. Mark that sounds like a really cool idea… I may have to pull in a violin player I know and give it a try soon!

  6. As our church our church struggles with this issue many issues have come up. Actually we are not struggling at all, but are experiencing growth, especially among young people who are fed up with the “contemporary music of their baby boomer parents. The music is hard but it is worth learning and practicing so we can worship together in a manner pleasing to God. I don’t blame Baptists and Methodists for making the switch, and Pentecostals who inherited most of their music from Baptists and Methodists. If our music was as bad as that music I would make the switch back as well.

    I have six questions about contemporary music in our church:

    I grew up in a church with a contemporary liturgy that divided the Lord’s Service in half with 30 minutes of singing and 30 minutes of preaching. Now that I am in a church with a full liturgy, a discussion lacking from contemporary debate concerning worship music, the depth and breadth of our interaction with the Lord is striking in comparison. There are defined moments of calling, conviction and confession of sin, forgiveness, consecration, teaching, dedication, communion, benediction, and sending out with the beautiful sound of joyful song punctuating each element. My experiences with contemporary liturgy leave me hungry for more of God, while everyone around me is loosing their inhibitions and reveling in the flesh through over emotional re-conversion experiences I ask the Holy Spirit to lift my heart toward God.

    QUESTION 1) In your experience, why do most churches that have switched to contemporary congregational worship music also switch to a contemporary liturgy that divides the service in half with 30 minutes of singing and 30 minutes of preaching?

    QUESTION 2) Can contemporary worship music be used in a traditional liturgy, spreading out congregational singing throughout a well thought out service?

    In the past churches and libraries were both places of sanctuary. One thing you could count on when you visited them was peace and quietude. Now when one goes into a library you are as likely to find people loudly chatting and playing music or video games then quietly browsing or reading. In an effort to make the library more relevant to people the world has gone in and the quietude has gone out. The Churches in particular used to be places where we left the ordinary world behind us and entered a radically different place to meet God. We could leave the cares and sounds or the world behind us and be embraced by the peace of sanctuary to worship God reverently and joyfully. Today, in order to attract the masses, joy has been wrenched from the bosom of reverence and been transformed into individualistic revivalism. In comes the world and out goes the sanctuary. In comes the relevance, out goes the reverence and fear of God. In comes loud obnoxious music, out goes the quietude. Before I found a new church my hearing was actually permanently damaged and I will hear a dull ringing in my ears for the rest of my life.

    QUESTION 3) Is there any way to use contemporary congregational worship music in a way that is not loud?

    The lyrics of contemporary music are often very banal and simplistic. Sometimes the lyrics are described as “Jesus is my boyfriend lyrics.” Some people say that contemporary worship music is overly feminine focusing predominantly on the love and beauty of God to the exclusion of the justice and strength of the Lord. Many men find the music to feminine for their tastes and just stay home.

    QUESTION 4) Are there any contemporary worship songs out there that actually compare to the book of Psalms with authentic human emotion expressed with majesty and dignity?

    QUESTION 5) Are there worship songs that can be sung by the congregation in four part harmony?

    QUESTION 6) If contemporary worship music for congregational singing is here to stay, is there going to be a resurgence and reorientation that will re-balance the content of the songs to make them more appealing to men and less simplistic?

    Problem is that most of the so-called traditional music you seem to be targeting was the “new music” during the evangelical revivals of the 1920’s and 30’s. A third category is not being addressed are the glorious psalms and hymns of the times prior to the twentieth century. They are new to me, both in content and method. My wife hated hymns because all she had ever heard was “I’ll fly away” and the “The Beulah Land.” When she said when preferred contemporary music to that she was only picking the lesser of two evils.

    I am not a chronological snob who thinks everything old is good and everything new is bad. I wish people would compose appropriate worship music today that compared with the great music of the past. But everything I have experienced wavers between over emotional release and pre-evangelistic entertainment with a healthy dose of “celebrity cult” mixed in for good measure. Many people actualy describe “the fulfillment that comes from leading others into the His presence.” This kind of “worship molding” actually kills congregational participation and elevates the solo song leader into a kind of priestly mediator that superstitious people grow dependent on without whom they feel they do not enter the presence of God. This is exactly the attitude we are trying to eliminate in worship.

  7. Hey Ryan, great points and good discussion… You’re questions are definitely thought provoking…

    This may be out of the scope of my usual “nuts and bolts” guitar discussion, but let me do my best to answer your questions with my thoughts and impressions… Again, these are just my thoughts so I know other people think differently.

    1. Why do most “contemporary” churches follow the 30 min of singing/30 min of preaching model? I think much of it is due to imitation of other churches that are viewed as successful. Certain high profile churches in America (and around the world) usually set the trends that local contemporary churches tend to follow.

    2. Can contemporary music be used in traditional liturgy? Absolutely!!! Or you could use the reciprocal statement, traditional liturgy structures can be used in contemporary services. If I was integrating contemporary music in a traditional liturgical service I would be very careful to make sure the musical selections reinforced the focus of the liturgical elements instead of drawing attention away from them. The focus of a service should always be around the truth being communicated and not the elements themselves… (whether the truth is a contemporary style message or a traditional liturgical approach.)

    A great example is the U2charist services many Episcopal churches are doing here in the States.

    3. Is there a way to use contemporary music in a way that’s not too loud?
    Again, I have to agree with you that although I love modern rock influenced music, volume is a huge issue. In one of my previous posts I mentioned the purpose of worship is to remove distractions that hinder people from experiencing God… and loud volume levels are a huge distraction. Besides destroying sound clarity, like you mention, loud volume levels also kill hearing… (I too have permanent hearing damage from all my years of playing.) This is one of the big reasons we isolate all our amps in a separate room so we keep the volume levels under control.

    Also, one way to reintroduce the silence and solitude of traditional liturgical practices into our fast and loud culture has been the integration of experiential worship practices specifically meditative ones inspired by the Stations of the Cross.

    4. Are there contemporary worship songs that compare to the Psalms?
    Truth be told, I dislike the Jesus is My Boyfriend songs as much as anyone. (I love the satire South Park placed on CCM with the episode where Cartman entered Christian music under the band name Plus 1 😉 )

    One thing I love was a quote from Todd Agnew. I’m paraphrasing here but he basically said that the greatest truth you can proclaim as a songwriter is to take your lyrics directly from scripture..I think many worship songwriters would be well suited to find more inspiration directly in the Psalms. That’s one reason I love some of U2’s more obscure stuff, because you can see some of that pain of humanity bleeding right through them. And as you check out Bono’s lyrical choices, you see alot of phrases borrowed or paraphrased directly from the Psalms.

    5. Are their worship songs that can be sung in four part harmony? Again, I sure many of them can. It’s just a matter of having them arranged by someone for use in a congregational setting, (if sung by a choir for example). I think simplicity is a characteristic that runs throughout rock inspired music. It’s a part of what it is… That’s not to say you can’t change it though… look what’s happened to many of the Beatles greatest songs… I’ve heard some fabulous choral and classical arrangements of them.

    6. Will there be a rebalance of worship music away from the “feminine” side of God to the “masculine” side?
    One thing we know about music in the church is that it’s always changing. And the church has a long history of having the pendulum swing too far in one direction, only to reach it’s limit and begin swinging back in the other. Is contemporary music here to stay? In a sense yes, but in another sense, no. Music is something that’s constantly changing and evolving… and just because guitar/drums/bass music is the defacto standard in popular culture today, it doesn’t mean it still will be 20 years from now.

    As far as the masculine/feminine debate, I really think that depends on what music you’re listening to. I know of a ton of good worship leaders who are writing amazing songs emphasizing the strength, power, and majesty of God.

    As a note, people who listen to Christian radio and think that is all there is with worship music are just hearing a small cross-section. It helps to take into account that the target demographic for most Christian stations is the “Christian soccer mom.”

    I think worship music, like anything is something that should constantly be evolving and changing. With any generation in the history of the church, there have always been amazing songs that become timeless and others that are popular for a season, then fade into obscurity. I think it’s just as true for the songs we sing today. In the end, many years from now we’ll probably not remember a great majority of the songs we sing today, but the Word will still be the thing linking our generation to the ones who’ve come before and the ones who will follow us.

    (P.S. A little known fact about me Ryan is the radio station on in my car 90% of the time is our local classical music station. I get a ton of inspiration from the classic composers of previous generations…)

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