Not Your Ordinary Drones. Jazz Advice on How to Use Them In Improv

Not Your Ordinary Drones

I want to talk about drones, but not your ordinary ones. Other sites and musicians have talked about the benefits of warming up with drones, exploring shapes and intervals. All of this is great and something I personally use now and then too. If you haven’t explored this area before I would suggest you at least try it. It’s an amazing way to open up your ears and explore music’s various layers.

If you’re sitting there thinking, “I’m still not sure what you mean by drones. Aren’t those the remote control things you fly around to annoy your neighbors?” Well, yes. But, not this topic. Here’s a great YouTube example of trumpeter Ingrid Jensen talking about how she uses a drone:

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“A musical drone is a harmonic or monophonic effect or accompaniment where a note or chord is continuously sounded throughout most or all of a piece.” – Wikipedia

Instead of rehashing what others have already talked about, I want explore some other ways we can use a drone through the lens of targeting. Targeting is aiming at a goal (note) with purpose. It’s one of the central points of how I improvise and teach improvisation. While it’s great to explore a scale, intervals, or free-improvisation with a fixed pitch (drone)-I have found that beginners and intermediate musicians often have a hard time hearing the note they are aiming for.

What to Use

There are a number of great tools that create a drone. Ingrid Jensen mentioned her device in the video above. You can use just about anything that will create a sustained pitch. I have used a piano with the sustain pedal, computer software (garageband, Logic Pro, etc), YouTube (which has a WIDE range of options that you could spend hours searching), or one of my favorites: iReal Pro

Beginners and intermediate improvisors have to be intentional with what they practice. It’s too easy to get distracted and let your imagination go on a tangent. That’s ok when it’s time to explore and foster creativity. But, students need to hear where their line is going. What does it sound like when you are targeting the 3rd of major chord? How does that sound different when you’re targeting the 3rd of dominant chord? What about minor? If a student can learn to hear what targeting sounds like it opens up the creative mind to be able to explore it in real-time. This is why I like using iReal Pro because you get to choose not only the harmonic situation (major, minor, diminished, etc), but you get to do it while keeping time and locking in with a rhythm section that won’t slow down or speed up.

Here’s how I use iReal Pro as a drone:

  • create a new song using the blank template
  • pick a chord type that you need to work on (major 7th, dominant, minor 9th, etc)
  • type that chord in the first measure and set up whatever repeat function you desire
  • set the repeats 30x
  • pick a tempo and feel (swing, bossa, etc)
  • work on first targeting the root in as many ways as you can imagine with various tools with GOOD rhythm (for more info on those tools you can check out Targeting: Improvisation With Purpose).
  • Once you’ve felt like you’ve fully explored the root move on to the 3rd, 5th, 7th, and other extensions (9th, 11th, 13th)
  • Now move on to the same chord type, but in a different key.
  • Apply what you just did to a song or harmonic progression you’re working on

All of the above is good practice for any musician. It will get you to focus on the sound of targeting so you can hear where you’re going. This will also give a student plenty of practice!

Thank you for checking out my blog! If you’d like to learn more; check out the online school.

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About the Author jasonklobnak

Jason Klobnak is a versatile trumpet player that has been performing as an active musician, author, clinician, composer and educator. His band, J's Ruckus, is Denver's blend of Post-Bop, Soul, Gospel, and Hip-Hop. They perform infectious and up-lifting originals for audiences hungry for a memorable live experience. J's Ruckus released their latest album, Suck Less, in March of 2020 and their first EP, Sermons, in July of 2019. Both were recorded live in front of an audience. Suck Less was recorded to a packed auditorium at Arapahoe Community College's Waring Theater in Littleton, CO. Sermons was recorded in front of a sold out crowd at the Soiled Dove Underground.  The JKQ (the Jason Klobnak Quintet/Quartet) is Mr. Klobnak's Hammond B-3 centered groups. The JKQ released their third full-length album in March of 2018 called Friends & Family. It has been very well reviewed, on numerous Top 10 lists for Jazz radio stations across the country (including Denver's KUVO 89.3FM which named it May 2018's CD of the month), and in Jazzweek's Top 100. Each composition was written for specific family and close friends (that might as well be family). Their second album, New Chapter, was recorded in part thanks to the Pathways to Jazz Grant from the Boulder County Arts Alliance. In 2015 and 2016, New Chapter was in the Top 75 on the Jazzweek charts and on the Top 10 playlists for over a dozen radio stations worldwide. Their first album, Mountain, Move made the Best Recordings of 2013 list from AllAboutJazz.com by C. Michael Bailey. His very well reviewed Christmas single, Hark the Herald, in 2016 as part of a creative project with musicians James Roberson and Nathaniel Kearney Jr. Besides the JKQ, Mr. Klobnak is a B.A.C. (Best American Craftsman-custom trumpet), Denis Wick (mouthpiece and mutes) and Westone Audio endorsed artist (ES20 and Tru Customs). Mr. Klobnak has played and recorded for numerous groups ranging from jazz, soul/R&B, indie-rock/pop and gospel. In addition to performing, he has also written two improvisation-based books called Targeting: Improvisation With Purpose and Breaking the Monotony and is currently an adjunct professor and brass instructor at Arapahoe Community College. Mr. Klobnak holds a bachelor degree from Drake University (Des Moines, IA) and a Master’s degree from the University of Denver, Lamont School of Music (Denver, CO).

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