This article is about the drone flute, a startlingly powerful version of the Native American flute!
There are two ways to play an instrument. You can play it along with at least one other person, (a duet, a trio, quartet, band, whatever), or you can play it solo. With today’s tech tools available to us, we can even prerecord other instruments to accompany ourselves and then play along with them. But it’s still playing solo, since it’s you that is playing several solos, one at a time, and then combining them with the tools from today’s technology. So that possibility is off the table in this particular discussion, although that possibility and variants of it will come up in future articles. Let’s talk about solo performances in this article, whether you are playing your solo for others or playing just for your own enjoyment.
I guess I’m a lone wolf by nature. Okay, I confess, I’ve played in bands. But playing in a band ain’t easy. It’s fun when it works, and it’s hell when it doesn’t. I’ve always been interested in the potential of a single instrument and what it can produce. It’s fun not to have to worry about those others you might play with. You can just concentrate on how well you can play that single instrument without worrying about ol’ Jimmy Joe’s bad notes clunking out from his worn out guitar strings. You’ve heard me talk of my dad’s blues sax in past articles. Dang, he was good! My daughter is a cellist, and although you can play more than one string at once on a cello, the ultimate beauty of the cello lies in that full, fat beautiful melody that comes from it. Dang, my daughter’s good! 🙂 And so I’ve always appreciated the monophonic, (that’s fancy music theory talk for one note at a time), music played on a beautiful instrument. This is why I write articles about the Native American flute. Its tone is so beautiful that your flute performance, if it’s truly heartfelt, can be very full and satisfying by playing just one note at a time. Music is most beautiful when it’s simple. That’s the pleasure I get from the flute; it’s that elegant simplicity that fires the emotions and puts your head in a different place when you hear it or play it. Most who play the Native American flute play the single barrel flute. When you blow, you hear just one note until you change your fingering to another note. We play the flute monophonically since it’s the nature of the single barrel instrument. But wouldn’t it be interesting if you could play two notes at the same time? You can if you play what’s called a “drone” flute.
The drone flute has the same melodic configuration, generally speaking, of a bagpipe. Try to imagine how the music of a bagpipe sounds. There’s no mistaking that powerful sound, is there? If you listen closely, you’ll hear that single, ever present drone note which provides harmonic accompaniment to a tune. The drone note on a bagpipe is usually the ‘tonic’ note. The ‘tonic’ note is the first or bottom note of any scale. For example, if we play the C scale on a keyboard, we play up the white keys by starting at ‘middle C’. The notes by letter names are C D E F G A B C. The last C is the octave note. But the tonic note is the first C, the first note of the scale. Got it? Sure you do. It’s easy. The word “tonic” is just a term meaning the first note of any scale. Remember that term so you can throw that into the conversation during the next discussion you have with your fellow musicians. 😀
The drone flute usually, but not always, has two barrels. (Some newer varieties have three barrels.) One barrel has the standard note holes so we can play the same complex melodies we play on the standard single barrel NAF. The other barrel has no note holes because we don’t finger notes on it. We just blow it at the same time as the barrel with the note holes. As we play the melody, the constant sounding drone note comes along with it, just like that of a bagpipe. It’s equivalent to playing a type of harmony as you play the melody. If you look at the photo that leads off this article, you’ll see the two barrels of my own drone. Chris Fuqua of WindPoem flutes made this F# drone for me. He calls this design the ‘shotgun’ drone because it looks like the two barrels of a shotgun. Chris makes and sells single barrel NAFs, and if you’re interested in his work, you can check out his work at his website at —
You can also see his work on the website you are on right now at —
NOTE: (Chris does not make drone flutes for sale, but he makes single barrel flutes in various woods like cedar and pine, as well as bamboo and PVC.)
I made a quick recording of the Pentatonic scale, played on just one barrel from my F# drone. Then I replayed the scale, this time blowing through both holes of my drone flute so you can hear how the added drone note fleshes out the simple scale —
Comparing Single Barrel flute and Double Barrel Drone:
I recorded this next sample in the Native American traditional free style of playing. I kept it simple so you can hear how the drone note adds depth to the melody.
A Simple Free Style on the NAF Drone:
For this article, Chris sent me one of his performances on his own key of F# drone. Chris often plays traditional Native American music on his flutes, and this sample is no exception. You will immediately hear the richness the drone barrel adds to the melody.
Chris Fuqua Plays the Native American Drone Flute:
EXAMPLES FROM DAUGHTER EARTH ALBUM: I produced and recorded a Native American flute album titled “Daughter Earth.” Below are several tracks, (some shortened), from this album. We begin with Amazing Grace. I played it first on my single barrel pine F#, and then finished it out on my pine shotgun F# drone. (The twittering bird background is from freesound.org.)
Another track I put down for this album is the old sea chantey titled “Parson’s Farewell.” It was quite difficult to work out on my F# drone, but have a listen to see how the drone adds real depth to the melody —
You also might like to hear me play “Sweet Hour of Prayer” on my F# drone —
Sweet Hour of Prayer:
By listening to what I’ve recorded, I think you can see that the drone flute has huge possibilities. Not every melody works well on the drone, but many melodies do. I play only melodies that work well. Even highly melodic tunes in major keys, like Sweet Hour of Prayer, sound good.
The standard single barrel Native American flute, in its current form, is considered to be a contemporary version of the original. The original Native American flutes were not as sophisticated as today’s instruments. But the flute has evolved, just like any other instrument. Many flute makers are taking the drone flute in surprising directions. Check out the YouTube video of the Mayan Temple Flute by Southern Cross Flutes, New Zealand. This flute has two playable barrels, three holes to each barrel, but the lower register can also be played as a drone when all three holes are closed —
The 12 Hole Triple Drone Flute by Falcon Flutes is another unique drone flute, allowing several playing configurations between the three blowholes. Toward the end of this demo the designer/musician’s performance is accompanied by the heartfelt singing of his two adorable dogs. This means when the designer/musician is playing through all three barrels, and when each dog is singing along, we have a living, breathing quintet. 🙂
A word of caution. Before you lay down your hard earned cash for a drone, be aware that by it’s wider body, (two barrels side by side), and all six holes on one side, one set of fingers will have a slightly longer reach than the other set of fingers. This is just the nature of this shotgun design. (Notice that the players/designers in both videos favor the shotgun design.) But the design is compact and it has worked well for me. There is another drone design where a standard flute with its six note holes and a drone barrel, (no note holes), are joined at the blow-end but separated by a yoke at the tail end. With this design, both hands can grip the standard barrel and access all six note holes with equal advantage. You can find many examples of both drone styles on, where else, YouTube.com! 😀
The Native American flute will continue to evolve. It probably began with the Anasazi rim blown flute, a devilishly difficult flute to play, and it will probably never stop evolving. (It’s worth noting that 5,000 years ago a drone flute was found in a Mayan temple.) You can’t hold back beautiful music. But please don’t be overly impressed by the seductive sound of the drone and its present day varients. The simple single barrel Native American flute will always play beautiful, complex music that will never cease to fascinate us with its elegant simplicity. Should you need a change, though, consider the drone. It’s a wonderful way for a solo player to make some interesting music.
You can buy my Daughter Earth Album as a CD on Amazon.com. You can buy the download version at iTunes, and Bandcamp, to name a few. All my how-to music books are available on this site. Just click the MUSIC BOOKS tab at the top of this page.
You can learn more about Chris Fuqua and his many books and CDs on his own website. On his homepage, scroll down to his nonfiction books where you will see two NAF books you might be interested in: Native American Flute Craft – Ancient to Modern, as well as The Native American Fllute – Myth, History, Craft. His website is below.