If you know how to play steel drums, you know they are an extremely versatile instrument that can produce a magically melodic sound. Pan drums are used as a solo instrument for creating haunting tunes, as part of a steel band, or to accompany a singer.
While steel drums may look simple, there is more to them than there appears. There is a range of different types of steel drums, and they can be challenging to tune (a task best left to a professional).
In this article, we will take you through everything you need to know about steel drums. What are steel drums, what are the different types of steel drums, how do you play steel drums, and what are the best steel drums for beginners that you can buy today?
What Are Steel Drums?
Steel drums, also commonly called pan drums, originated in Trinidad and Tobago and are played by pannists either as a solo instrument or as part of a steel band. The drum was traditionally made from an oil drum pounded into a bowl, but today they are made from high-quality steel.
These steel instruments are chromatically pitched and are technically idiophone instruments rather than drums. They are played with mallets that are sticks tipped with rubber heads, sized according to the size of the instrument.
How To Choose A Steel Drum
There are a variety of different steel drums and you will need to choose one that appeals to how you play and produces the kind of sound you like.
There are five basic types, with some variation between them: tenor, double tenor, double second, guitar steel drum, cello steel drum, and base.
Tenor Steel Drum
The tenor steel drum is a single drum that can play a variety of different notes. You can choose between low-tenor and high-tenor options. The low tenor, also called a C tenor, has a pitch range from C4 to E6. The high tenor steel drum is also sometimes called a D tenor or soprano pan and is pitched from D4 to F#6. The drums can play 29 different notes. This is the model most recommended for beginners just learning.
Double Tenor Steel Drum
The double tenor is a pair of tenor drums, which offer a wider note range with 31 notes from F3 to B5. The notes are not arranged symmetrically, which means that they can be challenging to learn to play, but they are very versatile and are usually used to play the counter melody in steel bands.
Double Second Steel Drum
The double second steel drum is another double drum set with one drum holding 14 notes from G3 to A4, and the second 18 notes from F#3 to C6. These are used both to play the counter melody and the harmony in a steel drum band.
Guitar Steel Drum
This is another drum pair with two pan drums that range from C#3 to F#5 and are “strummed” to play the rhythm and harmony. It has 18 notes, like a double guitar.
Cello Steel Drum
The cello steel drum has three separate drums with 24 bass and medium-pitched notes ranging from C3 to B4. It is based on a minor-third relationship and so gives a melancholic and deep tone for playing rhythm, chords, and harmony.
Bass Steel Drum
Most base steel drums require a set of six, full-size 55-gallon drums, so they take up a lot of space! You can also get seven- and nine-pass setups. You need at least six because each only has three different notes. Because of their bulk, bands often replace these drums with a bass guitar to achieve the bass effect.
How To Choose?
If you are just starting out and want to learn, then the Tenor Steel Drum is the best choice. Otherwise, you will need to choose based on your role in the band and whether you are playing bass, harmony, melody, counter melody, and so on.
How To Set Up A Steel Drum
Steel drums are much easier to set up than a traditional drum kit since you don’t have to worry about multiple pieces. The main thing is to ensure that the stand raises the drum to an appropriate height, which is about the weight of your waist.
You do need to make sure that your drums are in tune. It is often best to speak to a professional tuner about this because the pitch and the timbre of the drum need to be tuned independently. This means that the tuner must work with both the fundamental playing pitch and the harmonic upper partials. If the two are not properly synchronized, the drum will sound harsh and metallic.
Tuning is usually done in three steps. The first is coarse tuning, which puts the notes in the right pitch before fine-tuning. Next is fine-tuning, which adjusts the pitch and timbre while the drum is in its plating position. The final tuning is called blending.
A tuner will use their ear and perhaps an electronic note detector while tuning. They will usually use a variety of different hammers and sticks as well because the ideal beater depends on the size of the note being played. The tuner will strike the note with the hammer, and then two or three times with the stick to detect both the pitch and the timbre.
How To Hold Steel Drum Mallets
To play the pan drums you need to stand about 4-5 inches away from the drums, with the drums at about waist height. Keep your weight evenly distributed between your feet and keep your hands close to the playing surface. Try not to use your feet while playing, and instead pivot from the waist.
Whether you are using two mallets or a mallet and a stick, hold them between the thumb and the first joint of the index finger. The remaining fingers should wrap lightly around the shaft so that the fingertips gently touch the palm of your hand. Only about half an inch of the end of the stick should protrude below the little finger.
You should maintain a loose grip, but then you will need to tighten it a little bit while playing the smaller, higher-pitched notes. Your hands should be positioned in the same way.
How To Play Steel Drums
There are two main strokes used for playing the steel drums, the piston stroke and the flick. Either way, you need to move the mallet with the wrist, and let the mallet rebound off the drum immediately after the hit.
The piston stroke is a down-up hit, where you move your wrist up, and then allow the mallet to bounce back up directly to the starting position.
You need to move the wrist from left to right for the flick. Flick the wrist backward, and then it rebounds as your wrist aligns to the normal position.
You can create a rolling sound that sustains the tone of the steel pan by rapidly alternating between piston and flick strokes. They need to be played evenly and quickly. This is probably the most important technique to master to produce the classic steel drum sound.
Steel Drums vs Handpans vs Steel Tongue Drums
While steel drums have a concave shape, handpan drums are made from two convex sheets of metal that have been combined to make a drum. This creates a central tone field surrounded by a circle of seven tone fields. They are also played with the hands rather than with a mallet.
You can also get steel tongue drums, which look like handpans but are smaller and heavier. Often on these, there are tongues cut into the steel that produce different notes. They tend to resonate for longer than handpan drums and are difficult to play quickly.
Handpans have a narrower pitch range than traditional steel drums and fewer overtones. Handpans only produce 8-9 different playable notes, whereas steel drums can render two octaves.
You can find our recommendations for the best steel tongue drums here.
Best Steel Drums
Looking for a steel drum to get started with? Below are our recommendations for the best tenor steel drums, which are ideal for beginners.
This drum from Panyard was chosen as the best option by the National Association of Music Merchants, which is a good sign. It comes with a tabletop stand, so there is no need to invest in a complete stand when you are just getting started.
This drum is portable, measuring 19.4 by 17.1 by 3.4 inches, and comes with a handy travel case. The notes are marked to help you identify where to hit while you are learning.
Panyard also makes a version of this drum with a full-size stand, which was awarded “best in show” and “best tools for school” in 2010 by the National Association for Music Merchants.
It comes with a play-along CD which will allow you to learn even when you are still learning to read music.
This is a mini steel drum measuring just 12.5 by 3 inches – ideal for kids who want to learn. The 12 notes are marked to help with the learning process. They are handmade from Caribbean steel and come with a lightweight PVC stand.
Learn to play along with the bonus DVD and booklet that come included with the drum.
Are steel pan drums and steel drums the same?
Yes, steel drums, steel pan drums, and pan drums are all names for drums in the same family, but there are a variety of different types of steel drums. There are basic convex steel drums; handpan drums, which are concave rather than convex; and steel tongue drums, which have tongues cut into the steel to produce specific notes. Within the core steel drum family there is also a range of instruments including tenor, guitar, and cello drums.
What are the four main types of steel drums?
The four main types of steel drums in a steel band are the tenor pan, double tenor pan, double second pan, and bass drum.
Are steel drums hard to play?
Steel drums are not particularly hard to play, as it is just a matter of striking the note that you want; however, mastering the wrist movement to enable you to maintain a melodic tone can take some time.
Do steel drums need to be tuned?
Steel drums do need to be tuned, and it is a challenging process best left to professionals rather than done by individual players. The pitch and timbre of the drum need to be tuned independently, but also in harmony, to produce a magical rather than a tinny sound.
Will steel drums rust?
Steel drums can rust if they are exposed to excessive moisture over time. Steel drums are best kept in cool, dry conditions, and not left in direct sunlight for too long.
Steel pan drums create a unique and magical sound that seems at home on a Caribbean island or at a meditative retreat. While they look incredibly simple, they are complicated instruments with large note ranges and which can be challenging to learn to play.
Hopefully, this page covers all the basic information you need to know about steel drums including the different types, how to play them, and the best beginner steel drum that you can buy today to get started.
Not sure what to read next? Read our guide to cajón drums, a percussion instrument from Peru and West Africa.