If you want to learn how to play steel drums, you are in the right place.

A steel drum, also known as a steel pan or pan drum, is a pitched percussion instrument played by striking the metal surface with the beaters.

Different types of steel drums require different mallets, and some of the subsets of pan drums, such as handpan or tongue drums, are played by hand.

There are various ways to approach this instrument, but one thing is sure – you will have a lot of fun while playing!

So without further ado, dig in.

Step 1: Choose the steel drum

If you want to learn how to play steel drums, the first step is to select the type of steel drum you want to play.

You can play several different steel drums, but it’s better to start with one if you are new to this.

There are different types of steel drums:

  • Tenor pan
  • Double tenor pan
  • Double seconds pan
  • Bass pan
  • Double guitar pan
  • Cello pan

Tenor pan

The tenor pan, also known as a lead or soprano pan, has the highest sound range of all steel drums.

It consists of a single barrel and traditionally plays the melody in steel band arrangements.

Double tenor pan

The double tenor pan is comprised of two barrels, and it has the next highest range after the tenor pan.

It usually doubles the tenor pan’s melody but in a lower harmony.

Double second pan

The double second pan is also comprised of two barrels, but it has a lower pitch than the double tenor.

It usually plays chords, but it can also play melody or harmony.

Bass pan

Bass pan is the largest of pans, and it has the lowest range of notes.

This instrument usually plays bass lines, but it is often assigned the melody or countermelodies at some point in their arrangements.

Double guitar pan

The double guitar pan is made up of two pans that have eight notes each.

It has fewer notes than the double seconds, and it is usually used to play chords or the harmony horn section.

Cello pan

Cello pan consists of three or four barrels set in a semicircle, with eight or nine notes each.

It is usually used for lower chords and bass riffs, filling in the bass line.

Photo from amazon.com

Step 2: Set up the drum

Whether you are learning how to playsteel drums for the first time or you’ve had some experience, it’s important to take the time to learn how to set it up correctly.

Here are some tips for setting up your steel drum:

  • Set your drum at the appropriate height for you
  • The perfect position for easy access is around the height of your waist
  • Make sure you’re not standing too close or too far away from the drum
  • Your elbows should be slightly away from the drum 

Tuning

An important part of learning how to play steel drums is to make sure it is well-tuned.

The best option is to leave it to the professional tuner to do his job.

The tuner has to set up two elements of the tone of the steel drum:

  • The fundamental (playing pitch)
  • The timbre (color of the tone)

The tuner will use a small hammer and a rubber-tipped tuning stick to tap the notes and tune the steel drum accordingly.

The size of the notes determines the sort of hammer used to tune the notes.

The tuning process consists of three main steps:

  1. Coarse tuning – softening the metal and setting up the right pitch
  2. Fine tuning – adjusting the pitch and timbre while the steel drum hangs in the playing position
  3. Blending – final tuning and adjusting the pitch, the timbre, and the loudness of the various notes.

Step 3: Holding the pan drum mallets

You can choose different techniques to hold the sticks or mallets when playing pan drum, but it’s crucial to do it properly if you want to learn to play steel drums.

Pan drums are usually played with both hands, and you can use different kinds of sticks and mallets.

Here are the ways you can hold the mallet when playing the pan drums:

  • Grip the pan mallet/stick with a fist
  • Press the grip with your index finger
  • Hold more than one-third of the mallet with a light grip
  • Grip the mallet with three fingers

If you hold the mallet too tight, you won’t be able to produce a good sound.

It’s better to hold it a bit loose and keep the mallet contact time as short as possible so the notes can vibrate freely.

Types of steel drum mallets

A steel drum mallet consists of a dowel (shaft) made of wood or aluminum and a rubber tip that comes in different sizes.

Various materials, thicknesses, and weights of the mallet bring out the best sound for each of the steel pans.

Different types of steel drums require a different playing mallet.

Steel drums with higher pitch (for example, tenor pan) require thinner rubber tips, while thicker and softer tips are used lower-pitched drums.

How to play handpans

When it comes to the handpans, a subset of steel drums, you will need a different approach.

As the name says, handpans are usually played with hands, although they can also be played with mallets.

Learning how to play handpan is not so hard.

Within 20 hours, you will already know how to play handpan decently.

Step 1: Choose the handpan scale

The notes of the handpan have the pitch ascending in order of the numbers, positioned left to right, from back to front.

Handpan is tuned to a specific scale, with 8 or 9 notes.

Each handpan note holds at least three frequencies:

  • the fundamental note
  • the octave
  •  the compound fifth on a 1:2:3 ratio

You can choose the handpan scale according to your taste.

The major scale has a happy sound, while the minor delivers more sad and nostalgic tones.

There are many other variations of the scales, such as Indian, Middle-Eastern, and Chinese, and they bring the exotic sound.

Step 2: Position your handpan

Handpan is usually played in a sitting position, but you can also do it while standing.

The position will be a matter of personal choice or circumstance.

If you want to play it while standing, you will need a handpan stand to put your instrument at the appropriate height.

Most handpan players position their instrument in a way that the lowest notes are placed closest to the body, but the choice is ultimately up to you.

Step 3: Start playing

The specific thing about handpan is that it’s usually all about improvising and going with the flow, without much musical theory.

However, the technique of the strike should be established.

Try hitting the handpan with your fingers as if the instrument’s surface is very hot and release immediately.

This way, the instrument is going to release the most resonance and not mute the note.

Steel drums vs Handpans

The main difference between steel drums and handpans is their shape and sound.

The handpan is made of two convex sheets of steel glued together.  

The instrument has a center tone field, surrounded by a circle of seven tone fields on the upper side and an opening on the bottom side. They have tuned notes on the top that can be played with the hands.

Handpans can be tuned to different scales such as major, minor or harmonic minor, but also many others.

Steel tongue drums

The tongue drum is played with the fingers or with mallets and delivers a bell-like tone. If you want to play a tongue drum, you should hit a tongue with your fingers, hands, or a mallet. 

The drum amplifies the sound, releasing it through the slits of the tongues. If you hit several tongues at a time, you create a chord.

A steel tongue drum is more similar to handpan than a steel drum. They are shaped similarly, but there are some differences that make them separate instruments.

A steel tongue drum has a round steel body originally fashioned from a propane cylinder, with tongue-like slits on the top.

It is often tuned to pentatonic scales but can be tuned to the diatonic, the chromatic, or other scales.

Wrap-up

Although there are various types of steel drums, they all produce the sound when the notes are struck with a mallet or hand. 

After you learn how to set up the steel drum, hold the mallet, and balance your strike in order to produce the best sound, you will master them in no time.

If you want to learn how to play steel drums professionally, you can always take lessons and expand your knowledge deeper.

However, instruments like handpan and tongue drum are often played without musical knowledge for the purpose of meditation and enjoying the music.

Whatever instrument from the steel drums family you choose, you will discover their uniqueness and undoubtedly enjoy the experience.