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Guide to Steel Drums

Steel Drum : What is it?

Steel Drums

Steel drums, also called steel pans, are made from used oil drums whose tops have been pounded into a concave shape. The cylindrical portion of the drum is usually cut off, leaving short “skirt” around the top to round out the tones. The drums are tuned to different pitch ranges and used in ensembles known as steel bands. Steel drums are normally tuned in the chromatic scale, while some toy and novelty steel drums are diatonic.

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Types of Steel Drums

Steel DrumsSteel Drums

Kinds of Steel Drums include the following:

Tenors (steel drums)

Tenors have the shortest skirts, measuring 12 to 15 centimeters. The notes are slightly elevated from the surface and are struck with thin rubber mallets. They have 28 to 30 notes ranging from D4 to G6.

Double tenors (steel drums)

Double tenors are tuned one octave lower than tenor pans. They have 29 to 30 notes distributed between two pans, with a range from F3 to Bb5. They 12 to 16 centimeters deep and are played with rubber mallets.

Double seconds (steel drums)

Double seconds have skirts measuring 15 to 18 centimeters, providing a deeper sound than tenors. The range is distributed between two drums with 15 notes each. They are normally used to provide rhythm for the other steel pans.

Cellos (steel drums)

Cellos are made up of three to four drums with a side length of 45 centimeters. They are played with thick rubber mallets while suspended on racks for resonance. They have 24 notes ranging from B2 to D5 in triple cellos and G2 to C#5 in quad cellos.

Quadrophonics (steel drums)

Quadrophonics consist of four pans measuring 12 to 16 centimeters deep. They have 36 notes spanning from D2 to Bb5, distributed between the upper and lower drums. They are played with rubber mallets of medium thickness.

Guitars (steel drums)

Guitars are composed of two to three drums approximately 45 centimeters deep. Double guitars have 20 notes from C3 to G#4, while triple guitars have 27 notes from Bb2 to C5. They are played with thick rubber mallets and hung from racks to provide resonance.

Bass (steel drums)


Bass drums consist of a tenor bass and six-, nine-, or 12-bass drums. Each drum has three to four notes occupying different ranges between E1 and F#4. They are played with rubber mallets with soft rounded heads. 

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Choosing Steel Drums (Buying tips)

Thickness: Choose a steel drum with a thick metal top for the lower drums, such as the basses, guitars, and cellos. Look for those marked 18 to 20 gauge (one to 1.2 millimeters) to ensure the right tone. For higher drums, choose lower gauges to add more ring and volume to the notes.

Material: Choose a steel drum made of mild steel for easy tuning and better sound quality. Avoid galvanized iron coats because these can drastically change the tone of the drum. Make sure the concave part is smooth and free of grooves or embossed markings. 

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