How to Play Steel Drums?

It might not sound as easy, but you can really train yourself to learn to play drums made of steel pretty quickly, when compared to other sort of drums. Steel drums are also sometimes known as steel pans. It is true that nothing comes easy without the proper techniques and practice. Hence, we will help you out with the best of basic techniques that you can spend your time on getting a good grip on. Without the basics, you will struggle with the complex parts. Don’t worry, we will take you there as well. 

You can also read: Best Headphones for Electronic Drums

The Basic Techniques 

It is indeed pretty enjoyable to play steel pans, of course, when you follow the right techniques. Given the fact that the steel drums come in circular shapes, you will be impressed by the looks, while facing some extraordinary challenges in handling the instrument. However, the following techniques will smoothen your journey.

How to Play Steel Drums
Photo by: Ashley Allen-ICC

1. Position of Playing the Steel Pan

Frontline Pans

It is important that you position yourself in such a manner that you are standing exactly in the front of the steel pans, keeping a distance of 4 or 5 inches in between your body and the skirt of the drum.

You must also ensure that your body weight is not concentrated in any part of your lower half- evenly distribute your weight between your legs. 

While playing the steel pan, make sure that you hands are not too far from the surface of the drum at all times. It is pretty important if you want to maintain the pace and accuracy of the playing. Your elbows should also stay close to your waist height.

Try not to move your feet sideways at this position. You can trying leaning towards the instrument if you prefer it that way.

Background and Mid-Range Pans

When it comes to backgrounds pans, you need to be a little more agile as you will have much more pans than the case mentioned above. Pans in these cases are organized in the form of horse shoes, and hence require your body weight to shift between legs depending on what note is being played. 

Hence, it is very important that you keep a certain distance between the skirt of the pan and your body, allowing good maneuverability without making any kind of contact. When moving the stick between notes, your hands must stay close to the surface of the steel pans, allowing the sticks to glide over the notes, maintaining the pace and accuracy of the notes.

Once again, your elbows should stay close to the level of your waist. You must move your arms freely over the surface of the pans, and you must not have to bend the elbow to more than an angle of 45 degrees. You should also not have to raise the shoulders at any cost.

2. Grip on the Drum Sticks

This is a crucial issue as well. You must hold the pan sticks between the index finger’s primary joint and the thumb. At this point, the other fingers should remain lightly wrapped around the stick’s shaft, allowing the tips of your finger to gently touch the palm. You must not allow anything more than 0.5 inch of the exposed end of the stick to go below the little finger.

While it’s true that your grip needs to stay loose, you must ensure that when you play the high pitched notes, the grip is tightened in order to allow the intensity of the sound to be well-maintained.

3. Strokes of the Steel Drum

You are able to use two main strokes in the pan- the piston and the flick. The drum sticks are usually moved using wrists. In both these kinds of strokes, the stick must bounce back to the initial position as soon as it has impacted. Otherwise, it will produce a muted sound. 

The piston stroke can be visualized as follows- lowering the drum stick, using your wrist, to strike the note and come back to the initial position as soon as possible. The flick stroke is the one which involves moving the wrist sideways- that is either to the left, or to the right.

This kind of stroke is important to take the stick from the bottom to the side of the pan, or from the top to the side of the drum.

4. Single Stroke Roll

This is an essential technique for playing the steel drums. However, it is not really specific to the steel ones. Several other instruments also make use of this roll. 

How does it work? It is not much complicated. In order to produce it, you simply have to alternate the right and left hand down-up strokes as fast as possible.

This must happen fast and played in an even style. You should begin slow, allow the roll to be even and then slowly increase the speed. It does not matter which hand you start the roll with. At this time, you should maintain the elbows at the level of your waist.

You may also choose to swivel from the waist if you struggle to reach the desired note. The capability to roll fast and evenly for good periods of time is one of the best characteristics of an amazing steel drummer or pannist.

If you are serious about drumming with a steel pan, this is something you have to master sooner or later. Of course the smoothness in the roll will only come with a regular practice and time. 

How to Play Steel Drums?

Concluding Remarks

At this point, you are equipped with the best knowledge of the most important foundations of playing a steel drum. If you follow the aforementioned steps, or techniques, you will get a good grip in the playing of the instrument. Regular practice and spending ample time on this will help you get to the goal more easily and faster.

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