Simply speaking, the steel drum is a pitched instrument built from an oil barrel and sunk down into a bowl. But it is really much more than that. For most people, the sound of steel drums conjures up thoughts of festive times: Carnival, a trip to the Islands, memories of a long night spent liming (what they call partying in Trinidad). With its roots stretching back to the wooden drums played by African slaves, the steel drum has become a global instrument with large steel drum bands playing complex orchestral arrangements. It’s also making its way onto the albums of popular musicians like Jack Johnson, Jane’s Addiction, The Police, 50 Cent, Kenney Chesney, and Bob Schneider.
The steel drum is both a percussive and a melodic instrument. Different members of the steel drum family of instruments have different pitch ranges and are used to play melodies, chord progressions and bass lines. Rockcreek builds four different steel drums: the Cycle of Fifths Lead Pan, the Single Guitar, the Double Seconds and the Bass Pans. These drums come with mallets, stands and a beginner guide.
A Little Steel Pan History
There are many different versions told of the early years of the development of the steel drum. In most of these stories Ellie Manette and Winton “Spree” Simon are credited with the initial development of the first musical steel drums in Trinidad in the 1930s - 1940s. During the 40s and 50s steel drum bands spread to other islands and started to gain international recognition.
When steel drums were first made, just the main pitch produced by each note surface was tuned and the rest of the harmonics and octave overtones were left raw. This style of steel drum is now referred to as a muted pan or a muted drum. During the late 1950s and 1960s traditional steel drum builders began controlling the overtones and harmonics produced by each note in the drum. This opened the door to drums where the main pitch of each note is tuned along with several different harmonics and octaves. Today, most steel tongue drum builders are only tuning the main pitch for each note surface, much like the muted steel pans of the 1950s.
Building our Drums: The Rockcreek Difference
Rockcreek Steel Drums has developed methods to control the harmonic overtones produced by each pitch by grinding, stretching, tempering with heat and quenching with oil or chilled salt water. This produces a more complex and refined tone.
We have also developed a synchronized Steel Drum Ensemble. The ensemble consists of three drums that play together to form a complete band, covering all ranges. These are the single guitar pan, used to strum chords and play melodies; the double seconds, with the largest range and versatility and the bass pans, used to summon the back beat. The ensemble drums are also synchronized by their universal drum pattern. Once a player learns the pattern of one drum, he or she then knows how to play the other drums in the ensemble. A second set of double seconds and a lead pan can be added to expand the ensemble to include more players.
Playing your Steel Drum
The steel drum is a fragile instrument. The mallets should strike the drum very lightly, about as hard as the drop from six inches above the note. The smaller notes are hit a little harder and the larger notes are hit softer. With a little practice, you will find the sweet spot on each note and get a feel for how to hit them.
Caring for Your Instrument
It’s important to keep your steel drum in a place where it will not be touched by anyone who doesn't know how to use it. By far the most common way these instruments are knocked out of tune is when unsupervised novices smack on the drum thinking it can be hit hard.
The note surfaces should only be touched by the tips of the mallets provided with the drum. Acid from your fingers can damage the finish over time.
Your drum should not be kept in sunlight hot enough to be uncomfortably hot to the touch. This will loosen the metal and cause the pitch to drop and make the drum susceptible to being knocked out of tune. If playing under direct summer sun, try to find shade if possible and cover the instrument when not playing.
Steel drums need to be professionally tuned about as often as guitars need to be brought in for regular maintenance and the costs are similar. Normally, drums need tuning about once a year as long as they have been properly cared for.