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They may be most commonly associated with Latin and Caribbean music, but steel drums have also found a place in the modern music canon, thanks to artists like Jamie xx, Clipse and yes, 50 Cent. Nick Jonas’ hit single, “Close?” Most listeners know the familiar opening refrain, but few know that it was actually played on a steel drum.
More accurately known as steel pans, the musical instrument originated from Trinidad and Tobago (it’s actually the country’s national instrument) in the the late 1930s, though it can also be traced back centuries to Indigenous rituals and celebrations. With a bright, brassy tone and loud, resonant quality, the best steel pan drums add sweetness and vibrancy to a song, whether as the melodic lead or in the background.
Historically, steel pans were made from used oil barrels and scrap industrial waste, though these days, they’re more likely made from new barrels or sheets of steel that are hammered into a bowl shape. The hammering also creates the different notes, by forming convex shapes that emit different tones when struck.
Steel pans are not to be confused with tongue drums, which are also made out of steel (searches for “best steel drums” will often turn up results for both types of drums, similar to what we’ve listed below). While a steel pan looks like a bowl or wok, a steel tongue drum looks more like a propane tank with the nozzles and base cut off. The drum emits different tones from different “tongues” that are cut into the top side of the instrument. The size and weight of the tongues determine the sound and pitch of the note.
These days, both steel pans and steel tongue drums are used for live performances and studio sessions, though they’ve become popular for yoga and meditation as well (with many practitioners praising the gentle, calming tones of the drums).
Whether you’re seeking the sounds of the islands or looking for some serenity, we’ve rounded up some popular steel drums that are easy to play no matter your age, skill level, favorite music genre or activity of choice.
1. Panyard Jumbie Jam Steel Drum
Named after the “Jumbie,” a playful and mystical spirit in Trinidadian folklore, this Jumbie Jam steel drum offers an easy way to get into the instrument, with a large hitting surface and all the notes labelled on the drum.
The steel pan delivers clear, consistent sound, though some say it’s on the mellower end of the spectrum. For small rooms and venues, it’ll work just fine, but if you’re playing in a large space you’ll want something than rings louder.
This set includes: the steel pan, mallets, a table-top stand, carrying case and a playing guide. The Jumbie Jam was named “Best in Show” and “Best Tools for Schools” by the National Association of Music Merchants.
PROS: Notes are labelled on the drum to correspond to notes in songbooks. Drum is made in the USA.
CONS: Professional players will want to pick up something richer in sound.
2. Richday Mini Tongue Drum Steel
This mini tongue drum from Richday measures 10 inches in diameter and is made from a hardened steel shell, laser-cut tongues and a lacquer finish to protect against scratches and scuffs.
The drum has a total of eight sounds and can be played with mallets or with your fingers. Three rubber feet keep the drum grounded and stable and also help to isolate the drum for a more consistent tone.
This set includes the steel tongue drum, four mallets, two tone stickers and a carrying case.
PROS: Easy to play and compact size.
CONS: Not a traditional steel pan drum.
3. Moukey Mini Tongue Drum
This set from Moukey gets you an intricate tongue drum hand-crafted from premium steel, with laser cut tongues and silicone feet.
The 10-inch drum gets you a total of eight sounds, and drummers say the tones are loud, smooth and resonant. Strike the drums with the included mallets or by using your hand.
This set includes the pentatonic scale steel tongue drum, two drumsticks, two tone stickers, a carrying bag and an adjustable carrying strap.
PROS: 30-day money back guarantee.
CONS: Using the mallets most effectively takes some time to get used to; if you don’t tap the tongue head right in the middle, the sound will be off.
4. Panyard Steel Drum
Another drum from Panyard, this one is made from a durable steel and comes professionally tuned and ready to play. Drummers say the sound is loud and crisp, with eight different notes that each generate a rich and warm tone.
The notes are all clearly marked on the drum, so there is little to no learning curve. And users say the drum still emits a clear tone, even if you miss the “sweet spot” with your mallet.
This set includes the steel pan, adjustable stand, mallets, carrying case and a downloadable beginner’s guide and songbook. The book includes audio tracks for five different songs, so you can play along.
The drum is made in USA by Panyard, a family-owned company that has been making steel drums and accessories since 1990.
PROS: Large playing surface means less chance of missing the notes.
CONS: Some say the stand felt cheap.