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What are Steel Drums?

Steel drums, also known as steel pans, are musical instruments originating from Trinidad and Tobago. Crafted from metal containers, they produce rich, resonant tones when struck with mallets. Each drum is carefully tuned to play a specific range of notes. Intrigued? Discover how these vibrant instruments create harmony and rhythm that captivate listeners around the world. Ready to explore their unique sound?
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Often made from 55-gallon oil drums, steel drums are percussion instruments from Trinidad that were developed in the 1930s to 1940s. Technically, the instrument is called a steel pan or steelpan or just pan; steel drum is the material that the instrument is made from. Still, colloquially, the instrument is often referred to as a steel drum. They were originally used in Carnival celebrations that take place on the Tuesday before the beginning of Lent.

An ensemble of steel drums is called a steel band. The ensemble may also include rhythm instruments, such as drum kit, congas, and other percussion, some standard, and some &emdash; like irons, made from brake drums — also recycled.

Steel drums are pitched idiophones — instruments that produce sound through vibration. In general, idiophones may be played by striking, scraping, plucking, friction, or blowing. In the case of steel drums, they are struck with rubber-tipped mallets

A steel drum ensemble may also include a standard drum kit.
A steel drum ensemble may also include a standard drum kit.

To make steel drums, the bottom of the oil drums are formed into a bowl and then tuned. Each drum has a number of surfaces in the pan, which vary in pitch. The highest pitched drum, the tenor, has a range of about two and a half octaves. Conventional tuning is chromatic.

Winston “Spree” Simon, who played with the John John steel band, is said to be the first maker of a pan. Although the typical repertoire of steel drums includes calypsos and other Latin American forms, Simon developed arrangements of “Ave Maria” and “God Save the King” for steel drums.

Steel drums continue to be popular in Trinidad and Tobago, where they are the national instrument. Still associated with Carnival, the attention has turned to the Trinidad and Tobago National Panorama competition, in which steel bands vie with each other for prizes, with the contest culminating on the Saturday before Carnival. The maximum number of players in the largest band category is 120 players.

In the Panorama competition, the steel drums are judged in four categories: the arrangement of the music, general performance, tone, and rhythm, with 40 possible points in each of the first two categories and 10 possible points in the latter two categories. Panorama began in 1962, immediately following Trinidad and Tobago’s independence from Britain. Since then, steel drums have spread through the Caribbean, and even become popular in communities worldwide, even those without a Caribbean population.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are steel drums and where did they originate?

Steel drums, also known as steel pans, are percussion instruments originating from Trinidad and Tobago in the early 20th century. They were created by working-class residents of Trinidad during the 1930s from the discarded oil barrels left by the U.S. military. These innovators found that different areas of the drum produced different pitches when struck, leading to the development of the modern steel pan with its chromatic arrangement of notes.

How are steel drums made?

Steel drums are made by sinking the top of an oil barrel into a concave shape and then carefully creating grooves and patterns to form notes. Each note is meticulously hammered and shaped to achieve the correct pitch and tone. After the initial tuning, the drums are often chromed, painted, or electroplated to prevent corrosion and to enhance their appearance. The process is both an art and a science, requiring skilled craftsmanship.

What types of music are steel drums used for?

Steel drums are versatile instruments used in various music genres, including Calypso, Soca, Reggae, Jazz, and even Classical music. They are synonymous with Caribbean music and are a staple in Carnival celebrations. Their unique, melodic sound has also been incorporated into popular music and is used by bands and artists around the world to add a tropical flavor to their compositions.

Can steel drums be tuned to different scales or pitches?

Yes, steel drums can be tuned to different scales and pitches. A skilled tuner can adjust the notes by varying the tension and length of the surface area of each note. This allows the drums to be tuned to the chromatic scale and to match the pitch standards of other instruments, making them suitable for ensemble playing. Tuning is a delicate process and is essential for maintaining the quality of the instrument's sound.

What is the range of notes that a steel drum can produce?

The range of notes a steel drum can produce depends on its size and the number of notes it has been crafted to include. A full-size steel drum, known as a Tenor or Lead pan, typically has a range of 29 notes, covering more than two octaves. Other types of steel drums, such as the Double Seconds or Bass pans, have different ranges and are used to play harmony and bass lines, respectively, in a steel band ensemble.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to MusicalExpert about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

Learn more...
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to MusicalExpert about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

Learn more...

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    • A steel drum ensemble may also include a standard drum kit.
      By: Harry Lewkowicz
      A steel drum ensemble may also include a standard drum kit.