Reading this page means you have rejoiced listening to a Caribbean tune on a steelpan drum and now are thinking to buy the drum kit as soon as possible. Well, this is obvious for instrument players and musical composers. However, the truth is that most beginners are unaware of what to choose and how to choose. In fact, most of them do not know what exactly a steel drum is. This is why this guide is dedicated to inform them about what are steelpan drums and which ones are the best for beginners.

Overview of Steel Drums/Steelpan Drums

Steel drums are musical instruments originated during the 1930s in the Caribbean island republic of Trinidad and Tobago. They are percussion instruments (shaken or struck instruments) that are made from oil drums and are available in different musical ranges. When played together, they are termed as a steel drum band and those who play are termed pannists. The steel drums are also in use for jazz performances due to their tunability.

Steel pans or steel drums for sale feature a bright sound that freshens up the tropical sights. Pans were the outcome of the discovery that the banged part of a metal barrel head can generate a unique musical tone. The layout and pattern were improved when players hammered metallic parts for forming diverse tunings and scales. Finally, this led to orchestrated bands, which now participate in big musical competitions during the Caribbean carnival.

Smaller models are set up to particular keys like C or G and are tweaked to pentatonic or diatonic scales. The big chromatic pans come with a complete range of notes.

Are Steel Drums and Steel Pans Same?

Yes! Both are different terms for a single instrument. It might be perplexing, but it is accepted in the world of steel drum band. The main reason could be the highly informal development of this instrument, which involved independent working of several people. This independent working resulted in very similar or same instruments, but with diverse names. The process of standardizing these drums is taking speed but a few inconsistencies are yet intact.

Of all names, the most popular one is pans or steel pans, which is in use in the academic and Caribbean groups. On the other hand, the term steel drums is in use amongst the Americans.


Most of us do not recognize that a steel pan is indeed a whole orchestra containing different instruments. Five types of steel drums exist, which are as follows and in the order from highest to lowest sounding:

  • Tenor (Ping Pong): Is the most popular pan featuring one drum due to which it is easy to carry and transport. Mostly, soloists use them. As a starter, you only require investment in a case and a stand due to which it is also a more affordable type. Another selling point is its ability to play the melody line. Other instruments perform strumming (frequently playing one rhythm). Tenor pans are of two types differing in pitch range:
    • Low Tenor: Comes with C as the lowest note and has a pitch rate of C4 to E6. It is commonly used in the U.S.A.
    • High Tenor: Comes with D as the lowest note and has a pitch range of D4 to F#6. It can play both melody and harmonic tunes.
  • Double Tenor: Features two drums. These tenors are rare to find. They come with a layout due to which playing a melody line is very easy. The great thing about is that it can deliver melody or harmonic tune for counter or chords melodies. The pitch range is two octaves or from F3 to B5. As the notes are arranged asymmetrically, it is a bit harder to master it than others.
  • Double Second: Has two drums and is the most versatile instrument in this family. With it, you have the most notes for melody lines and lower notes are for syncing well with other musicians. You can play chords, leads, harmonic voices, or counter melodies. Melody lines are useful while playing in any band.
  • Guitar or Cello: Has three drums with the same note layout. While guitars typically dangle from the stands, cellos operate with the support of their legs. You may also come across something known as a 4-cello or double guitar, which play a role in smaller steel drums. In bigger bands, the guitar and cello have different parts to play. The guitar drum comes with two pans with a pitch range of C#3 to F#5 and is chiefly for strumming. It can offer both harmony and counter melodies. The sound is deep and mellow due to a longer skirt. On the other hand, the cello steel drum has three distinct pans with a pitch range of C3 to B4. It provides a deeper, gloomier tone. However, its best feature is that it can adapt pans’ arrangement and layout as per your style. Consider it for playing counter melodies and low harmonies.
  • Bass Tenor: Has six, full-sized, 55-gallon bulky steel drums and need a van for transportation. Due to this bulkiness, an electric bass is the choice of professional bands. Due to large notes on basses, just three fit on each drum! Further, you can adjust them to sit on the floor or stand on legs. It is rare for a pannist to use 7-, 9-, and 12-bass pan models. It is mandatory to have six or more bass steel pans, as only they come with three different notes.

Overview of Steel Tongue Drums

A steel tongue drum is the newest type of steel drum family. Its rich, long tone tend to accompany the brighter tones. It is for those who intend to make their custom soothing sounds for professional or fun purpose. This kind of drum sits between a conventional Caribbean drum and a wooden tongue drum.

Just as a steel pan, it is useful for playing a melody but is cheaper than former. Its sound is comparable to NBC chimes or a Wurlitzer. A steel tongue drum delivers a softer output than a conventional one, as it delivers at 85 decibels instead of 95 decibels like the latter. The note layouts are as per those of the steel drum ensemble. However, different members of this family come with different pitch ranges.

Tongue drums are useful for playing bass lines, chord progressions, and melodies. Mostly, it is easy to play a steel drum on your lap with mallets or hands.

Factors to Consider while Buying Steel Drums on Sale

Following are the most important factors to consider while buying a steel drum:

  • Play and Sound: Tongue models are just hard to beat here. This is evident when you experience playing one of them. They come with a stylish look as compared to their hand pan models. Nevertheless, you need to be aware of the tongue drum sound. While it is cheaper than a hand pan despite having same playing and structural features, it differs in terms of what sound it delivers. So, do keep an eye on that! Most have a resonating and sound spectrum with distinct beats and a spring sound when used with fingers. It can even create a more conventional vibrating sound as well as sound frequencies.
  • Rust Resistance: As many steel drums are made using tank drums, they are likely to be vulnerable to rust. Nevertheless, the makers have come up with a solution of rust-free designs and color varnish. Still, it is wise to keep the drums far from hot, damp, and wet regions to retain its look as well as sound quality.
  • Stand: A good stand is what makes a steel drum truly good. Nobody will say this, but it is a fact. A cheaper model is likely to come with a poor stand of plastic. Thus, it is wise to consider a steel stand if you seriously intend to play steel drums. However, you need to know that each type of drum and playing style shall have a somewhat different stand. At the same time, it is vital to have a quality stand for having an easier playing time. While being strong, the stand you choose should be light in weight so that it is easy to transport it. A collapsing ability would just make it easier to move the stand.
  • Mallets: Mallets for steel drums are a somewhat different than the standard ones. While all mallets including those for steel drums have a wooden base, the heads of mallets for steel drums are enclosed in rubber or leather for preventing damage to the drum. For bass models, the mallets differ with a thicker rubber head so that you can get deeper notes. Because even the top quality mallets are cheap, it is ideal to buy such percussion mallets. It is recommended not to rely on the ones that come with the drum, as they may not be of good quality.
  • Cost: Steel drums are not that cheaper but the tongue ones are. Sites such as Craigslist and eBay offer both new and used ones at good prices.

Top 5 Steel Drums

Panyard Jumbie Jam Steel Drum with Steel Finish – Awarded One!

This one has achieved awards from the National Association of Music Merchants in 2010, one being ‘Best Tools for Schools’ and another one being ‘Best in Show’. This Panyard steel drum is an epitome of durability and simple design, as even a school kid can easily play it. Useful for music schools and workshops, this drum is for all age groups who prefer soothing melodies. The sound is much like from a professional instrument but comes at a cheaper price. It comes with a vibrant carrying case, mallets, stand, CD, and song book.


  • Clean sound
  • Cool design
  • Easy to learn
  • Affordable


  • Lack of enough notes, so not for a progressing professional

Panyard Jumbie Jam Table Top Steel Drum Kit – Awarded One!

This one is the most competitive model for beginners that have won the same awards as the aforementioned one. Most experts recommend it for those who want to get started. This drum is another model suitable for all ages, as it only needs striking the notes for sweet tunes. It is durable and versatile for both family and classroom fun with simple to complex sounds. The kit comes with mallets, guide, carrying case, and table top stand.



  • Compact
  • Easy to store
  • Good sound
  • Most affordable for starters


  • Limited notes

HAPI HDMINIDAKE Mini Steel Tongue Percussion Drum

This one is ideal for those who want an intuitive, compact, and easy musical instrument to play. This elegantly copper colored drum comes with a patented eight-note layout (D4, E4, F4, A4, Bb4, D5, E5, F5) and delivers powerful meditative tones. It is pentatonic to give meditative tunes and it is easy to come up with new melodious horizons. It comes with a free travel bag.


  • Perfect traveling size
  • Playable on any surface due to rubber feet isolating the sound
  • High-quality rubber mallets producing sound better than mallets



  • Little too small to hold and play on lap
  • Only 8 notes, so limited tunes

8″ Steel Tongue Drum C Major Natural Scale from Crystal Energy Bowls

With a diameter of 20cm, 8 notes (C D E F G A B C), and two rubber rods, this one is another high-quality tongue drum available at the affordable rate. It is diatonic and is playable with mallets or fingers. The sound is pure and ethereal. It also comes with a free bag.


  • Light
  • Quality case
  • Playable on any surface


  • Possibility of actual model being different from photos

DOBANI 12-Inch Tanpura Tuning

This one is the costliest in this list, but not in the steel drum collection. It is obviously so, for a reason. This tongue drum with the antique bronze coating is capable of Bhopali, which is an Asian (Indian) classical raga on a pentatonic scale. This raga’s scale appeals to all international cultures and genres due to its meditative mood and soothing effect. It comes with eight notes, two beaters, soft case, and a gig bag.


  • Multi-cultural appeal
  • Meditative effect


  • Not that lightweight


Well, these beginner drums are more affordable than the high-end ones without compromising the variety to play even with one octave. Even more prominently, many come with guides. Just choose the one that is under your budget!