Steel tongue drums have become associated with a variety of uplifting activities such as yoga and meditation, and overall they are a very uplifting percussion instrument to play. They produce an ethereal sound, and are simple and intuitive to use. Even new players with no music theory knowledge can find themselves producing great melodies in minutes.
But, if you start to look around, you will see there are lots of different options and variations out there, so choosing the right steel tongue drum can be a struggle.
Well, don’t worry, we have you covered. In this article, you will find our picks for the five best relatively affordable steel tongue drums that you can buy today and start playing.
We’ll also take a look at how exactly the steel drum works, and what to look for when assessing a steel tongue drum and choosing the right one for you.
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What Is A Steel Tongue Drum?
A steel tongue drum is a small, round drum that is tuned to play a variety of notes. The turning comes from slits cut into the steel to produce tongue-shaped pieces. Each tongue is unique in length, width, and depth, so that they each create different notes when struck by the fingers or with a small mallet.
The design for the drum was adapted from previous tank drums, slit drums, log drums, and whale drums. It is also closely related to the handpan drum. Read our overview of the handpan drum here.
Steel tongue drums are tuned to a diatonic scale, which means that all notes should sound good when played together, regardless of the order. This makes it an easy instrument for beginners without a lot of music theory to play. The notes are arranged in descending order from left to right across the head of the instrument.
If you are interested in learning a bit of music theory, you’ll find our online lessons and courses here.
Steel tongue drums come in various sizes and with differing numbers of notes. The most common combinations are 6 inches with 8 notes, 10 inches with 11 notes, 12 inches with 13 notes, or 14 inches with 15 notes.
5 Best Steel Tongue Drums
This steel tongue drum from Four Uncles is premium but affordable. It is made from a strong and rust-resistant titanium alloy, accurately cut by hand to get the right notes.Their most popular design has a 10-inch diameter and 11 notes tuned to D minor. But there are also 6-inch/8-note and 12-inch/13-note options as well as five different color options.
The complete kit comes with a carry bag, music instruction book, fingerpicks, mallets with stand, and note stickers to replace them if they come loose.
This steel tongue drum from Happybuy is one of the best affordable options on the market.But, while it is affordable, it is high quality made from a steel titanium alloy coated in a protective spray paint to protect against tarnishing and scratches.
The drum has a 10-inch diameter and is 5.5 inches deep. It comes with 11 tones, and you can choose from 14 different colors.
One of the features that stands out about this option is the steady silicone feet that provide extra stability when playing.
This steel tongue drum from Panda Balmy is stylish and produces a great sound. It is made from a titanium alloy with meticulous laser cutting to hit all the right notes.
Choose from six different colors, all of which are complemented by a quality wool edging.
It comes with a 14-inch diameter and 15 notes tuned to D minor. The complete kit comes with a carrier bag, music book, mallets with stand, note stickers, and fingerpicks.
This steel tongue drum has an accessible price tag for a nice instrument that you will have for life.
It is made from a titanium alloy for a plated surface for durability and accurate tuning. The drum is 14 inches in diameter and has 15 notes.
It comes in a complete kit with a bag, music book, fingerpicks, mallets, and note stickers. A stylish wool sleeve covers the sides of the drum where they come together.
This steel tongue drum from AKLOT has a simple and sleek design for a good quality instrument.
It is a smaller drum at 10 inches in diameter and with 11 notes. It is made from a titanium alloy with a silver color finish that shouldn’t rust or scratch when cared for.
The kit comes with everything you need including a carry bag, mallets with stand, fingerpicks, and replacement note stickers.
What To Look For When Choosing A Steel Tongue Drum
When choosing a steel tongue drum, one of the first things to consider is quality. While steel sounds strong, it rusts, so choosing a titanium alloy that has been treated with some kind of protection is essential.
While most drums tend to come with stickers indicating the notes, the protection used on the metal means they don’t tend to stay around for long. You’ll often get replacement stickers in your kit, but hopefully you will learn the location of the notes pretty quickly.
Size & Notes
When it comes to the size and tuning steel tongue drums, there are many different options. None is better than the other, and choosing the right one pretty much comes down to personal preference.
Of course, smaller drums will have fewer notes. You can expect a small 6-inch diameter drum to have a maximum of eight notes, while most 14-inch diameter steel tongue drums have 15 notes. The smaller drums are easier for children to play, but if you have larger hands you might find the required finger dexterity challenging and could benefit from a larger drum.
Within each size, the drum may also have different tuning. For example, there are 33 different tuning options with nine-note steel tongue drums alone.
Which option is right for you depends on the type of sound that you are looking for. As a general rule, major scales are thought to be uplifting and happy, while minor and sharp scales produce a more melancholic and darker sound.
While the first steel tongue drums were decidedly unattractive, these days aesthetic is a big question since they are often used in peaceful and calming environments such as meditation spaces and yoga studios.
You will find that many drums have been intricately designed and incorporate significant symbols. Finding one that appeals to you is just a case of shopping around.
What is the difference between a handpan drum and a tongue drum?
Both handpan and tongue drums are small drums that are tuned to play a variety of notes. To create a steel tongue drum, you cut into the steel to create individual tongues that are turned to a note. The handpan drum uses convexes in the steel to create different notes. Tongue drums tend to be a bit lighter and more versatile than handpan drums.
How do you play a steel tongue drum?
You play a steel tongue drum by striking the drum at different locations to produce different sounds. You know where to strike as the various tongues of the drums are tuned to different notes. You can plan steel tongue drums with small mallets, but it is more traditional to play with your fingers. This can irritate the fingers after a while, so fingerpickers are also commonly used to play the drum.
How are steel drums tuned?
When you get a steel tongue drum it will already be tuned to a specific scale based on the size of the individual tongues. Over time, the tongues may lose their tuning, and you can bend them or anneal the metal with heat to restore their original tuning. If you want to completely return the instruments, magnets are sometimes used to adjust the sound without damaging the instrument.
A steel tongue drum is enjoyable to play and produces a unique sound. It can make a great addition to the collection of any serious percussionist, and is also a very accessible instrument for anyone who enjoys the sound but hasn’t studied music theory.
Hopefully, you will find a steel tongue drum that suits your needs and your budget on our list of 2021 recommendations.
Are you a fan of the steel tongue drum? Do you have any playing or buying tips? Share them with the community in the comments section below.