How to Play the Steel Tongue Drum: Basics and Tips

A steel tongue drum is one of the most fascinating musical instruments that have become popular recently. With a long history that started in different corners of the world, it was reinvented in the XXI century and conquered the hearts of music lovers. If you want to try your talent with a tongue drum, prepare: It’s easy to start but hard to drop.

The Basics: How a Steel Tongue Drum Is Played

If you look at the top surface of a steel tongue drum, you will see the namesake tongues. Hitting them produces sounds. As a steel tongue drum is a tuned instrument, each tongue produces a note. They are pre-tuned, but there are ways to retune a drum or refine its tuning if necessary.

Steel tongue drums (also known as panda drums or hank drums) come in different sizes, though the shape is usually the same, reminiscent of the flying saucer as it’s shown in sci-fi movies. The number of tongues also can vary, from as few as six to fourteen and even more. The more tongues there are, the more notes it can produce.

There are many options when it comes to tuning, but this is a long story. Regardless of the scale, steel tongue drums are usually made to never produce a wrong chord. So you can start mastering it by hitting the tongues in completely random order, just learning how it sounds.

How to Hold the Drum

Basically, there are two ways to place this instrument.

  • On your lap;
  • On a stand, a table, or any surface where it can stably rest.

Both ways are popular, though it depends on the way you play. Playing with mallets is obviously easier when you place the instrument in front of you on a surface.

How to position it? The most usual way is to put the lowest note closest to your body so that you can easily find any other note. The tongue that produces it is the largest. So there’s no problem either, as the other notes usually progress clockwise. As you practice, you won’t have to calculate: Your hands will just remember them.

If you play with mallets, the best way to hold them is at their fulcrums. This way, they feel balanced, and the physical feel will be steady and solid. It’s the most convenient way to hold them, but you can try different manners and experiment as much as you want.

How to Play Certain Tunes

It’s easier with a factory-made drum where the tongues are numbered. These drums almost always come with booklets that contain manuals and songbooks. In the songbook, songs are presented as numerical sheets rather than traditional notations. So, following the lyrics, you can see when to hit a certain tongue to play the correct note.

It’s easier to do when you have at least some knowledge about notes and harmony (though steel tongue drums are usually tuned specifically to make any disharmony impossible). It’s still easier when the tongues are numbered. If not, though, remember the rule of holding it: keep the base not the closest to your body.

Where to Hit the Tongues

While the note is defined by the tongue you hit, the way it sounds depends on how and when you hit it. It’s obvious that if you give it a stronger hit, the tongue will sound louder and resonate for longer, providing juicy, stable sustain. However, where you hit the tongue also matters.

The so-called sweet spot that provides the loudest and fullest sound is usually near the edge of the tongue. If you hit the tongue at the base, the sound will be weaker and shorter. A hit in the middle will provide a little more sustain. If you apply your mallet or finger near the edge, you’ll have it as loud as it can be.

Does it mean that you should always hit that sweet spot? No, it doesn’t. You might want to do it when you improvise or highlight some specific notes. But if you want some phrases or separate notes to sound attenuated, hitting the tongue at the base or in the middle is a good way to make it lower and softer. This comes with practice, so after you learn the notes on your drum, you can experiment with manners, too.

Mallets or Hands?

We have mentioned that a steel tongue drum is often played with mallets and even told you how to hold them. Mallets for steel tongue drums are usually soft, and so is the sound they produce. They provide an even more cosmic feel when you play the instrument.

Playing with hands, though, is also popular. It allows you to hit tongues faster; it makes the sound more variable, depending on how you apply your fingers or palms, and it allows you to feel the music at your fingertips – literally. In addition, you don’t have to worry that you might have left the mallets at home.

Sometimes, it’s even played with regular sticks. Though the sound will be rougher, which is not how this instrument is supposed to sound, the recognizable atmosphere still remains. In addition, this might add more force to the sound if you need it.

Some More Tricks

What makes the sound of the instrument so cosmic is the long sustain. Once hit, a tongue keeps resonating, and while you hit other tongues in the meantime, notes merge, forming that deep feeling. But you can touch a tongue with your finger to mute it. Sometimes it’s a very useful tip, though it takes some practice.

If you play with your fingers, you can use fingertips, edges, or knuckles. They will produce different sounds, so it’s worth giving some time to experiment.

If your drum comes with number stickers, don’t neglect them. Stick them to the tongues as shown in the manual. As you begin, it will be easier to find the right note.

We hope this post has inspired you to find your own model of this popular instrument and start playing it. It’s irreplaceable in many situations, from home meditations to large parties where you can grab some attention with it. Music is always fun, so the closer you hold it to yourself, the better.

If you want to share your experience with steel tongue drums or ask a question, welcome to the comments section! Feel free to write whatever you want as long as you respect the others.

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