How to Choose the Best Steel Tongue Drum


Steel Tongue Drum

You’ve had some musical itch for some time, and you have decided to start with a steel tongue drum. Great! Congratulations! There is one thing left to do: get yourself a drum. The choice might be a bit complicated: This instrument (also known as the panda drum) is a tone drum, so you can play tunes with it. This makes choosing harder, yet, if you give it some time, it won’t be that difficult. Where should you begin?

(After typing this, I couldn’t help searching for Love Story for steel tongue drum, and here it is. What’s not to love?)

Size and Design

The first thing you need to consider is size. There is no definite answer to which one is better – big or small. Big ones are obviously louder, filling larger rooms with their ethereal vibrations, and they can host more tongues – that is, more notes for you to play. Smaller models (that go down to as little as 3 inches in diameter) are portable, and though they are not as loud, they are still great to take with you to a drum session, to meditate with one under the sky, or even to actually play something. While both bigger and smaller drums have their advantages, remember that you don’t have to settle for just one.

When it comes to design, it’s not about the color and the finish, but rather about the keys – that is, tongues. The shape of them can be plain oval, almost rectangular, or more exquisite. All of these things matter if the visual impression is as important to you as the audial one.

How Many Tongues?

This question arises very often when it comes to panda drums. The more tongues the instrument has, the more freedom it gives you in playing tunes and using chords. Right? Right, but it’s not everything. While it’s better for a professional musician to have more notes, a beginner might feel great with just eight or (for smaller models) even six tongues. In addition, bigger tongues mean louder and more expressed sounds, which smaller ones lack.

If you are only getting familiar with this wonderful instrument, there is no need to chase numbers. Eight or nine notes are more than enough for you now, and they will quite satisfy you as you make some progress. When you have mastered all the songs from the playbook, you can always find more online or transpose them from a sheet for another tuning. 


There are many tuning options for tongue drums. If you buy a factory one, it’s all in the manual and in the product card. With a custom one that comes without papers, it’s a bit more sophisticated: You’ll have to detect the base note and the type of tuning, which can be a problem for an amateur. So, you’d better choose something you will know about.

It might be too early to consider all the details, but if we start with the basics, there are three types of tuning:

  • Minor. This one is often called sad and depressive. However, there are more than a few beautiful melodies in minor, and this tuning is great for meditation and reflection;
  • Major. The cheerful, upbeat tuning; the one with enough energy to break through even the otherwise meditative signature sound;
  • Exotic ones. These types of tuning color your music Oriental or African.

Factory-made steel tongue drums usually come with a manual that has it all. Not only some information about the tuning but also the songs and tunes you can play are there. They come in the form of numerical sheets. If the tongues are numbered (usually they are), you just need to hit the right number at the right moment. Usually, the sheets relate to the lyrics, so you know exactly when and which note to play, or they have drum machine-like patterns that you can read even easier.

Various Criteria

What else should you look at while choosing the instrument? Here are the things that can impact the experience, though they are not as crucial as the drum itself.

  • Accessories. It’s great to have a specifically designed bag for carrying the drum, a pair or two of mallets, and a set of picks to use when playing it with your fingers. Many popular models come with some or even all of these extras.
  • Manual. As intuitive as the instrument is, there are still nuances you can miss about it. That’s what manuals are for.
  • Songbook. Since there is no standard tuning for hank drums, each tuning uses a specific notation. A songbook should be written for the particular drum it comes with.

While the Final Note Plays

All these considerations will help you to choose your steel tongue drum. The most important thing is the way it sounds live. When you make up your mind about which size, design, and tongue number are best for you, it’s time to listen. The one that sounds the best is yours. Sometimes, it can fall out of the category you have defined before listening. Well, this shouldn’t stop you if you really like the sound – as this is what music is all about. 

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