One of the best things today is that you can find an abundance of different instruments pretty much anywhere. No matter the price level, the supposed use, and all the features that you might have in mind – there’s a music store or an online store that has it. Even those alloy steel tongue drums, which are somewhat overlooked and underrated.
This surely is a fascinating instrument. On the other hand, it seems that people generally don’t know much about steel tongue drums. Carried by its unusual yet captivating tone, as well as its rather unusual concept, we’ve decided to look more into the matter and share some information about steel tongue drums in this guide.
So What Are Actually Alloy Steel Tongue Drums?
To put things into simple terms, an alloy steel tongue drum is a percussive instrument made out of metal (as the name already suggests) with slits cut into its main surface. The reason why it’s popularly called a “tongue” drum, which is a name that kind of stuck with it, is due to the shape of these slits. Bearing a rounded shape, the slits kind of remind us of small tongues.
But the idea here is to have multiple slits, with each of them having their own dimensions. When an individual tongue is hit on its surface, it produces a tone with its specific pitch. Depending on the type of tongue drum we’re talking about, they come with a different set of these tongues. Most commonly, they’re made to have a pentatonic scale on them, while there are also diatonic and even chromatic steel tongue drums.
Brief History Behind Alloy Steel Tongue Drums: How These Instruments Came to Be?
The instrument that we know today as the steel tongue drum was conceived by Dennis Havlena back in 2007. Although this is a pretty young instrument, the concept was inspired by some older instruments. Back in 1990, the so-called “whale drum” was invented by a guy named Jim Doble. Then there’s also the “tambiro,” which was conceived and created by Felle Vega.
As for Dennis, he essentially made these tongue drums as an adaptation of Doble’s and Vega’s instruments. However, it’s not known whether this was just accidental or if he did it on purpose. Looking at its construction, these drums were originally made out of old used propane gas tanks, which is what both Vega and Doble did as well.
But to go way back, we’d have to mention the Aztecs who used a similar concept of operation, only using wood as the main material. These similar kinds of slit drum instruments were present in Africa, with different “components” producing different pitches.
Fast forward to the 2000s, Dennis Havlena decided to alter old used propane gas tanks and turn them into instruments. His original versions didn’t exactly have an “official” name, but he eventually settled for the “Hank drum.” Over the coming years, they popularly became known as steel tongue drums due to their specific kind of design. In more recent years, the name “tank drum” is also often used to refer to the steel tongue drum.
Their unique tone is actually surprisingly full and rich, being able to serve as a solo instrument. It’s also known under other names, like the “Hang,” “Gubal,” or “handpan,” all of which rely on some of the same principles.
Using Steel Tongue Drums
Although often referred to as the variant of drums, this isn’t exactly the correct term. Technically, the steel tongue drums are part of the idiophone class of musical instruments. The sound and the pitch are produced through the vibration of the instrument itself, without the actual use of airflow, as is the case with aerophones, membranophones, and chordophones. Some would also refer to them as “autophones,” although this is an older name that’s no longer in use. According to expert musicologists, they’re technically struck idiophones, also known as concussion idiophones.
The point here is that steel tongue drums vibrate when they’re struck. This can be done either with a stick or a hand, although playing them by hand is more common. Hitting on any of the “tongues,” or slits, produces a tone, with the entire instrument’s body vibrating and projecting it to sound louder.
In most cases, steel tongue drums come with 8 or 9 individual slits, meaning that they have 8 or 9 notes. They’re all located on the top of the instrument. All you need to do is hit them and the instrument will do its magic through vibration.
Most commonly, as we already mentioned, steel tongue drums are in a specific scale and a key. This can either be a pentatonic or a diatonic scale. This makes the instrument really easy to play, as you don’t need to worry about going out of key. In fact, it can be a great way for a complete beginner to get into the world of music.
Compared to other more popular percussive instruments with a definite pitch (like xylophones or metallophones), the notes are not distributed like on pianos and keyboards. Being a circular-shaped instrument, steel tongue drums are completely different in this regard. The notes go from left to right but in a circular manner, all over the instrument’s head. However, it all starts with the slit in the center, which is almost always the lower note on a steel tongue drum.
Present Day Versions
These days, tongue steel drums are nothing like the original ones made using old propane tanks. They have a curved top with notes distributed circularly on it. They start from the bottom one in the center, and then go clockwise from the bottom (6 o’clock) and onwards. Additionally, they’re also designed to be visually attractive, at least compared to old propane tanks.
While they’ve most certainly advanced with their design, there’s still not any “big” brand out there that’s mass producing them like other instruments. Whether we’re talking about cheaper steel tongue drums or more expensive examples with some custom artwork and special finishes on them, they’re either made as a limited series or as low-cost beginner-friendly models. You’ll rarely see them used by professional musicians, and even if that’s the case, these are some lesser-known artists.
Chromatic Steel Tongue Drums
Of course, the advancement of steel tongue drum production means that we also have chromatic ones on the market. These are like pianos, or any other standard instruments, meaning that they have 12 notes in one octave and that you can play any scale in any key that you want. Other alternatives can include sets of two individual steel tongue drums, which together cover either a broader range or just more notes within one octave. These are, however, usually intended for more advanced players, as you need to dabble with two individual steel tongue drums at the same time.
Where to Use Alloy Steel Tongue Drums
For better or for worse, there aren’t any particular genres of music that steel tongue drums are synonymous with. Being a relatively young instrument, it’s still somewhat experimental and founds use in various different musical styles. On the other hand, you’d mostly find them in traditional stuff and it can even sound great for some eastern-oriented stuff.
However, if you have a really good steel tongue drum, the tone is pretty resonant. And with a nice set of microphones, these can come in handy for some atmospheric stuff. They’re usually performed as solo instruments, which is not much of a surprise as they work that way the best. Hit two notes at the same time, and the instrument’s sound will simply fill out an entire room with its magic.
Tuning a Steel Tongue Drum
Another very interesting thing is that some of the present-day steel tongue drums can be tuned the way you want to. For instance, if they come with 10 slits, you can either go with a chromatic, diatonic, pentatonic, or any other scale and arpeggio.
This is done by adding some weight to the bottom of an individual tongue. This is done with magnets and, of course, an electric tuner.
Top 10 Best Alloy Steel Tongue Drums to Check Out
Asmuse Steel Tongue Drum 10-inch, 8 Notes
To open up this list, we have Asmuse and their simple alloy steel tongue drum. This one comes with 8 slits, meaning that it has 8 notes, and a diameter of 10 inches. This is a relatively cheap piece, but it manages to get things done, especially with its very resonant tone and strong projection. Additionally, the instrument’s finish makes it not only unique-looking but also quite attractive. In case you’re looking for a good deal for your money, this is a piece to look into. Asmuse is known for their rather cheap and reliable stuff, and this steel tongue drum is no exception to the rule. What’s more, it even comes with mallets and a bag, which makes it easy to take with you on a trip.
Lagrima 10-inch, 11 Notes
Up next, we have a super-cheap steel tongue drum made by Lagrima. Since the company has a lot of experience in making all sorts of budget-friendly stuff, it’s not a surprise to see them here as well. Interestingly enough, this compact instrument that’s 10-inches in diameter and is made out of carbon steel. Aside from a pretty great tone, this one also comes with great pads on the bottom which help you keep it in place while performing. It’s a fairly reliable one and comes as a great option for absolute beginners. Handling 11 notes will give a lot of options as well, making it useful even when you reach advanced levels of playing.
Happybuy 10-inch, 11 Notes
Made by Happybuy, this particular 10-inch tongue drum comes with 11 slits, all tuned to the key of D major. However, what makes it really interesting is its design. Each individual tongue has a shape resembling the lotus flower. And in addition to that, it’s surprisingly cheap, most definitely one of the most affordable examples on the market today. It even comes with its set of mallets and a bag, making it super easy to carry around with you.
Ulalov 10-inch, 11 Notes
Ulalov is another awesome brand that makes steel tongue drums. This cute little 10-inch piece features 11 notes. Once again, we have an instrument featuring slits with a very stylish design. The playing experience is also enhanced by the instrument’s projection and a very pleasant tone, all while keeping things really simple. The surface of the instrument is also fairly durable, meaning that this one will last for a while. Finally, we’d also point out its great anti-slip rubber feet that do a great job at keeping things quite stable.
MCRDAE 12-inch, 8 notes, Custom Graphics
But in case you want a really prestigious instrument with professional sonic properties and some of the most aesthetically pleasing design features, then we’d recommend this steel tongue drum by MCRDAE. Featuring a diameter of 12 inches, the instrument comes with 8 specially designed slits. Additionally, it’s covered with a quality protective lacquered finish, that makes it look great and keep its qualities for a very long time. Fusing both the performance and design qualities, you’ll get a full package with this steel tongue drum. Yeah, it’s a bit expensive, but you won’t easily find anything better than this.
What’s really awesome about Idiopan is that it’s a company specializing in crafting steel tongue drums. They’re right above the cheapest category of these instruments on the market, and their Dominus comes as a great addition to this list. It’s a 14-inch steel tongue drum with 10 slits. But the best part about it is that it comes with its own set of magnets, meaning that you can completely customize the tuning. There are quite a few ways how you can tune it, and the instrument can reach anything from the E3 note in the bottom, all the way up to E5 on its smallest slit. We can safely say that this is the best combination of price and quality.
Rakumi 14-inch, 15 Notes
In case you want a really unique and attractive design, all while keeping things within a pretty reasonable price range, then we’d recommend going with this 14-inch piece by Rakumi. Featuring a total of 15 notes, it brings a pretty wide palette of notes to choose from, along with the instrument’s awesome tone. It even comes in a few different finishes, helping you find the perfect one for you.
AKLOT 10-inch, 11 Notes
This AKLOT steel tongue drum is a pretty simple yet useful one, coming with a total of 11 notes with a 10-inch body. It’s mostly oriented towards younger beginners, although it’s also a pretty decent-sounding one. What’s more, you won’t need to spend a lot on it. It’s also important to note that this one is tuned to the key of C major.
Coolnotes 12-inch, 13 Notes
Aside from a fairly cool brand name (pun intended), this Coolnote 12-inch steel tongue drum comes with 13 slits, all of which feature quite a stylish design. It’s a pretty elegant and great-sounding solution, all while keeping the price at a fairly reasonable level. It also comes with a protective and rust-proof paint, making it safe from any of those unwanted scratches. Included with the instrument are two mallets and a carrying bag. It’s pretty clear-sounding and reliable. It’s also worth noting that this Coolnotes steel tongue drum is tuned to the key of C major.
Wudieyin 14-inch, 15 Notes
Finally, we’d also mention this awesome Wudieyin carbon steel tongue drum of professional build quality. Although not as nearly as expensive compared to some pro-level examples, it still keeps some of these awesome qualities. It features 15 notes, all arranged in carefully designed slits. Tuned to the key of C, it’s intended for more experienced playing, mostly due to its arrangement of tongues. Nonetheless, it sounds pretty great and delivers louder projection.
Although not exactly the most widespread instrument, steel tongue drums have their own appeal and following. Thanks to their very unique nature, they can help you bring some unexpected twists to your original music or interpretations of already famous songs. The simplest way to start is with a pentatonic steel tongue drum as you can implement it for almost any genre of modern music.
However, just bear in mind that they usually don’t have common use in modern music but are rather more or less experimental in nature. But with that said, this means that you can use them any way you want to! Steel tongue drums that we shared above can come in handy for anyone’s needs and you just can’t go wrong with them. Just pick one that suits your desired budget and you’re ready to jam!
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