What is a Jamaican Steel Drum Called?

What is a Jamaican Steel Drum Called?

Hello everyone! Today, we will visit North America and learn about one of Jamaica’s most famous percussion instruments, the Jamaican steel drum also known as the steel pan. Let’s learn more about the Jamaican steel drum and its history.

A little about Jamaican music and their percussion instruments; Jamaican music is broad and it includes genres peculiar only to the people of Jamaica like mento, ska, dance hall, dub music, fusion, and the very popular reggae. Jamaica is known for its reggae music. They also have their folk music which is played using many instruments including percussion instruments. 

By percussion instruments, I mean instruments like cymbals, drums, pianos, tambourines, and gongs that when hit or shaken make a sound. The steel drum is a percussion instrument used in Jamaica. Others include conga, bongo, tambourine, palitos, buleador, banjo, hard drums, acoustic guitar, cuatro, and many more.

History of the steel drum

The steel drum can be traced back to the year 1880. It originated from Trinidad and Tobago, countries in the Caribbean, southeast of the Gulf of Mexico. Slaves who were not allowed to celebrate the Carnivale made their celebration called the canboulay where they played the steel pan.

Many times the steel pan was banned. Not just the steel pan but all instruments of the African percussion, African percussion music, and some other African things such as stick fighting were banned but the steel pan kept resurfacing.

Soon the steel pan developed from just one lone local instrument to having its orchestra of trash can lids, frying pans, and even oil drums. 

Now, the steel pan is not only widely known and used, it is a proper instrument but it is used to celebrate the canboulay festivals. It is also used in competitions and it is a major instrument in Trinidad and other countries. It is even used in many popular songs. 

Check out the list below if you want to know what a steel pan sounds like:

  • O Canada- the Canadian anthem.
  • Deck the halls- a Christmas song.
  • Forged from the love of liberty.
  • Jingle bells- another Christmas song.
  • Kokomo by Beach Boys.
  • Margaritaville by Jimmy Buffett.

Fun fact, the steel pan is the only instrument created, or better still, modified, during the 20th century that is not electric.

What does the steel pan look like?

If I have not said this by now, well, the steel pan is also called the steel drum. If they were like a band of people playing, collectively you call them an orchestra or a steel band. People who play the steel pan are called pannists. The steel pan looks like a normal drum but it is made with stainless steel. The steel drums are made from steel pan containers. However, the steel pans are played with sticks tipped with rubber. The sticks are straight and they depend on the class of steel pan being played. Also, just to be clear, steel pans are round. 

The diameter of a steel pan depends on the purpose and the manufacturer. For a 55 gallon, which is the average size of a steel pan, the height is 35 inches( 88.9 cm) and 23 inches (58.43 cm) in diameter. The 85-gallon steel pan is not the biggest. The biggest is the elliptical “Jomoline” which is 40.94 inches (104 cm).

Types of steel pans

Steel pans come in families. There are no types of steel pans but variations. Each steel pan has its number of notes, pitch range, and how it is played. Some are easier to play than others. For example, a tenor is easier to master than a double second.

Let’s look into the types of steel pans very well. The types of steel pans are;

  • Tenor steel pan:

This is mainly used by soloists and it has 20 notes. It is a single drum as it is a soprano. It is divided into low tenor and high tenor. The low tenor is also called the C tenor and it has a pitch range of C4 to E6. The high tenor on the other hand is called the soprano pan and it has a pitch range of D4 to F6.

  • Double tenor:

It has two drums. It is difficult to master because the notes of the drums are not the same. It has 32 notes, also called 2 octaves.

Others include:

  • Double guitar:

Having 30 notes, it has a pitch range of B2 to C5.

  • Double second

Having 28 notes, it can play harmonic voices, chords, and melodies. It also uses two drums. It is an alto.

  • Triple cello:

It uses 3 drums and it is an alto. It has 2 notes for each pan and it has a pitch range from B2 to A4.

  • Quadrophonic pan:

It uses 4 pans, hence the name quad. It has a special pitch range. You start from B2 to an octave below and then B5 to octave above.

  • Single bass and 6 basses:

It is used for bass. The single bass has 5 notes while the 6 bass has 18 notes- each one of the 6 barrels has 3 notes. It is very versatile and is great for marching steel bands.

Steelbands are very popular and as I said earlier, they are a group of pannists. They can play in a parade while arching, on stage, or sitting. Some of them include:

1. Invaders located at Woodbrook.

2. Phase 2 is located in Woodbrook.

3. Silver stars are located in Woodbrook.

4. All-stars, located in the port of Spain.

5. Skiffle is located in San Fernando.

6. Fonclare, located in San Fernando.

7. Exodus located in St Augustine.

8. Renegades is located in the port of Spain.

9. Desperadoes located in T. T.

10. Starlift is located in Woodbrook.


Thus we learned all about the Jamaican steel drum. The steel drums remain relevant even in this time. That particular trait of relevance has made it known across the world.

The steel drums are played in Trinidad and Tobago, the Caribbean, Canada, and other countries. And if all this talk about steel pans has truly fascinated you and you want to be a proud owner of a steel pan, I gotcha. Go to Amazon today and check out the many available options at affordable prices. Don’t forget your sticks!

Frequently asked questions
  1. What is a Jamaican steel drum called?

It is called a steel pan or a steel drum.

  1. What family is the Jamaican steel categorized in?

Just like every other drum, the Jamaican shell drum is in the percussion family.

What is a Jamaican Steel Drum Called?

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