How do I play my steel tongue drum (AM Drum)?
First, familiarise yourself.
The sound of steel tongue drums comes from the vibration of the tongues / slits which are cut out of the top of the instrument. In this way, the hank drum is different to the Hang and handpan imitations.
All of our steel tongue drums have 8 notes (a full octave), and the order (climbing up the scale from the lowest note to the highest note) is as shown in the diagram below.
For example, a C Major scale would be:
1 = C (do)
2 = D (re)
3 = E (mi)
4 = F (fa)
5 = G (so / sol)
6 = A (la)
7 = B (ti / si)
8 = C (do)
Getting started – tips for absolute beginners
Try these simple exercises (using the drumsticks provided):
- Play a scale, from the lowest to the highest note.
- Play all the notes in circular order, e.g. 1, 7, 5, 3, 2… and so on.
- Play only the left hand side of the drum, e.g. 1, 2, 3, 5, 7.
- Play only the right side of the drum, e.g. 1, 2, 4, 6, 8.
- Harmonise by playing the left side twice, then playing the right side twice (or 4 times, or whatever).
- Try seeing which 2 notes complement each other. E.g. Focus on note 4. Play 4 then note 5. Do they sound nice? If not try a different combination. Play 4 then note 7. Keep trying until you like how it sounds.
When you find more than one pair of complementary notes, try the following:
- Using 2 drumsticks, play a pair of notes at exactly the same time, to create a chord.
- Play one of the complementary pairs one note at a time. Repeat 4 times. Then do the same for the other pair of notes. Is it starting to sound like music?
When you find even more complementary pairs or sequences that you like, play them one after the other and soon a melody might start to form. You’re a musical composer!
Slightly more advanced playing tips / exercises:
- Play a note (using drumstick) and quickly dampen it with a finger on your other hand. The quick, short tone almost sounds digital, like electronic dance music.
- Mix and match longer, lingering notes with short, dampened notes.
- To ‘dampen’ all of the notes at once (while freeing both hands), stuff something soft inside the drum (but not too tightly), for example a small cushion or an old jumper. Then all of the notes are shorter, and you can play faster tunes, with more distinction between the notes.
- If your drum has very deep tones, make a new drumstick using lots of thick rubber bands wrapped around the handle of your existing drumstick to create a softer tip. Softer sticks will bring out the best sound of deep tones.
- Sit down and put your AM Drum on your lap on it’s side. Use one hand to completely cover the hole on the bottom. Play a note on the top side with a drumstick (for a lingering sound). Just as (or a split second after) you play the note, move your handslightly away from the drum and then cover the hole again. You then get a tremolo effect. Magic!
Playing by hand
AM Drums are easy to play by hand, though the sound is quieter. It takes a little practise to get it right, so don’t expect instant results.
- Pretend the tongue of the hank drum is burning hot.
- Use the very tip of your index finger, from an upwards angle (so you’re using the boniest bit, not the soft, fleshy pad).
- Tap the note quickly, fairly hard, with the bony tip of your finger (as if you wanted to annoy your older brother). Try a kind of flicking action too.
Here are some videos to demonstrate
AM Drums – compare sticks and hand playing
Comparison between using your hands and playing with drumsticks:
AM Drums – playing by hand – festival market stall
An AM Drum being played by hand, by a talented percussionist at a festival (starts slowly):
AM Drum – played by hand – YouTube Video (same guy/festival as above): https://youtu.be/clQRikspEsI
Tayob Juskow – playing AM Drum by hand
A happy customer, Tayob Juskow, playing his AM Drum by hand:
Hank drum and Halo jam
AM Drum and Halo Jam by Kabeção and Tayob Juskow at the Portuguese handpan gathering in Vila Nova de Milfontes – https://youtu.be/rFYjkD9tWvQ
Hank Drum and Udu by Tayob Juskow
Improv with steel tongue drum (AM Drum) and udu, by Tayob Juskow.
AM Drums are very easy to play, even for those who have never played a musical instrument before. That’s one of the charms or attractions of these handpan instruments. Very soon you’ll be experimenting with different sounds, techniques and melodies. Don’t feel you have to follow any rules – just play whatever sounds nice to you.
The order of notes is so intuitive, you don’t need to think about it. The escalation from left to right feels natural because of the way you play one note at a time with your left and right hands.
Our steel tongue drums encourage creativity and self-expression – especially if you have difficulty putting feelings into words.
Focus on the soothing tones, switch off your thoughts and go with the flow. AM Drums’ hank drums encourage relaxation, mindfulness and peaceful, calm emotions.
Dance like noone is watching! Play like noone is listening!
Lose your inhibitions, play freely and express your emotions.
Let the steel sing out the song of your soul.