Playing Scales on Steel Drums (Steel Pans)

Playing scales is very important to the mastery of every instrument, including the steel drum (steel pan). The benefits of practising playing scales on steel drums include: improved dexterity, the acquisition of finesse, a deeper understanding of the steel drum (which is essential if you want to begin improvising) and improved ear training.

Most melodies utilize scale fragments, so a firm knowledge of the most common scales on steel drums will make it much easier to learn melodies on your instrument. Professional musicians understand the importance of practising scales, and therefore make it a major component of their practice regimen. They continue practising scales until the scales are firmly ingrained in their muscle memory so that the scales could be recalled without thinking while playing.

If you analyze ‘Joy to the World’, a popular Christmas carol, you will find that the first eight notes are nothing more than a major scale that runs backward from one octave to a lower octave.

When practising scales, the most common ones to work on are major, melodic minor, harmonic minor and the chromatic scales.

It is important that you use logical hand coordination when playing scales on steel drum in order to avoid awkwardness. One suggested rule of thumb is that you should not strike more than three consecutive notes with the same hand. Ideally, a maximum of two consecutive notes are desirable when playing scales on steel drums; this may be entirely possible on the soprano pan (tenor pan). With the double tenor and double second pans, the exclusive use of the two-note rule of thumb is a little harder to achieve.

Suggested hand sequences for playing major and minor scales on the frontline steel drums (steel pans) are given below, with R and L depicting your right and left hand respectively. Begin with the lowest octave of the first scale note and ensure that each note is higher in pitch than the previous note.

Please click here for the note diagrams of the various frontline steel drums. Of course, if you find that you can play the scales on your steel drum using hand sequences that are more comfortable to you, then use them by all means. Just bear in mind that your hand sequence should allow you to play the scale through the entire range of your steel drum.

C Major: C D E F G A B C

Soprano pan: L R R L L R R L

Double Tenor pan: L R R L R L R L

Double Second pan: L L L R L R R L

C Melodic Minor: C D Eb F G A B C

Soprano pan: R R L L R R L R

Double Tenor pan: L R L L R L R L

Double Second pan: L L R R L R R L

C Harmonic Minor: C D Eb F G Ab B C

Soprano pan: R R L L R L L R

Double Tenor pan: L R L L R L R L

Double Second pan L L R R R L R L

Now, experiment with hand sequences for the chromatic scale and stick with the one that you favor the most.

Chromatic Scale: C Db D Eb E F Gb G Ab A Bb B C

Good luck with your scale practice!

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