Each instrument in the steel pan family utilizes a different playing mallet. Since the different steel drum instruments encompass a wide tonal range, it is necessary to have different materials, thicknesses and weights to bring out the best sound for each of the steel pans. A mallet for playing steel drums has a dowel or shaft which is held in each hand and is made of wood, aluminum or sometimes composite materials. A playing tip is placed at the end of the dowel to make contact with the notes of the steel pan and is made of rubber, latex or similar material. To produce the right feel and balance, the dowel must have the proper weight.
For lead steel pans, also known as tenor steel pans, the player has a choice of different mallets. If the player is new to steel drums, the best choice is a wood dowel mallet. Wood gives better control and does not accentuate hitting errors as the player learns touch on the steel pan instrument. This often means the steel pan will remain in tune longer. Steel pans have a beautiful sound even when beginners first play them, but to coax the most music out of them, each note is played with a slightly different velocity or hit. The middle or center 5 notes on a lead steel pan are played very hard and with a specific technique. If a player were to play one of the large lower notes with that hard of a hit, it might cause the instrument to go out of tune sooner. This is especially true if they were to use an aluminum mallet, which is much lighter and faster and therefore produces a harder hit more easily. This is why it is better, even for accomplished musicians who are new to steel pans, to start with a wood dowel lead mallet. Later, the steel pan player has the option of wood or aluminum. With steel pans, some will like the feel of one or the other. It is strictly a choice since one type isn’t better than the other.
The traditional tenor or lead steel pan mallet is only 5 or 6 inches long. To produce the best sound, the player must keep the mallet as parallel to the playing surface as possible, so that as much of the rubber of the playing tip impacts upon the notes of the steel pan as possible. A shorter length mallet does this more easily. However, many musicians who are new to playing steel pans, are more comfortable with longer mallets that are more similar to ones they have used to play other percussion instruments. These are often 8 or 9 inches. A 7 inch mallet for lead steel pans is a happy medium. There are also differences in the rubber latex material that can be used for a lead or tenor steel pan mallet. To produce the proper sound the rubber must have the right density and thickness. Some steel pan players will use more than one mallet type depending upon the song they’re playing. Thicker rubber will produce a fuller sound on the lower notes but will not clearly sound the highest notes of the steel drum. Thinner rubber will bring out the high notes with a crisp sound, but do not give good body to the lowest notes on steel pans.
Steel drum players can also choose artist mallets. These steel pan mallets have a special wrapping around the rubber which reduces the slight clunking noise produced as the rubber playing tip hits the metal of a note. In a larger steel pan ensemble , the effect is not noticeable. However, in a small band or with solo playing, a very pure and pretty sound is produced. The wrapping reduces the overall volume of steel pans by about 20 percent.