New Developments in Steel Pans

When steel pans were first made in the middle of the 20th century, there was very rapid development of the instruments in the steel drum family. Before steel pans were made, older style steel bands played all manner of steel objects for carnival in Trinidad and competed with each other very keenly. Soon after the first steel drum instruments burst onto the scene, the various bands were very passionate about their use. They competed with each other to build better sounding ones for use in competition and during carnival time. This meant many people worked on the development of steel pan simultaneously. Over the years, there was hard won and consistent improvements in sound quality, note placement patterns and many other improvements for each individual voice in the steel pan instrument family. This was because some very brilliant minds applied themselves to the task, but also because a large number of people selflessly worked to bring the steel pan instrument forward. There were innovations large and small by quite a number of different artisans, each contributing their creativity and craftsmanship to make steel pans better.

Nowadays, steel pan continues to improve and broaden as new ideas are conceived and tested. Some of the relatively newer steel drum developments include several electronic sampled pans, solid rim pans, note pattern standards and synchronization, further work on oversize diameter steel pans, alloy specifications for the steel drum raw material, new finishes, and notable improvements in mallets, stands and other steel pan accessories.

There are also a few new important variations on steel pan instruments that will be discussed here. One is the development of a very effective Short Skirt Six Bass that has skirts only 13 inches long but maintains the power, depth and characteristics of the Six Bass steel drum instrument. A long standing problem is that it is difficult if not impossible to cost effectively ship a full skirt Six Bass and have it arrive at its destination in tune. This is a serious problem for the many bands that are far from any steel pan tuner and rely upon a visiting tuner once a year or so. The cost to ship a full skirt 35 inch Six Bass is very high because they are over-size. They often get treated very roughly by delivery people because of their weight and size. However, a Short Skirt Six Bass can be shipped and arrive in tune when packed correctly in wood crates and they cost much less to ship because of the smaller size of only 13 inch skirts and the lower weight. The use of baffling inside the steel drum achieves the depth and punchiness associated with Six Bass steel pan sets. The sound is slightly different but appealing with rich low tones. Many prefer the tone because the low notes are clearer and more defined. Bands and individuals also like them because they are far easier to transport and a smaller vehicle can be used. The steel pan tuner has better access to the underneath note adjustment areas on a Short Skirt Six Bass and can often do a more sophisticated tuning with less effort as compared to a full skirt Six Bass.

Another new variation is the Single Cello Chromatic steel pan. Although single barrel guitars and cellos have been used in Pan Round the Neck bands for years, this new steel drum instrument has all 12 notes. For the first time, this allows the player to “strum” any chord since all the notes are available. Strumming is the primary function of all Cello/Guitar steel pan instruments. The range of the new Single Cello Chromatic starts from Low D, which is only one half step higher than the lowest note on the much larger Double Guitar steel pan. They have a surprisingly rich cello sound and have the advantage of achieving this with the portability of only one barrel. The note pattern is like that of the standard Low C Lead or Tenor steel pan, with the notes situated in the cycle of fifths. This makes playing and learning it very easy. For new instructors starting a steel drum ensemble who are not accomplished steel pan artists, this can mean they can learn the note pattern of a Low C Lead and pretty much instantly also play a Single Cello Chromatic steel pan. The cost is far lower than that of similar sounding steel drum instruments, like the Double Guitar or Triple Cello steel pan. The cost savings grow because only one stand is required and only one case and one shipping cost, etc. For a new band, this means more players can participate compared to spending money on the larger Cello/Guitar steel drum instruments. Having enough students playing in the band to justify the cost is often a factor for schools thinking of allocating money for a steel drum program.