The Steel Pan Instrument Family

The steel drum instrument family is comprised of different instruments in different ranges. In the soprano range, there is a Lead pan (also called a Tenor pan). This is similar to a flute, trumpet, or soprano sax, with its lowest note at middle C and rising chromatically two and one half octaves. The Lead pan is the main melody voice of the steel pan orchestra. They are tuned in the cycle of fifths, which is a consistent arrangement of notes that places notes that are most consonant to each other next to each other. This makes chord and scale patterns the same for the player in all 12 keys.

Like an alto saxophone, the Double Second steel pan is also in the alto range. They are two and a half to three octaves chromatic and it takes two barrels to hold all of the notes of a Double Second. Each barrel of this steel pan is tuned to a whole tone scale. The six notes of each whole tone scale make up the twelve notes found in a chromatic scale. While still an effective melody instrument, the Double Second steel drum is more capable of playing harmony and chords than a Lead pan due to its lower notes.

In the baritone range, there are quite a few steel pan instruments called Cello steel pans, or Guitar steel pans. For the purpose of illustration, we will discuss the Triple Cello. This steel pan is in the baritone range and has the tonal characteristics associated with a trombone, baritone sax, or the cello string instrument. It’s warm, full sound is perfect for stating chords in rhythm. In steel pan music, this is also called “strumming.” Cello steel pans are also referred to as Guitar pans since the 6 string guitar is often strummed. Sometimes, a Cello pan will have a longer skirt length on the barrel than a Guitar pan, giving them a somewhat deeper tone. A Triple Cello usually starts from B note, slightly more than an octave below middle C, and has two octaves chromatically. Each of its three barrels is tuned to a diminished seventh arpeggio. While strumming is its main function, the Cello is very effective for chord arpeggios.

In the bass range, the most popular steel drum instrument is the Six Bass steel drum. The Six Bass consists of six full-length barrels and provides a deep rich sound. Each barrel has three notes for a range of one and a half octaves starting just over two octaves below middle C. It can be compared to the tonal and sustain characteristics of an acoustic string bass that is plucked, but can produce a louder and more vibrant sound that can often be thrilling when standing close.

The Lead pan, the Double Second, the Triple Cello, and the Six Bass are sometimes used as the only instruments to start a steel band. To create an effective balance between these instruments, there might be four to five Lead pans, three Double Second, two Triple Cello and one Six Bass pan. This is called “four-voice” and is similar to a string quartet or a vocal choir in that four distinct voices are used. For a steel drum band being taught by an instructor new to steel pans, this is easier, since it’s similar to other types of ensembles they may teach, and there are only four different instruments to learn. Next, we will discuss adding the color instruments, such as Double Tenor and Tenor Bass, which expand the timbral expressiveness of a steel band to make it a “full-voice” ensemble.