Steel Pans are available in a variety of ranges. Because there are many different instruments in the steel drum family, many people are faced with the decision as to which instrument to play.
The most common instrument to start with is the Low C Lead steel pan (also known as a soprano or a tenor steel pan, although it’s not in the tenor range). It’s more portable than the others because all of its 29 notes are on only one barrel (one drum). It is the main melody instrument and is less costly than the other instruments, even though it has about the same number of notes.
If you want to play steel pan, you will definitely want to get a full size steel pan, which is approximately 23 inches in diameter. There are smaller diameter pans made for kindergarten music classes and as souvenirs for those visiting the islands. These lack the lower notes which give steel pans their satisfying rich sound and have less notes and even missing notes. For these reasons, few people find these smaller mini or “tourist” pans interesting to play after a very short time.
The Low C Lead steel pan has a range similar to that of a flute and close to that of a trumpet or soprano sax and are far and away the most popular of all the steel pan instruments, especially if you are just starting to play. However, if you prefer the sound of a tenor sax to a soprano sax, or a viola rather than a violin, you might consider a Double Second or Double Tenor steel pan. These instruments are in the next lower range and have more capacity to play harmony while still being high-pitched enough to be effective melody instruments. They are considered the most versatile of all the steel drum instruments, but their notes are spread across two barrels (two drums), which means there is more to carry around. Also, the Double Second and Double Tenor cost more and their accessories (stands, cases and mallets) all cost more.
The next lower range of steel pans are called Cello pans and Guitar pans. In a steel band, these instruments provide the “strumming”, which means that most often they play the chords in rhythm rather than the melody. They have a lower warm sound most suited to harmony and counter melody. A Triple Cello has 27 notes spread across three barrels, which gives it the extra ability to play arpeggios very effectively. A Double Guitar has 20 notes spread across two barrels, which makes it a more cost effective choice. A Single Cello has 12 notes on one barrel and is the most cost-effective way to involve more players in your band and still have the beautiful rich sound of Cello pan. All of these instruments are chromatic, meaning that they have all of the notes and can play any chord.
The most common bass instrument in the steel pan musical family of instruments is called a Six Bass. 18 notes in the bass range are spread across six barrels. The Bass is the most expensive steel pan in the steel drum family. Because of this, many smaller bands use an electric bass (which musically is a good substitute) when starting their band until they can afford the pan bass instrument. Another low cost option, when the budget is a concern, is to start with just two barrels out of the Six Bass and add the other 4 barrels later. This is called a Two Bass. The cost is 2/3 less, however, this does limit the band to simple bass parts only in the two main pan keys of C and F.
VistaPan sells all of the instruments in the steel pan family, from basses and tenor basses, to guitars and cellos, double tenors, double seconds and lead pans.