At our performances, audience members often come up to the band during its breaks, curious to find out more about this instrument. Pan is becoming more and more popular in the United States, but many people have yet to see the instrument in person. Here is some of the information we commonly share with our audience members.
a brief history
The steel pan (commonly know in the United States as a "steel drum") was invented in the island nation of Trinidad and Tobago in the 1930s. The instrument's roots are in rhythm bands, where players would use pots, pans, paint cans, biscuit tins - anything you could use to play a rhythm. The instrument quickly evolved from these non-pitched instruments to cans with a handful of notes on the face, and eventually to instruments constructed of 55-gallon oil barrels, containing the entire chromatic scale, and allowing players to perform in any key. (The use of oil barrels as raw material for the instruments is credited to Ellie Manette, one of many pan innovations by Mr. Manette.)
how the instruments are constructed
Each pan is constructed by hand, starting with the bottom of a 55-gallon oil barrel. The bottom is hammered out into a concave shape, and the different notes are marked on the surface of this "bowl." (There is currently no standardized arrangement of the notes; each tuner has his own preferred setup for the different ranges of pans.) The edges of these areas are then "grooved" into the surface, by hammering grooves into the surface of the pan using a hammer and a nail punch (or chisel). This isolates the different areas of the surface, allowing for the creation of distinct pitches on the drums. Common practice calls for the larger (lower-pitched) notes to be situated near the edge of the barrel, with smaller (higher) pitches towards the center.
The sides of the barrel are cut to a particular length (or left their full length, in the case of bass pans), depending on the range of the drum being constructed. Higher-ranged instruments will have a shorter "skirt" (the name for the sides of the instrument), and lower-ranged instruments will have longer "skirts." The space inside the instrument acts as a resonating chamber, helping to increase the volume of the instrument.
Here is where the "magic" begins - although, the "magic" is nothing more than years of experience and skills developed by the individual tuner. By hammering each individual note, the metal is shaped and stretched, such that it produces not only the fundamental ("primary") pitch, but harmonics - harmonics which are also shaped and tuned by the instrument builder. Originally, these instruments were all tuned by ear, but modern-day tuners use strobe-tuners to finely hone their work.
Once the tuning is completed, the drum is set over a fire, to re-temper the steel. After all of the hammering which has taken place, the metal is relatively malleable, and in that condition will not retain its tuning for long when played. The process of tempering makes the steel strong enough to withstand the rigors of performance. Instruments do need to be retuned from time to time, usually at least once a year, depending on how much the instrument is played.
The final step is finishing off the instrument's surface, either by chroming or by painting, depending on the builder's preference.
different ranges of instruments
Most Americans are familiar with the single lead (or "tenor") pan, which is the highest-ranged instrument of the pan family, and is comprised of a single barrel. However, just as stringed instruments are found in different sizes and ranges (violin, viola, cello, contrabass), pans come in different ranges as well. Panist James Walker of East Shore uses instruments created and tuned by Cliff Alexis; Cliff's range of instruments includes:
Lead ("tenor") Pan - highest range, single barrel; traditionally plays the melody in steel band arrangements
Double Tenor Pan - next highest range, comprised of two barrels. May play the melody, or a harmonized version of the melody, or may "strum" chords beneath the melody.
Double Seconds Pan - slightly lower than the Double Tenors, also comprised of two barrels. Often strums chords, but may play melody, harmony or other parts of an arrangement. This is the instrument favored by many solo (unaccompanied) pan artists such as Robert Greenidge and Len "Boogsie" Sharpe.
'Cello pan - usually three or four barrels, set in a semicircle, comprise this instrument. These fill a variety of roles in a steel band, ranging from bass lines, to strums, to the melody.
Quadrophonics - a sister instrument to the 'cello pan; however, rather than having the drums arranged side-by-side in a semicircle, two of the drums are set flat in front of the player, while the two remaining barrels are set vertically.
Bass pan - as the name would indicate, the lowest-ranged instrument in the steel band. Due to the size of the notes used on this instrument, there may be as few as three different pitches on each barrel, requiring the use of six, eight, or even more barrels to complete a single instrument. The traditional role of this instrument is bass lines, but arrangers such as Cliff Alexis, Ray Holman, Robert Greenidge, and Len "Boogsie" Sharpe (among others) will often assign the melody or countermelodies in the bass instruments, at some point in their arrangements.
Steel bands are usually embellished with a rhythm section (known as an "engine room"), including drum set, congas, iron (brake drum), cowbell, and any other percussion instrument which suits the arranger's purpose.