The steel pan family, like all other families of musical instruments including the voice, covers a wide range of notes, but each instrument has a different role. There are four main sections which cover approximately the same notes as the human voice and the string family.

As with all new instruments, new ways of playing are discovered and this means that names may be changed and roles may alter.

Type of pan Role String equivalent Voice equivalent
Tenor (Soprano) Melody Violin Soprano
Double Tenor Chords, Arpeggios & Melody Violin Soprano
Double Second Chords & Melody Viola Alto
Guitar Chords Cello Tenor
Treble Guitar Chords Cello Tenor
Cellos Chords, Melody & Bass Cello Tenor
Tenor Bass Chords, Melody & Bass Double Bass Bass
Bass Bass Double Bass Bass

In addition to pans, a steel orchestra will have a rhythm section. This can contain a variety of instruments and could include:

  • Drum Kit
  • Congas
  • Maracas
  • Cowbells
  • Tambourine
  • Timpani Drums

How the pans are used will depend upon the arranger. Because each pan maker prefers his own layout, pans made by different makers have differing strengths and weaknesses. Therefore, the way a piece is to be arranged will depend upon these strengths, and upon the instruments in the band. This gives each band its own personality and its own sound; a little like that of a jazz group.

Caring for Steel Pans

As with any instruments, proper care is essential and therefore it is important to look after them. With proper care, a pan should last approximately ten years. To ensure the quality of the playing, the Melodians adhere to the following simple rules:

  • Never store the pans near an open fire or radiator.
  • Always rest pans facing downwards, especially soprano pans (but never basses!)
  • Pans should never be placed on their sides.
  • Always play the pans gently with the correct sticks.
  • If you are transporting pans, buy cases for the smaller pans. Buy a 20 inch Bass Drum case, place a soprano pan face downwards, cover it with a three-inch thick piece of foam/rubber, then put another soprano pan on top, but this time facing upwards.
  • If the pan ever gets wet, dry it as soon as possible and thoroughly.
  • Never attempt to tune the pans yourself, ask a skilled tuner to do it correctly. Making a mistake through lack of experience can prove very expensive!
  • The best protection for the playing surface of unchromed pans is a light coating of silver or black metallic paint. This will help avoid rusting.
  • Finally, if flying abroad for a performance, either ensure the pans are stored in a pressurised hold in the aeroplane or take a tuner with you in the first place. Flying a tuner from the West Indies to Sri Lanka can prove exceptionally expensive!

How Pans Are Made – Master tuner Leslie Bernard from Trinidad shows how it is done:

Did you make the pans yourself?‘ is a question often asked of band leaders outside Trinidad. Because the basic materials – oil drums – are simple, and often seen simply discarded, the question is perhaps not surprising. To put the record straight, pan making is a complex and difficult art which requires immense skill.

Each pan is made from a 45 gallon oil drum. The quality of metal varies enormously and makes big differences to the finished instrument. So before you buy your pans, check with a reputable maker. Oil drums are a little like wines; some were made in good years and some in bad!

Step 1: Sinking

SinkingThe first step in pan making is called ‘sinking‘.

Using a club hammer, the ‘tuner‘, as pan makers are called, ‘sinks‘ the metal (i.e. hits the bottom of the drum to make it concave) until it is at the right depth, depending upon which instrument is being made. The higher the sound of the instrument, the deeper it is ‘sunk’ and therefore the thinner is the metal.

The pan must be very even and smooth, so any dents left are taken out with a small hammer.


Step 2: Grooving

GroovingThe next step is called ‘grooving‘. In order to isolate the notes from one another, the position of each note is first marked on the metal with a pen. Then, using a steel punch with a blunt edge and hitting it with a small hammer, ‘grooves‘ are imprinted on the metal. Each pan tuner has his own idea where the different notes should go. A skilful tuner will be able to make the sound of one note ‘help’ another note ‘sympathetically’.

The metal encircled by the grooves makes one note, but the notes near to it will also vibrate when that note is played. If these notes are tuned so that they support each other, each note will ring more true.


Step 3: Cutting

cuttingThe drum is now ready for ‘cutting‘. The tuner shortens the oil drum and cuts it to a suitable height according to the pitch of the instrument.

Bass pans are not cut; they are left full size. Guitar pans are made about 45 cm deep, Double Seconds 25 cm and Tenor pans are cut to 20 cm. Now that the drum is a more manageable size, they should no longer be thought of as oil drums.

It is fast becoming a musical instrument.


Step 4: Ponging and Tempering

PongingNext the pan is ‘ponged up‘.
This is where each note is beaten up a little from underneath. This gets the note ready for the ‘fine tuning‘ that will be done later. Now comes the ‘tempering‘ of the metal.

This is done by burning the pan in a hot fire and rapidly cooling it with water. This process causes chemical changes in the steel which improves the quality of the sound.



Step 5: Tuning

Tuning1The last and most skilful step is the tuning of the instrument. The tuner uses a small hammer to knock back the ‘ponged‘ area until the desired note at ‘concert pitch’ is obtained.

It will take several hours for the tuner to tune one tenor pan, and as with any musical instrument, great care must be taken to keep it in tune.