The steel pan 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.
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 steelband, 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.