Updated: Aug 17, 2020
The steel drum (steel pan) is a musical instrument that was invented in the 1930s in Trinidad, a Caribbean Island just north of South America.
It is an amazing invention with a family of instruments all made from 55 gallon oil barrels. The instruments can essentially be categorized in three groups: tenor pans (play the melody), rhythm pans (play harmony and accompaniment parts), and bass pans (that obviously play the bass parts).
It is very common for pan players who play melodies to play a lead pan. The lead plan is a single pan with a range of about 2 1/2 octaves usually from middle C on upward. Designed in a circle of 5ths pattern (either for the right-handed player of the left-handed player), the lead pan contains the full range of notes in a single pan, arguably making it a little easier to play intricate melodies than other pans. But I started out playing double 2nds years ago in Mark Ford's band, Panama Steel, in Greenville, North Carolina. Double 2nds, where I played mostly rhythm parts and melodic lines that accompanied the lead parts, have a nice warm and round sound in the upper register that is different from the lead pans, I loved it and at the time, was heavily influenced by Andy Narell, an American steel pan player who made double 2nd in the U.S. back in the 1990s. Well it stuck, and I've been playing 2nds ever since then and have never looked back.
So why am I talking about double 2nds and what is a quaduet?
The quaduet is a combination of double 2nds and 2 low-range pans (with a guitar pan length skirt) that extend the bass notes down a minor 6th. The lowest note on the 2nds is an E3 (a minor 6th below middle C). But with a quaduet, the entire instrumental range extends down to Ab2. Yes that means that the 4 pans combined create a new solo instrument with almost a 4 octave range. While all that is very cool, it can be confusing and difficult to wrap your head around.
The quaduet low-extender pans have some of the same notes that the double 2nds do to make it all work acoustically. They also keep similar notes on the same sides of the pan to help the player with orientation (keeping Abs on the left side and A#s on the right for examp[e). Check out the diagram below and you'll see what I mean, where notes are duplicated. Notes that have the same color are the exact same notes in the exact same register. The only difference is the timbre. The notes on the extender pans resonate longer and have a bit of a rounder sound...likely because of the length of the skirt of the extender pan. So you really have to get used to the instrument to know when to use which note when it's in the same register. All of that, of course, is player and musical preference so once you take some time, you'll figure it out for yourself.
Yes the quaduet is cool, but another tricky aspect of performance is finding the best stick to play it with. Since the upper notes sound good with a small stick and the lower notes (mostly on the extender pans) sound good with a medium stick, it's extremely difficult to find a stick that works well in all registers. I've been experimenting for years and I'm still trying to figure out the best choice. Maybe someday.
Below is my quaduet. Mannette Musical Instruments made it and it's a wonderful/high-quality instrument. If you're interested in playing steel drums, I highly recommend this instrument. It sounds awesome, lends itself well to solo literature, and it's really fun to play. And check out my band Tobago Bay for some steel drums in action.