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Composing and Arranging for the Steel Pan - Part I : Basics
An Overview of the Special Issues in Writing and Arranging for the Steel Pan By Richard A. Sharma

1.3. The Mid-Range Instruments – Guitars, Cellos, and Quadrophonics

The mid-range instruments of the steel orchestra supply the tenor and baritone voices and are made up of the guitar, cello, and quadrophonic pans. The guitars are broadly similar in range to the cellos (the triple versions of both of these are usually identical in range but distinguished by the different lengths of their skirts, the triple cellos’ being longer than that of the triple guitar, with a warmer, mellower, ‘deeper’ sonority). Two different versions, the double and triple, make up the guitar family, respectively consisting of two and three pans each. Both instruments usually have the same length of skirt, with the triple having a slightly greater range than the double guitar. A typical ‘safe’ range for the latter is from C3 to E4 (see Fig. 10), while C#3 to G#4 can also be found. For the triple guitar, a ‘safe’ range is C3 to B4 (see Fig. 11), while sometimes this can extend down to Bb2 or even A2.

Double Guitar range        Triple Guitar range
Fig.10 - double guitar pan range                                  Fig.11 - triple guitar pan range

It would be very rare for either of the guitars to be omitted in an orchestra, so as long as he sticks to the ‘safe’ ranges nothing should go too dramatically wrong for the generic composer/arranger. Even where either or even both of the guitars should be lacking, their parts could comfortably be re-assigned to the cellos or quadrophonics. However, this would be extremely unlikely. The guitars, apart from the tenors, are generally the pans you can most safely assume to be present in any steel orchestra.

The cello again comes in two different flavours, the triple or three cello and the four cello. Again, the numerical reference is to the number of pans each instrument is made up of. As already pointed out, typically the range of the triple cello is identical to that of the triple guitar, i.e., from C3 to B4 (see Fig. 12) to be ‘safe’, although an additional semitone or so either way can also be found. For the four cello, a ‘safe’ range is typically from Bb2 to C#5 (see Fig. 13), with A2 or even G#2 being sometimes found at the lower end.

Triple Cello range       Four Cello range
Fig.12 - triple cello pan range               Fig.13 - four cello pan range

The three cello seems to be becoming somewhat rare, and some orchestras leave out even the four cello as well, usually in favour of a larger quadrophonics section. The generic composer/arranger would therefore be well advised to keep cello parts within a safe range for the quadrophonics.

Finally in the tenor/baritone range of voices, the aforementioned quadrophonic pan forms a special case. Often placed between the guitars and the cellos, this four pan instrument encompasses the range of about the lowest note of the four cello to the top note of the double tenor. Essentially, it is a combination of a two pan cello and a double tenor. The quadrophonic’s extremely wide compass (at least, in terms of the pan) has made it a firm favourite, beloved of many panmen. A typical ‘safe’ range is from B2 to D6 (see Fig. 14).

Quadrophonic Pan range
Fig.14 - quadrophonic pan range

While offering wonderful possibilities to the composer/arranger, both melodic and harmonic, especially long fast runs up and down its 3-plus octave compass, the quadrophonics still cannot be taken for granted by the composer/arranger not writing for a specific orchestra. It would be wise to keep this in mind and write any quadrophonics part or parts in such a way that they can easily be split up and re-assigned to cellos and double tenors or double seconds.

The guitars’ normal role in the steel orchestra is harmony, most commonly in the form of ‘strumming’ patterns similar to strummed guitar chords. The cellos’ can be similar but usually lower harmony of course, and they can also provide low melody or counter melody. The quadrophonics can assume almost any role, from melody to counter melody and harmony.


© 2009 Richard A. Sharma / Rainlore's World of Music. All rights reserved.

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