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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

1.4. The Basses – From Tenor Bass to Twelve Bass

The ‘standard’ bass family of steel pan instruments encompasses the tenor bass, the six bass, the nine and twelve bass. Five, seven and eight basses are also to be found, and even ten basses. In all the aforementioned instruments, the numerical value refers to the number of pans of the instrument. The tenor and six bass are near-universal, while the nine and twelve bass are almost mandatory for any respectable large orchestra.

The tenor bass consists of four pans with a ‘safe’ range from F2 to E4 (see Fig. 15). (The quadro pan has a similar range and is mainly found with Desperadoes Steel Orchestra, where it originated, although its use is spreading.) A kind of bass-baritone, its sonority is richer and deeper than that of the cello.

Low Tenor Pan layout
Fig.15 - tenor bass pan range

The most common of the basses, the six bass has a typical range of Bb1 to Eb3 (see Fig. 16). Its rich sonority and surprising resonance are matched also by its relatively long sustain for a steel pan.

Six Bass Pan range
Fig.16 - six bass pan range

The nine bass typically ranges from E1 to about F#3 (see Fig. 17), while the twelve bass extends the range downwards to about B0 (see Fig. 18). More often than not, the nine bass and certainly the twelve bass may be represented only once in the orchestra, maybe twice in the largest, at all but the largest events such as Panorama. The smoothness and deep, rich sonority of these instruments is as phenomenal as their relative resonance and sustain.

Nine Bass range      Twelve Bass range
Fig.17 - nine bass pan range          Fig.18 - twelve bass pan range

The composer/arranger needs to bear in mind that these basses are played by a single player, normally in an inverted U-shape formation with six pans standing upright and the other three or six respectively mounted horizontally in racks above them. Too prolonged vigorous passages could soon tire even the fittest bassman or basswoman! Also, very fast tremolos are inadvisable on any of the bass instruments.

Of the ‘non-standard’ basses, the five bass is also known as the high bass, while the seven bass is perhaps the more widely spread of these instruments. However, the generic composer/arranger had probably best assume that none of these exist and stick to the ‘standard’ basses.

The tenor bass’ typical function is to reinforce the bass, as well as independent bass lines. The normal role of the other basses should be rather self evident.


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

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