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So, you want to buy some pans, bro?

So, you want to buy some pans, bro?

Those of us who are pan players, the lucky few, have all found the instrument in our own unique way. Whether it was a call deep in your soul that you promptly answered, you’re 4th generation Trini, or just a parrot head, the jumbie has hit us deeply and compels us to do somewhat crazy things. Buying one single steel drum can be a costly and time consuming endeavor, so how the hell do you put together an entire steel band? These questions, and more, will be answered pan heads, so read along with me and let’s look at a few realistic scenarios that can help you find the way to salvation, and teaching pan to the masses like we all know you should be doing.

Freakin’ Money

Let’s tackle this one first. Pans are expensive! Even if you get an instrument of, let’s say ‘lesser’ quality, you can still pay $1000 and wait 6-12 months for the thing. Oh yeah, and you definitely have to buy a stand for it, and if you want to protect this fragile slice of heavenly metal, it’d be wise to grab a case for it. There’s another $500. And that’s a quote for a tenor pan. Grab some doubles or triples and you’re talking much more cash.

It’s important to acknowledge the fact that, like I sort of alluded to above, everyone has their specific scenario and circumstance, and pan embodies the ‘situational’ aspect of music and art as much, if not more, than any other instrument. So, if you live in a town like Morgantown, WV, or Port of Spain, Trinidad, you lucked out with shipping fees and pan tuners that are in your close proximity. Nonetheless, this is going to be a piece of broad spectrum advice, and I’m generally speaking to people who are in the U.S. that want to bring a pan program to their community.

A full steel band can easily cost $50,000 (a 20-25 piece band) and that’s not including the aforementioned cases, stands, sticks, etc. To buy it all at once is a tall task. Even if you can order it all at once, it ain’t going to get to you in a month or two. Be patient in this process, plan ahead, and if you get pans in 6 months, you’re lucky as hell.

You can choose to fund this thing in a variety of ways. If you’ve got the personal capital, buy them with your own cash. Done, easy. End of blog.

There have been many cases, believe it or not, that I’ve heard about a principal at a school fronting the $50,000 – $75,000 to buy a full steel band, because said principal was really enamored by the sound of pan, the community engagement aspect and ease of playing, and the long list of benefits to having this kind of thing at your school. I personally have never met one of these magical unicorn principals but I’ve heard legend of their existence. This can also happen through the right kind of PTA organization, with proper funding, who all get the big picture together. That one is a bit more realistic and I’ve seen it work. It’s definitely the gift that keeps on giving and when these PTAs get a steel band, they can bask in its glory for years to come and the upkeep can be relatively simple (tuning expenses each year of $500-1,000, instruction and supplies like sticks and percussion for the engine room).

Down the list we go, and I’ll throw the idea out that you could write a grant for your pans. This is a viable option, so if you have a good grant writer and the right pieces, get to work and get yo grant on. There is, however, no question that grants are competitive and require you and/or your organization to have their ducks in a row. But you’re a pan player, right? I’m sure you’re incredibly organized and know all the inner workings of grant writing (I sure don’t, you’re going to have to go elsewhere for deep info on grants. That’s a whole different beast).

That previous one was more of a non-profit approach, and if you’re doing the for-profit thing, and you’re making any amount of money from your labors, you need to reinvest some portion of your income back into the music and buy your instruments. This could be a one-at-a-time kind of thing, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Say, for instance, you start out as a drum set teacher, and you’re teaching students all year and manage to save up $2500 for a new pan. Buy yourself a set of doubles, and you’re on the way. I said doubles as an arbitrary choice, if you’re first starting out, you can really buy any drum. I would advise you get a set of double seconds or tenor, because those are gigging instruments and you can earn some money more quickly if you’re on a pan-buying mission. Good luck lugging your triple guitars around, trying to play solo gigs for cash, when you needed a melody instrument for this purpose the entire time. Don’t get me wrong, you’ll need to buy some sort of guitar or cello pan eventually, but if you’re doing it one at a time, work with the most useful voices in the pan orchestra. You can even get going teaching lessons to people on your tenor pan or double pans, and that’s a great way to not only gain some capital, but also to get your teaching chops going and spark some interest in these people’s dreary lives that you live around (I’m joking, the people in your community of course have really exciting, secret agent-style lives that they lead).

My pan journey, for example, was rife with day jobs throughout my pursuits to get some kind, any kind, of music career going. I first bought a set of double seconds as a junior in High School back in 2003 from a Trini living in Canada named Earle Wong. It was about $900 or $950 for a chrome set of low F# double seconds, and brother, those were the DAYS. I’m pretty sure everyone’s prices, including Earle’s, have increased substantially since then, as they should have. The way I funded that first pan purchase? I got a seasonal job at Toys R Us of all places, during the period of time between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and it was pretty hellacious. And by that time, it was my 2nd or 3rd summer/seasonal job already. If you’re not earning money in some form or another, GET TO WORK.

My next pan was a tenor, which was a Guppy (rest in peace) C tenor from my first voyage to Trinidad, Carnival of 2012 (I was broke and in college during that big gap of ‘in between’ years, but you bet I was making money with my doubles all along the way). By American standards, the transaction for my tenor was sketchy at best, and consisted of me meeting a guy named Fat Larry of Exodus (also rest in peace) with some friends in an alley somewhere off Eastern Main Road, and handing him an envelope full of cash, trusting that he would have a pan for me by Carnival time. The funding for this pan, and my T&T trip you ask? More day jobs: music library, concierge, security, and the random gigs and students that I could get my hands on (which really weren’t substantial and thus necessitated the day jobs). I lived in a cheap apartment with roommates, expenses were pretty light, and most of all, I knew the purpose all along was to gradually accumulate drums. Who else was going to fund this endeavor? The unicorn-style generous principals who loved pan were nowhere to be found. My master plan was to gather up a 15-20 piece band, and pitch it to a local high school (where my buddy worked) and try to sneak in that way. Believe me, it’s not as terrible a plan as it might sound…

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Sorry to bore you with my own story but it’s a pretty decent example of how to do it the slow and steady way. Eventually, another music contact of mine had pans stored at the high school that he worked at, and sold them all to me for a lump sum. They were desperate to get rid of them and I was ready to pounce. C’mon, you didn’t think luck played a factor in this at all? After a little luck, a lot of work, and years of hustle, I had accumulated 3 or 4 tenor pans, 2 sets of double seconds, 1 set of double tenors, and some goofy double guitars. The next step of course was to grab a bass instrument of some kind. This is one example of the pan purchasing progression and by no means is there one way to do it. On the contrary, I’ve just laid out 4 different ways to skin this cat!

The massive landscape of pan varieties

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Steel pan is by no means a standardized instrument, so when buying, you have a number of choices like what specific instruments to get, what style you want, and what range you want them to be. Take the double second instrument as an example. There’s the “Trini Style” double seconds, which have F# as their lowest note, anywhere from A to C/C# above treble clef as their highest note, and certain notes in the middle of the treble clef located on the rim of the drum rather than slightly inside. Then there’s what we’ll call the “Ellie Style” (homage to the great pan builder Ellie Mannette, an absolute bear of a man and a name you need to know) which have a low E, and the highest note can go all the way to the F above treble staff. That’s a pretty huge range, and substantially larger than the “Trini Style,” not to mention big differences in exact placement of notes. Neither pan is ‘better’ per se, but if you’re buying pans for a band, you should probably stick to one type of double second, so that your section players can easily switch between drums as needed. Make this easy on yourself and have pans standardized within your own steel drum universe. Pan players, especially beginners, can be really finicky about the exact way their pans are tilted and this and that, and they can’t play for crap if everything isn’t absolutely PERFECT and in it’s right place. Oh and by the way, those are just two versions of the double seconds in an ocean of different takes on the same great pan. Get into the variety of ways the pan can sit on the stand, due to the exact location of the holes drilled into the side for hanging wire, and the possibilities are endless my friends.

I’ve mentioned Ellie Mannette, and his company is called “Mannette Instruments,” but there are many pan builders out there nowadays. To name a few there’s Gill’s Pan shop, Panland, Mapco (from Trinidad), Panyard, and many independent builders like Glenn Rowsey, Billy Sheeder, Emily Lemmerman, Darren Dyke. That’s just a small slice of the builders and tuners, please comment if you want to shout-out another pan builder.

Instrument Types

The standard steel band consists of the following instrument types: leads/tenors, double tenors, double seconds, guitars/cellos (double, triple, or even quadruple), in addition to tenor bass and 6-bass. If you want to get fancy, there are even more steel pan voices that you’re free to add like the quads, invader leads or 9/12 bass, but I would start with those initial 5 or 6 sections. I listed out those voices first because they satisfy the necessary parts of melody and harmony that have been established and found to give the most variety and color to a band, while also being reasonable drum styles that you can actually find. How many of each of these pan types, you ask? Well that depends on the money part, but let’s build it from the ground up. A small beginning band might be one of each type, 1 lead/tenor, 1 Double Second, 1 Double Tenor, 1 Guitar/Cello, 1 6-bass, and a drum set player. You can play a tune with just that. You might sub 2 sets of DS (double second) for your double tenor. You could also do 2 leads instead of double tenor. Choices, people. There are a few sample configurations below. As you gradually increase your melody section, you’ll need to slowly build up your low pans as well to keep the balance. Even though it’s financially responsible, it’s not terribly exciting to have a band with 7 tenors, 1 DS, 1 guitar and 1 bass. That’s lopsided and goofy, and your band would be the equivalent of the extremely muscular dude who only pumps his upper body and has skinny little chicken legs. Don’t be the guy with the chicken legs, people!

Small to mid size band: 3 Tenors, 2 DS, 1 DT, 2 Guitar/Cello, 1 6-Bass

Mid size to big: 4 Tenors, 4 DS, 2 DT, 2 G/C, 2 6-Bass

Big band: 6 Tenors, 4 DS, 2 DT, 2 Guitar, 2 Cello, 1 Tenor Bass, 2 6-Bass.

Huge Band (I’m thinking of you, Humboldt State): 10 Tenors, 6 DS, 3 DT, 4 Guitar, 4 Cello, 2 TB, 6 6-Bass

Now, I’m sort of spitballing the exact instrumentation on the Humboldt band, but I’ve heard they have 6 sets of 6-bass and it sounds pretty glorious. Hell of a band to transport I’m sure, but a huge band like that is kinda the goal, right?

(Just for Fun) 100-ish Piece Trini Band: 25 tenors, 18 DS, 10 DT, 15 Double Guitars, 6 4-cello, 4 quads, 6 TB, 12 sets of some kind of Bass (anything goes here, could be 6, 7, 9, or 12)

Yes I know the aforementioned equals out to 96 but you get the idea. Again, I’m spitballing, these are general figures.

As you can see, there are so very many aspects to consider in this whole thing. We don’t have a lot of published material that guides people through this process, so hopefully I’ve answered, or begun to answer, some of the pressing questions you might have about how people go about getting a steel drum band together. Comment below if you have thoughts on this, or think I’m full of crap, or if you’re a jilted pan builder that I didn’t mention above. Happy purchasing, everyone!

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Paul Munzenrider
Paul Munzenrider

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