Guitars and Cellos

The third primary voice of the steel pan orchestra is what we now know as the guitar or cello pan. This single pan appeared in the late forties-early fifties and supported the middle range of notes. The names guitar and cello reflect a direct link to Trinidad’s Spanish and European musical influences. The pan was known to have many different names at different times depending on how it as used in a particular piece of music by different bands.

The Guitar Pan was referred to as the main strumming instrument in most steel bands in the earlier days and is still regarded as such by modern arrangers. As its usage became more popular and its function as a background instrument became more defined and prominent, names like “Grumbler” surfaced, descriptive of the husky tone of the instrument during that era.

There were no permanent designs to this pan during the early years. Notes were added from time to time to accommodate the key or range of a particular piece of music. These occurrences caused the pattern and playing method to change, producing a new sound each time. This prompted the local pan community to choose names that would sometimes suggest an air of musical and/or emphatic importance to the instrument. One example of that type of naming was the Grundig Pan, a name given to the Guitar Pan to describe its tonal quality and a name taken from a German stereo player in the late fifties. In the following years however, more musical names like Quatro Pan (small strumming guitar) and finally Guitar Pan became more permanent.

The influence of the European classical orchestra was very present in the name “Cello” Pan. Even during the era of single pans (late forties-early fifties) Double Cellos were introduced as a refinement of the Single Guitar. Two drums were used and the skirt (barrel length) of the drums was cut much longer than the skirt of the Guitar Pan to give the Cello pan a more sustained tone.

As the innovative years of pan development continued, the Single Guitar Pan was upgraded to two drums and called the Double Guitar. This occurred around the same time as the appearance of the Double Second Pan and was presented by the same man, Elliot “Ellie” Mannette. The design of the Double Guitar was chromatic but modified to accommodate the keys in which the band played. With the same playing methods in mind as the Double Second, it became easy to play both guitar pans simultaneously. The Double Guitar had a range from C3 to F4 omitting the low C#3 and the low Eb3. For some time during the late fifties through the late sixties these voices became accepted as the primal voices by most steel bands. There is still a Double Guitar used today but the configuration is very different from the original Double Guitar. Today’s Double Guitar is fashioned after the Double Second, displaying the same whole tone scale pattern with a range of one and one-half octaves.

Due to the need for an entirely chromatic instrument in this voice range that could play in all keys and have octaves of all notes, the Double Cellos soon became Triple Cellos. The arrangement of notes on the three pans varied until Ellie Mannette designed the current configuration which is now fairly standard. Each of the Cello Pans is designed on one of the three diminished chords (a series of intervals of a minor third built upon each other) present in Western music (B diminished on the left, C diminished in the center, and C# diminished on the right.) The range was three octaves from B2-C#5. It was not long before the skirts of the Triple Cellos were cut down to Guitar size and the Triple Guitar was born. In reality, the Triple guitar as we know it today is the Triple Cello with the skirt cut down to Guitar length. As is obvious from the above narrative, the development of the Guitar and Cello Pans were deeply intertwined with each other while sharing the same musical role and having the same general range of notes within the steel band.

The original Triple Guitar designed in this diminished chord manner was for a very specific reason. Ellie Mannette’s first official stage side, Shell Invaders, was preparing the classical selection, In a Monastery Garden, for the Steel Band Festival. The arrangement demanded that the Triple Guitar play a phrase with a descending arpeggio starting on Bb4 down to Ab4 and continuing. None of the Triples at that time had the required high range for this passage so Ellie brought out a new pan, configured with diminished chords and having the desired range to accommodate the musical arrangement. It was not unusual to build a pan to suit a particular arrangement. However, this pan, in addition to fulfilling that requirement, standardized the full chromatic range of the pan once and for all.

It is interesting that the placement of notes within each pan is different. On the left side, the lowest note, B3 is at the top of the pan, D4 on the bottom, F3 on the right and G#3 on the left. The higher octave center notes inside the pan follow the same pattern. To play the diminished chord lowest to highest one would play top, bottom, right and left in the pan. The pattern from lowest to highest in the center pan is bottom, left, right, top. The right hand pan goes in a circular pattern from bottom, left, top, right.

The reason for placement of the notes in this manner was twofold: to facilitate the equal sticking between pans and to take advantage of the change in overtones from one pan to the next to produce the desired timbre. Playing across three drums was still relatively new. They were placed in a triangular formation to assist in making them equally accessible. These were the elements of coordination between instrument and player that the steel band community inherited from the Invaders Steel Band. The difference in note placement on each of the three pans was intentional, causing the value of the overtones to change from pan to pan and making the difference in construction and note combination come together to form the strength and velocity of each pan.

If you take a look at the sticking of chords on the Triple you will find that a major chord has the root note on one pan and the 3rd and 5th on the pan next to it in a clockwise direction. A minor chord has the root and 3rd on one pan and the 5th on the next pan in the clockwise motion. Of course, the diminished chord is all in one pan. That leaves the augmented chord, each note on a different pan, again in a clockwise manner.