The handpan is part of the idiophone family. It is one of the most interesting and mesmerizing instruments of the 21st century. The sound it outputs is both captivating and mystical in nature. Despite this instrument’s growing popularity, it can be difficult to track one down to buy. Most specialty companies have a 12 month waiting list or longer! We’ve curated a list of 6 handpans and other idiophones you can order online today.
The handpan family includes:
- Steel slit tongue drums
- Hang drums
- Steel pans
- Space drums
- Tank drums
While virtually unknown to most, hang drums offer drummers and percussionists a way to enter the world of melodic music without the tedious task of first learning how to read chordal music. All the instruments on this list are very intuitive and can be played without understanding notes or harmony.
BestHandpans – A Quick Glance
The table above lists our favorite picks. These were picked based off of value, budget, quality, and playability. If you want to see a more in-depth review of each handpan, keep reading on.
First up on our list, we have the hand pan: essentially an inside-out steel pan. Most custom makers have you sit on a waiting list, but here’s some you buy on online right now.
Tzevaot is a handpan company founded in 2010 that offers a no waiting list and is able to fulfill requests for handpan orders. Apparently, some other companies even run a lottery system since they cannot meet the demand for their products. They claim to be the only hand pan manufacturer in the United States with no waiting list. Their lead metal tuner, David Parkin, has been practicing tuning for more than twenty years.
The sound of the Tzevaot handpan
Tzevaot has received both applause and criticism for the sound of their handpans. To some people, they can’t justify the cost of owning a handmade instrument. Some owners have noted that the hand pan sounds tinny and lacks resonance while others note the sound being rich.
Personally, I think the sound is wonderful, but I also believe that there are better custom instruments available from companies like Zen. However, with such a specialty company, expect to be on a waiting list for a long time. One other thing awesome of note: this instrument comes packed in a Pelican 1640 case. This is an excellent case to protect your investment.
At a little lower price is the Bali hand pan. These instruments are made by a small company operating in Bali by the names of Chris Andersen, Ketut Suda, and Neghah Resna. As I only intended to share with you places you can buy handpans now, this company also doesn’t have a waiting list for orders. Shipping is very reasonable. Bali’s handpans come in eight different scales:
- D Dominant 7
- D and F Baru
- D Major
- D Mixolydian
- Integral D
- F Big Bear
- F Minor
The sound of the Bali handpan
The instrument from Bali far surpasses the tone and quality of the Tzevaot. It sounds much warmer and larger than life. Given that this instrument comes in many more scales and is cheaper is also a win in our book.
At a dramatically lower price is the hand pan from Shamanicshop. This instrument has a much different design than the previous two. The “revolutionary” design was created by Adrew Remyannikov in Russia and features a Celtic minor scale. To me, this one looks like a combination of a tongue drum and a handpan.
The sound of the Shamanicshop hand pan
As stated previously, the tongue drum design leads to a sound like more steely in quality. It’s much thinner than the Bali, although the Celtic scale sounds very interesting in its own right. For a price that is about half of the other two pans, I think this is a great entry-level option and is very unique to say the least. Just to note, Shamanicshop does offer more pans in other scales.
Steel Slit Tongue Drums
Next up are steel slit tongue drums. These are generally more manufactured than others. They are a perfect alternative to handpans and are significantly cheaper. They usually include mallets and are much smaller than the traditional lap handpan.
Hapi Tongue Drum
While this isn’t completely authentic, the Hapi tongue drum is a perfect entry-level choice, providing a very relaxing sound with intuitive design. It’s best played with the included mallets, though you can use your hands. I found that it was a little too small to hold in my lap and thus, was better suited mounted in a snare drum stand. Despite the look in the product photos, the edges of the notes are not sharp. The powder coating is thick enough to make this a non-issue.
The sound of the tongue drum
The instrument is very well-made and does look wonderful in appearance, though you encounter one or two notes that are a little bit flat. For most people, you won’t even notice at all if yours has this issue.
The pre-tuned scale sounds crazy cool, though compared to other hang drums, it is a bit thin in its tone. I wish the pan were just a little bit bigger as well. Hapi’s tongue drum is thin and brittle, compared to others on our list. While it may be a bit more affordable, you’re missing out on tone and quality with this instrument.
Meinl Sonic Energy STD1BK Tongue Drum
Meinl has grown to become a company that creates affordable and expensive products at the highest level of caliber. Not only do they make great cymbals, but now offer a variety of instruments in percussion and world instruments. I’ve said it before that Meinl is quickly becoming my favorite drum company, creating some of the best cymbals and other instruments.
The sound of the Meinl tongue drum
If we compare the sound of the Meinl vs the Hapi tongue drums, it’s immediate the Meinl sounds massively more pure and warmer in sound. Due to the fact that Meinl’s drum is larger in size, measuring almost 14 inches, the tone produced is bigger and fuller. There’s a day and night difference for paying the extra C-note for this instrument. Meinl’s instrument sounds fantastic. It’s by far our favorite tongue drum variant on the list. Quality always wins in our book.
Pearl Tongue Drum
Pearl has been recently experimenting with new product lines. This year they also announced a new mallet MIDI controller called the malletSTATION. The tongue drum is another recent product addition to their catalog. The tongue drum is offered in a variety of scales associated with which color you buy.
- Light Blue – G Major with eight notes
- Purple – A Ake Bono with eight notes
- Green – A Minor with eight notes
- Red – C Major with nine notes
- Orange – C Lydian with nine notes
- Dark Blue – C Ake Bono with nine notes
The tongue drums are made from hardened steel and the tongues themselves are cut with a laser to ensure accurate and proper tuning of each instrument made. They are extremely consistent from drum to drum, for example, if you bought two drums with differing scales.
The sound of the Pearl tongue drum
Again, like the Hapi instrument, the Pearl tongue drum suffers from the same tonal issues that one does. It just sounds thin to me. I do understand that the mallet choice can make significant improvement as far as tone is concerned, but even playing these drums with your hands doesn’t produce the greatest sound to my ear. If you do go with the Pearl, I suggest buying softer mallets to get a warmer sound. Pearl’s steel tongue drum sounds okay. While you do get a larger selection of tunings with Pearl, I don’t think the sound quality justifies the price or selection.
What is a handpan?
A hang drum, or handpan, is essentially a convex steel pan that is played with the fingers and hands. Its an instrument in the idiophone class and was created by Felix Rohner and Sabina Scharer in Bern, Switzerland. That being said, there is some controversy surrounding the invention, but we’ll get to that later on.
The space drum, as other companies refer to for legal issues, has a similar sound to that of a steel pan. It’s a much more softer and warmer sound, however, due to being played with the hands. Mallet-based steel pan instruments tend to be much brighter and brittle.
All around the instrument lie different tone markers, all tuned to different notes. These spots are struck with the hands or fingers. Each instrument has a particular scale it is tuned to: aeolian, ionian, harmonic minor, hijaz, mixolydian, just to name a few. The hand pan creates many layers of sounds. It’s very melodious has a distinct percussive tone.
Players are generally seen sitting down while playing this instrument, though, I believe you could mount it if you were clever enough. You can opt to wear gloves while playing the pan, as playing for many hours at a time can potentially be irritating to the hands (think beginning guitar players and blisters).
The handpan is the “street musician’s” instrument. While it may seem very complex to the listener, the hang pan is surprisingly easy to learn. It’s a very intuitive instrument being that it is tuned to a specific scale. Any notes will sound good when played together. According to this PANArt documentary, many people living in Europe make a living from playing the instrument on the street. Factual? You make the call on that one.
Contemporary groups and bands like Bumcello use the handpan in combination with a traditional drum set on stage. You may have noticed that they share a similar look to that of a kitchen wok or an alien spaceship. Many people around the world are touched by the instrument and its mystical qualities.
The origin of the handpan
There is supposedly one creator of the hang drum: Felix Röhner. In the early 1970s, the steel pan was all the rage in Trinidad and Tobago, and this ignited a surge of popularity for Afro-Caribbean music to Western musicians. The hang drum is essentially a steel pan flipped over.
Felix is dubbed the original creator of the hang. Being a steel pan player himself, it’s no wonder how he came up with the concept. He founded PANArt as well as the “Hang” in Berne, Switzerland alongside his partner, Sabina Schärer. “Hang” translates to “hand” in the local Swedish dialect.
Reto Weber, a jazz and steel pan musician from Switzerland, approached PANArt inquiring about playing a steel pan instrument with his hands. This is the inspiration. By flipping the traditional steel pan over, changing it from concave to convex, the handpan was born.
Now you might be thinking, “hey, that’s not that creative of an idea to warrant a whole new invention of a musical instrument!” Dr. Anthony Achong would agree with you. While I don’t personally claim to know what is fact versus fiction, he goes so far as to claim that the entire PANArt documentary is a propaganda piece. But we’ll get into that later.
The hang pan is effectively the same as a steel drum, but there is an additional center note called “the ding.” The tuned convex drum is sealed together with a strong glue and a thick resonant chamber made of steel. Once assembled, the hand pan does somewhat resemble that of an alien UFO. There is also an opening in the middle of the back piece, similar to that of most hand drums. The opening is referred to as the “Gu.” This part of the instrument can also be played to get a deep bass tone.
The copyright name “Hang” and termination of production
Ferlix and Sabina have held the legal right to the name “the Hang” since 2001, when they presented the instrument to the public in Frankfurt, Germany. The instrument became popular immediately and the market demand began to increase. Felix and Sabina are true artists and believe the hang is a work of art, thus refusing to mass-produce the instrument.
The Hang is not something to put in a shop window. It belongs to flow of the gift. This is the idea we would like to be communicated. -Felix Röhner, 2013
While I may not personally agree with this type of sentiment, this is their official statement. If a musical instrument is something of value, why starve the world of such a wonderful thing?!
In December of 2013, PANArt announced that the Hand would no longer be made. This move was made to preserve the mystique and value of the instrument. PANArt has since been concentrated on creating new instruments, like the Gubal, which is extremely similar to the Hang.
Handpan are still difficult to find for sale
There really weren’t a lot of companies producing handpans and like stated earlier, the owner of PANArt wasn’t concerned with mass-market appeal. Finding an authentic hang was very difficult, even just ten years ago. When they dropped their documentary in 2006, there was only one shop in Frace that sold these instruments.
According to the documentary, only 80 hand pans were made a year at that time. The demand was and still is large since there are so few places to buy them in person.
Here’s something wild I still can’t wrap my head around. PANArt introduced a policy wherein potential customers had to submit a hand-written letter as to why they wanted to buy a hang from them. Talk about a ridiculous policy for business. Those who visited the workshop without an invitation were simply sent home without welcome.
The state of the modern handpan
Beginning around 2007, instrument makers in Europe and the United States began creating their own versions of the hang, under a different name. Since “the Hang” is copyrighted by PANArt, companies had to get a little creative. The term handpan, is born, along with other terms like spacedrum, hang drum, and tongue drum. While not all the same, these instruments do fit into the same category, resembling that of a convex steel pan from Trinidad and Tobago.
I understand the need to trademark a specific instrument name, like the malletKat, but isn’t it better to give up the generic name of the instrument for the greater good. For example, the first manufactured guitar was probably made by Gibson or Rickenbacker, and they definitely don’t hold a copyright name on the word guitar.
Top line makers still have waiting lists
Orders for the instruments are still sometimes pushed back for months or even years. Second-hand sales are very common. The demand for these unique instruments is still very high. While it is a complex instrument to produce, we have seen companies who are actively creating these instruments faster for interested musicians.
PANArt controversy between Felix and Dr. Anthony Achong
The views presented by Dr. Achong are not ours and do not represent our beliefs. We are not responsible for inaccuracies from reading select blog posts on the internet. This is simply commentary from interesting information found from researching hand pans.
Upon browsing the Google search results for hang drum, I found a particularly interesting article. On Dr. Anthony Achong’s blog, he claims that the documentary shot for PANArt on the hang is filled with propaganda and is a dissemination of lies. Dr. Anthony Achong is a steel pan tuning extraordinaire and is the author of “Secrets of the Steelpan.”
Achong initially focuses on the terminology of drum vs pan, which I can get behind. Technically, the steel pan is not a drum. Later on in the article, I’ll talk more in depth about the proper terminology but for now, we can all agree that these instruments are in the percussion family. Hopefully, we can all get along. 🙂
Later on in the blog post, Achong focuses on a statement that Michael Paschko made in a different blog reply. Paschko makes a claim that…
Trinidad doesn’t play the Pan with the hands. In the whole world people are seldom playing with the hands on iron or steel.
Dr. Achong goes on to reply to this statement, saying that this is factually inaccurate. In the early days of Pan playing in Trinidad, many musicians played Pans with their bare hands or wrapped their hands with cloth. He has first-hand experience in seeing this actively when he was a child, some 65 years ago in Trinidad and Tobago.
He makes a very valid point later on about modifying timbre if that in itself actually creates a new instrument. For example, by adding a mute to a trumpet, does that create a new instrument or just a different sound? While the argument is subjective, it is very convincing.
So, whether or not you believe the hangpan is an actual instrument or just a modified steel pan is truly your call. I’m in the it sounds good and I’m cool with whatever it’s called camp.
Why not call it a hang drum?
Since we’re on the topic of names, why shouldn’t we call it a hang drum, despite me using the term all over this post? For the purposes of this article, I have chosen to also use the term hang drum, as more people are familiar with it verbally and are more likely to find the article rather than just saying hang or handpan.
Technically, the instrument should be called handpan. This controversy is similar to that of called a steel pan a drum. The so-called creators of the hang, Felix and Sabina, reject the expression handpan.
To state it clearly and precisely: we do not make percussion instruments, handpans, or hang drums.
Stop being so wishy-washy! What exactly do you make?! Of course “Hang” refers just to one brand from PANart. But it is strange that they seem to be avoiding classifying their instrument as, well anything really.
Do you own your own hangpan or have you ever tried any of the instruments we’ve listed above? We’d love to hear from you below in the comments with any questions or considerations. If you believe we have any factual inaccuracies, please reach out to us below or use the contact form and we’ll have things corrected on your behalf.