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 handpan: essentially an inside-out steel pan. Most custom makers have you sit on a waiting list, but here’s some you buy on Amazon right now.
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.
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
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.