handpans

The Ultimate Guide to Handpans: Everything You Need to Know

What is a handpan? The handpan is a rare new kind of mesmerizing musical instrument invented in the 21st century. The handpan’s lenticular shape looks like a UFO, a wok or a turtle shell. Part art and part instrument, the handpan is often referred to as a “sound sculpture”. Each handpan is handcrafted and unique. You can see hammer marks from its artisanal making process across the instrument. The relaxing tones and intuitive playing style of the handpan make it a gateway instrument, accessible to anyone.

Where is the handpan from? The handpan is the world’s newest musical instrument! It is the evolution of the Hang® (often called “hang drum”) which was an instrument invented in 2000 in Switzerland by Felix Rohner and Sabina Schärer of PANArt, a steel-drum manufacturer located in Bern, Switzerland. The generic term “handpan” came later in 2007. It was coined by Kyle Cox of Pantheon Steel who was the second manufacturer of this kind of instrument, after the Swiss originators. Pantam is another name for handpans.

handpans

Choosing your first handpan can really be challenging, as there are a lot of things to consider. What type of Instrument do you need? Should you start with cheaper options and then switch to a higher level? Should you start learning to play a professional hang drum from the beginning? Or what scale or size do you want? All these questions make the process overwhelming.

What is inside a handpan?

The inside of the handpan is empty. 

Handpans are made of two steel half-shells glued together. The shells are often 1.00 mm to 1.25 mm thick shells. You can turn a handpan upside down and look at the inside of it through the bottom hole called the Gu.

Are handpans fragile?

Handpans are sensitive instruments that are easy to damage. As they are tuned with hammers to a special balance, hitting them too hard while playing, dropping something on them, or bumping them somewhere will lead the instrument to go out of tune.

You should always take good care of your handpan.

In case the handpan goes out of tune, you will have to send it to the maker for a retune. In most cases, makers can easily retune the instrument quickly. But, in extreme cases, the out-of-tune note may not be usable anymore.

You should never try to retune your handpan yourself, as tuning steel requires years of practice and experience. You might further damage your instrument to an irreversible degree.

Another important factor is rust. Like most steel instruments, handpans are susceptible to rust if your handpan is not from stainless or ember steel. To avoid rust, you should use coconut oil or a special handpan oil, like Phoenix Oil or Froglube, once every few months.

You should never leave your handpan wet or in its bag, as humidity likes closed spaces. Wipe the instrument until it’s dry if it gets wet and always leaves it open, ideally somewhere where the humidity is not too high.

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If you see rust dots on your handpan, you can oil the dots and use a miracle cloth or a microfiber cloth gently rubbing out the rust.

Furthermore, leaving your handpan under the sun and playing when it is hot is not a good idea, leading the instrument to go out of tune. Try to avoid direct sunlight, and in case the instrument gets hot, leave it somewhere at room temperature to cool it down before playing.

How many notes can a handpan play?

A handpan usually has 8 or 9 notes, including the center note called the Ding.

Today, makers started making handpans with more notes, placing notes on the bottom shell as well as tuning more notes on the top shell. There are handpans with up to 30 notes called the mutant handpans.

 

But there is nothing to worry about. Our clear guide, on how to choose a handpan will get you through this, and make the process of selecting your very first handpan a piece of cake.

 

Find a well-built handpan

Before you get into different range to choose the handpan, you need to find an instrument that is well-built and tuned correctly. This is the first step because if your handpan is not built or tuned correctly, then the further steps won’t make any difference in the quality of your Instrument. In general, handpans should be built with octave and compound fifth harmonics tune to each note and must be stable enough to withstand any reasonable playing force.

 

Choose the scale that you want

When you have found a high-quality instrument, you need to decide the scale, your handpan will be tuned to. Unlike a piano, handpan aren’t chromatic instruments, so choosing the scale is an extremely important and personal decision, as you are the one who will be bound to the limits of it. Commonly the handpans are available in three scales, namely- Major Scale, Natural Minor Scale, and Exotic Scale.

Get detailed information about the types of scale and then choose according to your purpose and taste.

 

Choose your Steel

Great, now we have a list of high- quality hang drums and scales we like, it’s time to choose the type of Steel. Well, you might get surprised, but not all the Steels are the same.

Just like different guitars are made from different woods, handpans can be made from different steels. Each type of Steel has got unique qualities, which makes it distinct from the others. Here are the top 3 steels used for making handpans-

Nitrided Steel, Raw Steel, and Stainless Steel.

There is no one true winner of these materials. Each has got different characteristics. So just as before, the best way to find the Steel that suits your taste is to listen to it and watch as many recordings as you can.

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Choose the number of notes/layouts

At the last and final step, you need to decide how many notes you want on your Instrument and how you want them laid out. For instance, you want a Kurd scale, so should it have eight fields or 9? Maybe you want an extra mutant note on the talk or perhaps even a few extra notes on the bottom? Should your one circle be in the traditional layout or reverse?

The best thing is to consult with your handpan builder. They will be able to offer you some insight into the options and suggest what might be the best choice for you.

 

Nova Handpans- The place to get your new beautiful Instrument

At Nova Handpans, we are specialized and truly passionate about delivering the highest-quality hand discs made by the great makers of our time. We offer our customers cheap handpans for sale in the US and UK. Our range of handpans comes in various notes, Steel, and scale. We will be happy to help you get a beautiful handpan according to your taste and preference. Don’t hesitate to contact us at any time.

What is the correct terminology of handpan?

Here are several names you might come across when referring to this instrument: Hang, hang drum, handpan, handpan drum, pantam, cupola… To be clear, the Hang is the original instrument invented by PANArt in 2000. It means “hand” and “hill” in Swiss-German.

The name “hang drum” is still popular. It was adopted by early players to provide context around the instrument. Mentioning“hang drum” instead of only “Hang” gave people a frame of reference and helped them understand that the Hang was a percussive musical instrument. The Swiss inventors have however always disapproved of this term because the Hang is not played like a drum. Indeed, the instrument is melodic, fragile and subtle. PANArt claims that the name “hang drum” leads to damaged instruments, physical injury and mental and emotional turbulence.

Handpan is now the most common term to qualify Hang-like instruments. It was coined by my friend Kyle Cox at Pantheon Steel. It’s English; composed of “hand” (unlike the steel drum, handpans are played by hand) and “pan” (referring to the steel drum). It emerged as an alternative to the trademarked name Hang.

Finally, you might stumble upon a variety of other names to refer to handpans: hangs, hand drum, hangpan, hang drum, handpan drum or metal drum. Some of these aren’t technically correct but they typically refer to handpans nonetheless.

Tongue drums such as the Rav Vast, the HAPI Drum, the Zenko or the GUDA DRUM are not handpans but tongue drums instead.

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How do I choose my handpan?

This is a huge question, and there is no simple or easy answer. But do not worry… with a few considerations and some research, you can make the decision that is right for you. Here are my top five tips to help you on your way.

  1. Trust your ears: Listen to as many handpan videos and performances as you can.
  2. Trust your head: What makes a good handpan? It’s all about sound quality. Check my list of what to look out for below.
  3. Trust your fingers: If possible, it’s always better to try before you buy. Here’s how to go about it.
  4. Trust your needs: When it comes to picking a scale, there are so many to choose from! You can do several things to narrow down the field. Below are some pointers.
  5. Trust your instincts: Ultimately, if it’s too good to be true, it probably is. Here you’ll find some tips to avoid the pitfalls.

Let me explain each of these points in more detail:

  1. Trust your ears: Search for handpan videos on YouTube (by typing “handpan”) and navigate from link to link to listen to many different videos. Put on a headset to help you pick up the subtleties of each instrument: tone, sustain, tuning, balance between notes, dynamics of instrument etc. (see point (ii) below for more) Make a note of the differences between each instrument that you hear.This will help you to sharpen up your ears. Once you get ‘tuned in’ to listening, you will find the one(s) that sing to you.The more videos you watch, the quicker you’ll be able to hear the difference between instruments that sound like saucepans and those of top quality.The number of views/likes of a video can also be an indicator of the quality of an instrument. Be cautious, however, as the video may be popular due to some gimmick (someone who plays in the water or who beats the instrument overly hard).
  2. Trust your head: Before you buy, it really is worth doing your research to establish what makes a handpan good. For me, the 7 marks of a quality handpan are:
    – Tuning
    – Timber
    – Sustain
    – Balance
    – An absence of cross-talk
    – Dynamic Range
    – Harmonics precision

Summary

Handpans are truly amazing instruments with out-of-world, mesmerizing, ethereal sounds. It is a great joy to play them for musicians as well as non-musicians. They are great for meditation, yoga, sound healing as well as composing great pieces.

As relatively new instruments, not much is known about handpans. After this article, you are entirely ready to step into the handpan world and explore what this UFO-like unique instrument has to offer.

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