One of the best-sounding and yet lesser-known percussive instruments in the world is the handpan, or as it was originally known, the hang drum.
The term ‘handpan’ is actually used today to refer to a variety of similar yet distinct percussive instruments, including hang drums, tongue drums, space drums, and tank drums.
What makes these idiophones so unique is that while they can be used to beat out a strong and powerful rhythm, the sound that they produce is also melodic and dream-like, taking players and listeners alike into another musical realm.
If you’ve been looking for an instrument that will keep a good rhythm while enhancing the melodic quality of your music, you need look no further than the handpan.
However, there is quite a lot of confusion and debate surrounding this instrument, so there’s a lot to learn before you can take the plunge and make your purchase with confidence.
Luckily, we’ve created a list of the handpans that we consider to be the best on the market currently, along with a guide to the origins, history, and modern evolution of the handpan. By the time you finish this article, you’ll be an expert on this unique type of drum.
Handpans: An Overview
If you’re still wondering what a handpan actually is, don’t worry because we’re going to clear that up for you right now. The handpan is a sub-branch of the steelpan, a gong-like percussion instrument that originated from Trinidad and Tobago in the early 1900s.
While the steelpan is traditionally played with rubber-tipped sticks, the more recent invention of the handpan is designed to be played with the hands, hence the name.
The construction of the handpan is fairly simple, consisting of outer and inner half-shells held together with strong glue. The indents you can see positioned in a circle around the top shell are called tone fields, and these are what allow for the playing of different notes.
The first four products we have to show you today are more traditional handpans. These handpans are traditionally held in the lap and played intuitively with the hands, although they can also be played using a mallet.
OUR TOP PICK
This handpan from Acolyte delivers a scale of 8 full notes: D, A, C, D, E, F, G, A. It is tuned in the D Minor key and delivers a truly enchanting sound.
The powder-coated steel construction of the Acolyte handpan ensures that it won’t rust, even if exposed to moisture, and won’t ever need to be lubricated, unlike some of the cheaper handpan models on the market.
To top it all off, this purchase will also get you a beautifully embroidered carry bag so you can take your new handpan with you wherever you go!
Admittedly, all of this high quality comes at a price, and in this case, it’s a premium one. However, if you want an authentically constructed instrument, it’s definitely better to aim for higher than lower price tags.
- 8 notes - A, G, F, E, D, C, A, D
- Steel construction - Rust-resistant
- Powder-coated - No lubrication required
- Embroidered carry bag included - Easy transportation
- Premium price - Expensive investment
Alternatively, if our top pick didn’t take your fancy, we’d recommend the AS TEMAN handpan model. Made from nitrided stainless steel, this handpan is resistant to rust and impact, so it will stay looking as good and new for years to come.
The pan is tuned to D Minor and has 9 tone fields for notes D3, A3, B3, C4, D4, E4, F4, G4, and A4. Something else we love about the AS TEMAN handpan is the fact that it comes in such a diverse range of colors and designs.
You can purchase this handpan in classic gold or black colors, but it also comes in stunning patterns and color gradients to fit any personal style or decorative scheme.
The handpan comes with a carry bag, mallet, drum stand, and cleaning cloth, so you won’t want for any accessories when your purchase arrives.
However, because these handpans are hand-made, there have been some isolated reports of quality control issues such as dead notes.
- 9 notes - A4, G4, F4, E4, D4, C4, B3, A3, D3
- Nitrided stainless steel - Durable and rust-resistant
- Wide color range - Style-compatible
- Includes carry bag, mallet, stand, and cloth - Everything you need included
- Some quality control issues - Isolated reports of dead notes
The 9-Note Handpan from Panniverse is easily one of the best handpans currently available on the market.
This handpan is tuned to the D Kurd scale, which is the traditional scale for handpans. The notes facilitated by the tone fields are A4, G4, F4, E4, D4, C4, B3, A3, and D3.
The nitride coating used to increase the hardness of the handpan prolongs the durability of the instrument. Because it’s gold in color, it has the added advantage of enhancing the appearance of the pan, too!
The Panniverse handpan comes with a carry bag, stool (for sitting or using as a stand), and a cleaning cloth. Plus, a beater is included in case you need to test harmonies.
Compared to some other handpan models, this is actually quite a budget-friendly option. Because of the cheaper construction, the sound quality isn’t the highest on the market, but it’s certainly one of the best affordable options for beginners.
- Nitride coating - Aesthetically pleasing and durability-enhancing
- 9 notes - D3, A3, B3, C4, E4, F4, G4, A4
- Stool, carry bag, and cloth included - Ergonomic playing, cleaning, and transport
- Includes beater - Ideal for harmonic tests
- Budget build - Not the highest quality sound
This handpan drum from Alheka is tuned in D Minor and is capable of playing 9 different notes: D3, A3, B3, A4, G4, F4, E4, D4, and C4.
The pan is made from nitrided steel. Nitriding refers to the process of applying heat to metal with the aim of hardening and strengthening the material.
This means that you can play this handpan to your heart’s content without fretting about denting or otherwise damaging the construction.
Speaking of damage prevention, the Alheka handpan features a rubber ring around the outside of the shells to protect against impact damage. So, even if you drop this handpan, it shouldn’t incur any damage.
This handpan also comes with a mallet, drum stand, and dust cloth, plus a carry bag for effortless portability. Plus, it even includes sheet music so that complete beginners can learn to play!
The Alheka handpan has been manually tuned by hand. While the tuning has been conducted by professionals, each pan is unique in the sense that the tuning is done by ear, so it’s unlikely to be exact to mechanical standards.
- 9 notes - A4, G4, F4, E4, D4, C4, B3, A3, D3
- Nitrided steel - Extra-strong
- Rubber outer ring - Protects against impact damage
- Includes sheet music - Beginner-friendly
- Complete with carry bag, mallet, and drum stand, and dust cloth - Comprehensive purchase
- Manually tuned - Each drum may sound very slightly different
Best Tongue Drums
Another type of handpan available on the market is the tongue drum, more specifically known as the steel split tongue drum. This type of drum is typically played with a mallet and is usually much more portable.
While steel split tongue drums are not quite as ‘authentic’ as traditional handpans, they are more affordable and widely available.
Ancrown’s Steel Tongue Drum measures 12 inches in diameter and is able to play 13 notes in the key of C. Some of the smaller notes sound quieter than others, so playing this drum loudly can require some force. However, it’s a beautifully crafted instrument.
Available in 6 beautiful colors, this steel tongue drum is electroplated through spray painting. This makes the steel more impact-resistant and rustproof.
The Ancrown tongue drum has silicone, shockproof feet on the bottom to prevent the instrument from slipping or sustaining damage.
Along with the drum, you will receive a drum bag, stand, rattan weave, drumsticks, and a music book, so the drum comes with everything you need to start out!
- 13 notes - C scale
- 6 color options - Aesthetically compatible
- Electroplated - Impact-resistant
- Shockproof feet - Non-slip
- Includes bag, drumsticks, music book, stand, and rattan - Beginner-friendly
- Some notes are quieter - Can be difficult to play loudly
This steel tongue drum from Aklot is one of the best tongue drums on the market for several reasons. Being made from a titanium alloy, this drum is very strong and resistant to all forms of impact and abrasion.
This drum has 11 notes in total, all in the key of C. When tuned correctly, it produces a melodious and soothing sound, although there have been some reports of inconsistent tuning on arrival, so you may need to be prepared to undertake the tuning yourself.
At 10 inches, it’s easily portable, especially since it comes with a travel bag. Other provided accessories include 2 mallets, a music book, a mallet bracket, and 6 finger picks.
- Titanium alloy - Strong and wear-resistant
- 11 notes - C key
- 10 inches - Highly portable
- Includes travel bag, music book, mallets, bracket, and finger picks - All accessories included
- Some tuning inconsistencies - May require tuning on arrival
Finally, we have the Luvay Steel Tongue Drum, which we have been very impressed by. If you’re looking for an instrument akin to the handpan that doesn’t come with a premium price tag, this is the drum we would recommend.
The Luvay Steel Tongue Drum is made of a steel-titanium alloy that makes this a rust-resistant and generally durable instrument.
Tuned in the key of D, the drum has 8 tongues, so it can produce 8 notes on the D scale. This is fewer notes than the other models on our list, but this does make it easier for beginners to get to grips with.
It measures just 6 inches, so it’s very portable. The drum also comes with a carry bag, mallets, picks, and a music book, so it has everything a beginner would need to start learning.
- 8 notes - Easy to play
- Steel-titanium alloy - Durable and rust-resistant
- 6 inches - Portable
- Bag, music book, mallets, and picks included - Comprehensive
- Very affordable - Budget instrument
- Not for advanced players - Primarily for beginners
The History of the Handpan
As we mentioned earlier, the steelpan that led to the invention of the handpan originated from Trinidad and Tobago in the early 20th century.
However, the early developments of the handpan as we know it today didn’t actually come into place until the year 2000, when the Hang or Hang Drum emerged onto the market. The Hang was invented by Sabrina Schäre and Felix Rohner in 2000.
The idea actually came from a hand percussionist called Reto Weber, who sought the pair out and suggested his idea for an instrument similar to the steelpan but shaped like a pot and designed to be played with the hands.
Thus, the Hang (named for the word ‘hand’ in Bernese German) was born.
However, Schäre and Rohner did not wish to mass-produce their instrument because, they felt, this went against their beliefs concerning the nature of art and music. Therefore, the Hang was discontinued in 2013.
The Modern Handpan
Since the discontinuation of the Hang, other instrument manufacturers have produced their own versions. Today, what was originally called the Hang Drum or the Hang is called the handpan for copyright reasons. Other names for the instrument include ‘UFO drum’ and ‘pantam’.
Other than the change in name, the handpan hasn’t varied much since its emergence onto the market two decades ago.
Many of the handpans currently available to buy look very similar to the Hang. They all take inspiration from the original steelpan and work around the same premise, although these instruments are increasingly being tuned differently from the traditional D Kurd scale.
We hope that you’ve enjoyed learning about the origins, history, and developments of the handpan, and taking a look at some of our top picks!
In summary, the handpan as it is known today is an idiophone derived from the Trinidadian steelpan and the Hang Drum. The term can be used to refer to several idiophone subtypes, including the traditional handpan and the steel slit tongue drum.
You can find handpans on the market that are designed for various budgets and tuned in different keys; there’s a lot of flexibility and uniqueness to this instrument.