Updated: Jan 15, 2021
The handpan is a musical instrument which was invented 21 years ago. But chances are, you are only finding out now! Don't worry, you're not alone. Believe it or not, the handpan is still largely unknown to the public...
Since 2006, I have been delving into this new art form and engaging with its growing community of players and makers across the globe. If you are looking for guidance about handpans, the information below might be a good starting-point.
Here are 6 handpans I think you should know about! They are some of the best handpans out there (and they are my personal favorites). Oh, and if you want your own handpan, check out handpans available in the store!
The Original PANArt Hang from Switzerland
The Hang by PANArt (often called "hang drum") was the first instrument of its kind. The inventors, Felix Rohner and Sabina Schärer, were steel pan makers before producing the Hang. PANArt came up with the lenticular shape of the instrument and various key features including the inward dome in the center of each tone field. These advances allowed the Swiss team to better control the personality of each note and of its octave and compound fifth overtones. This largely contributes to the rich layered sound of the instrument. They also developed their own special recipe for nitrided steel, a material they call Pang which gives the Hang a ceramic timbre and a springy feel to the hand—while also protecting it from corrosion.
This is how the Hang came to be. One day, a Swiss percussionist named Reto Weber visited the Swiss workshop and suggested the Hangmakers build an "inside-out steel drum" which could be played by hand... The idea of the Hang was born.
Over the years, the new Hang sound sculpture went through several iterations known as Hang "generations". Between 2000 and 2004, the first generation was sold through a network of worldwide distributors and available in more than 45 musical scales. Buyers of a second-generation Hang would need to travel to Bern, Switzerland to purchase the instrument by appointment only. Eventually, the one and only scale available became the Integral Hang, later tuned solely by ear, the Free Integral Hang. It is estimated that PANArt built 10,000 Hang sound sculptures before they stopped the production of the instrument in 2013.
I got to interview Ron Kravitz who was the sole Hang distributor in the United States (2002-05) and then one of only two worldwide distributors (2005-07). Listen to Ron share untold Hang stories and reveals secrets from the past on The Handpan Podcast. A must-listen for any old-timer, Hang-lover or anyone trying to make sense of PANArt's position towards the handpan community.
The successor of the Hang was the Gubal. A whole new experience. If the Hang is uplifting and ethereal, then the Gubal is earthy and grounding. It features a deep bass which is the pulse of a new kind of groove.
I was incredibly lucky to get my Hang back in 2007 (read the full story here) and I had the opportunity to meet the inventors Felix and Sabina on several occasions in Bern, Switzerland.
The Halo Handpan of Pantheon Steel from Missouri
Kyle and Jill complimented each other well. Kyle came from a musical background, tuning steel pans, and Jim was an industrial engineer. Through the Halo and its community, Kyle and Jim truly launched the handpan era.
While fewer and fewer Hangs were made, Pantheon Steel was ramping up its production. And as the only handpan available in North America, the Halo enjoyed a tremendous following. Pantheon Steel's instrument was larger (23" instead of 20"), lower-pitched (B2 instead of D3) and made in a totally different way than the Hang.
What's more, Kyle was involved in the community and actively participating to many handpan gatherings and sharing knowledge about tuning. Many of today's handpan makers were once Halo players. Kyle Cox is undoubtedly the second most influential character within the handpan story, after the originators Felix Rohner and Sabina Schärer.
Listen to my conversation with Kyle Cox of Pantheon Steel for the 10-year anniversary of the Halo handpan.
It was in the spring of 2013 at Handpangea, a handpan gathering in North Carolina, that I first met Mark Garner and played one of the first Saraz handpan prototypes that was passing around during the event.
Saraz handpans continued getting better and better and Mark became a key member of the growing global handpan community. I have had the chance to visit the Saraz workshop—you can read the story here—and I can't say enough good things about Mark and his team.
One thing I heard a lot over the years was how the Saraz team took notes of everything. It was clear Mark had learned a lot through trial and error. So I interviewed him on The Handpan Podcast to talk about the Enchanting Science of Handpans. It's a fascinating conversation about the hidden patterns and the unseen structures of the instrument, going all the way back to the roots of the steel pan. A reintegration of both contemplation and enjoyment of handpans.
For several years, Mark was joined by my good friend Josh Rivera who has since launched his handpan tuning company called Rivera Steel Tuning and his own line of instruments. You can learn more about each project in their respective podcast episodes.
The Boreal Handpan from Montreal, Quebec
I think I have received more comments about my old C# Celtic Minor Boreal handpan than any other handpan I've owned. Getting to know the maker Jocsan Riviera was fantastic. He does all parts of the making process himself and even tunes by ear. A reminder that the handpan is more than a "commodity", a "market" or an "industry"... It is an art form with all its nuances and information. And it makes it all the more meaningful to play on such unique instruments!
The Iskra of Symphonic Steel from California
He uses the same materials and tuning techniques as PANArt did. The result is a unique timbre that takes you all the way back to the early years of the Hang. I have to say that Sean's ISKRA handpan is particularly refreshing because it's a return to the basics. It's a simple but intentional design whose success—as seen through the Hang—is guaranteed.
The Æther (CFoulke) of Colin Foulke from California
Colin Foulke first got into handpans around the time Pantheon Steel introduced the Halo. Being classically trained on the cello, he quickly picked up handpans and developed a passion that became contagious. By connecting with other players online and attending in-person handpan gatherings, Colin became a central player in the community. He was also the first to develop handpan tutorials, with David Kuckhermann.
At the Handpangea gathering in 2013, Colin unveiled steel pans he had been secretly working on. A couple years later at another gathering called Pantasia, he would reveal his own line of handpans—first called CFoulke, then rebranded Æther.
Colin later introduced a method called hydroforming which is made open-source. This helped in the fabrication process of making handpans, using water pressure to form the bowl of each handpan shell. This alleviates the most physically-challenging step of the whole process, traditionally requiring hours of hand-hammering.
His contribution, offered freely, attests to his generosity and benevolence within the handpan art form. I recently visited Colin Foulke as part of The Handpan Podcast and recorded a two-parter series with him which you can listen below.