What is a Handpan (and why they don’t want you to call it a Hang Drum)?


The handpan or “hang” is a convex steel drum played with the hands and tuned with multiple notes. Each handpan is tuned to a particular scale such as major, natural minor, harmonic minor, hijaz, mixolydian, etc. Sonically the handpan is an overtone-emitting instrument that has the capacity to create many layers of sound and ethereal effects and works very well with drone instruments. Originally called the hang (pronounced “hah-ng”) the handpan was invented in 2001 by a little company in Switzerland. We’ll tell you why you should not call it a “hang drum” in a little bit, but first:

Origin of the Handpan/Hang

In the 1970s the Trinidad steel drum sparked a phenomenon throughout Europe. Felix Rohner had been playing the steel pans for twenty years and by the 1990s, he founded his own company, PanArt, for the creation of these concave instruments. Sabrina Scharer, who would become his long-term business partner, signed on to PanArt shortly after.

A Swiss jazz and steel pan musician, Reto Weber, traveled to India and approached PanArt looking for a way to play the steel drum with his hands, as he had done with the Indian ghatam (clay drum) asking, “Can you make a ghatam with notes?” The inspiration for the Hang and what was later to be called the Handpan was born.

Trinidad Steel Pan - Photo courtesy of cestlavibe.com
Trinidad Steel Pan – Photo courtesy of cestlavibe.com

Felix and Sabrina revolutionized the Trinidad steel drum by flipping a custom hand-hammered metal pan from a concave to a convex position. Each of the seven to eight notes were then made profoundly sensitive to the lightest touch, allowing musicians to play the instrument by hand. The center note of the instrument, referred to as “the ding” bubbles out from the middle while the notes of the musical scale circling around the ding and up the sides of the pan are sunken into the metal as you would see with a traditional Trinidad steel pan, except with an additional dimple in the center of the note.

The tuned convex pan was then sealed together with a powerful adhesive and resonating chamber of thicker steel with an opening in the middle (called the “Gu” that can also be played percussively when the instrument is flipped upside down), creating an aesthetically mysterious UFO shape.

hand pan hang drumFelix and Sabrina called the instrument “the Hang” (pronounced hah-ng), simply meaning, “hand” in their Swiss-German dialect. They took legal rights over the name “Hang” under PanArt. The Hang was officially presented to the public in 2001 in Frankfurt, Germany and instantly the instruments became popular for their beautiful and mysterious tone and unique scales. The desire for the Hang began to grow rapidly. However, Felix and Sabrina approached the Hang as a work of art, not a commodity and refused to mass-produce their creation, making only a limited number each year by hand.

Three PanArt Hangs, the oversized original prototype, and an Indian ghatam at PanArt’s workshop. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Felix and Sabrina introduced a policy where potential Hang customers had to submit a hand-written letter as to why they wanted to purchase the instrument to PanArt. Those who simply visited the PanArt workshop without invitation in Bern, Switzerland were sent home without welcome. PanArt stopped producing the instrument in 2013 to the dismay of thousands in order to preserve the mystique, value, and elusiveness of the instrument. Felix stated, “The Hang is not something to put in a shop window. It belongs to the flow of the gift. This is the idea we would like to be communicated.”

Instrument makers in Europe and the United States began to make their own version of the Hang beginning in 2007 but due to legality, the name “Hang” is limited only to instruments created by PanArt. Thus, the name “handpan” was born, which now refers to any type of “Hang” type steel pan created by a manufacturer other than PanArt.

Photo courtesy of Aoxoa.co

There are still very few handpan makers, roughly less than a hundred in the entire world, making the handpan still extraordinarily difficult to obtain and expensive in comparison to other instruments. Top line makers have waiting lists that can have orders pushed back for years due to the high demand and complexity of making the instrument. However, flash sales occasionally occur on the sites of various makers and second-hand resale of handpans is common.

So why not call it a Hang Drum?

The original makers insist that the title of the instrument be Hang for their brand of hand pan. While the term Hang Drum is commonly used verbally, in writing it is most proper to refer to instruments made by the company Pan Art as simply “hang” and all others as “hand pans”.

Handpan compared to RAV Vast (a beautiful sounding metal tongue drum):

PanArt and Hang documentary:

Handpan v. Hang comparison video:



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Jerry Walsh is a musician and vocalist, weaving together ancient and otherworldly sounds from sacred traditions across the globe and creating shamanic sound journeys. He has collaborated with Merkaba (Kayla Scintilla), SriKala, Native American hip-hop artist Supaman, and American beatbox champion Mark Martin. He has been student of Taino elder, Maestro Manuel Rufino since 2012, studying the indigenous shamanic cultures of the Americas and other wisdom traditions. Jerry has traveled to 30 countries on five continents and spent a full year studying Buddhism and Himalayan culture in India, Nepal, and Bhutan from 2010-2011. He currently lives in Brooklyn, NY with the Golden Drum community when he is not on tour sharing music and meditation with partner, Ixchel Prisma.


  1. I wonder if these could be made with medevil level technology. The sound made by one I saw in a video once is precisely the sound I’d want for the culture of a fantasy world I’m working on. Now my world does have magic, so there’s SOME leyway there, but not much. In order to use magic to make things, you have to understand how things work without it. Otherwise, bad things tend to happen.

      • Why limit yourself in this way? You can’t even get a Hang retuned by PanArt – by now, any Hang that is in tune is so only by the mercy of the (now over 150) other handpan makers in the world. How “authentic” is that?

        As with any instrument, the quality (and price) of handpans varies – but in my opinion, the best makers have surpassed the Hang in any aspect you choose to name. The Hang will always have been the first historically, but that’s more of interest to a collector or museum more than to a performing artist. The evolution of this instrument is unstoppable, and a lot has happened since PanArt chose to withdraw from it years ago.

  2. I think they could. Although most handpan makers do use modern technology, in principle you only need hammers, fire, cutters, glue, and mountains of skill, experience and patience to go from a carbon steel sheet to a handpan. The sheet could perhaps be created with medieval armour-making technology.

    Cheers, lino
    (handpan tuner maker)

    @Jerry stumbled across this looking for a brief intro to handpans. Very balanced and well written, thanks!