Updated: Feb 25, 2020
After years of watching, listening, and perhaps even mildly obsessing over the handpan you’ve decided to pull the trigger and get one of your very own! But where do you even begin? Nitrided steel? Stainless steel? Kurd? Hijaz? SaByeD? How much should I spend? Am I getting ripped off? If you are feeling a bit confused and overwhelmed, then this article is the one for you. Here I will walk you through the five simple steps to make sure you end up with a handpan that’s exactly what you’re looking for.
Let’s dive in.
Step 1: Find a handpan that’s built well
Before we dive into the nitty gritty of the different traits, we can choose from, we need to find an instrument that’s built and tuned correctly. This is our first step because if your handpan is not built or tuned properly the following steps won’t make much of a difference in the quality of your instrument. Typically, every handpan should be built with octave and compound fifth harmonics tuned to each note and should be stable enough to withstand reasonable playing force.
Here are a few ways to know if a handpan is high quality:
Watch online videos to hear the handpans tuning quality and tone
Look for reviews from players and customers
Inquire with other handpan fanatics online for feedback
To learn more about what makes a good handpan check out:
Step 2: Choose a scale that fits you
Now that we’ve found a high-quality instrument, we need to decide what scale our handpan will be tuned to. Since handpans aren’t chromatic instruments (like a piano) choosing the scale is an extremely important and personal decision since you’ll be bound to the limits of your chosen scale. We can divide the most common handpan scales into three main categories.
These scales are arguably the most used in western music. The major scale is often described as happy, bright, or uplifting sounding.
Common major scale derived handpan sound models include:
Natural Minor Scales
On the opposite end of our scale spectrum we have the natural minor scales. Natural minor scales are often considered dark, sad, or mysterious sounding.
Common minor scale derived handpan sound models include:
If a handpan is not based on either the major or natural minor scale it will most likely fall into the category I call “Exotic” scales. These handpans are not based on the traditional major/minor harmonies most common in popular music but instead are often derived from modes or the harmonic minor scale. These scales often sound stereotypically exotic, foreign, or just unusual.
Common “Exotic” scale handpan sound models include:
Listen to as many recordings of various handpan scales as you can to get a feel for what you like, making sure to take note of these scales. There is no one correct way to choose your preferred handpan scale, you just have to follow your intuition.
To learn more about how to choose a handpan scale check out:
Step 3: Choose your steel
Great, so now that we have a list of high quality handpans and scales we like, we can choose the type of steel. What??? Choose the steel? You mean it’s not all the same??? Indeed, it is not. Much like how different guitars can be made from different woods, handpans can be made from different steels. Each type of steel has its own unique qualities that make it distinct. Let’s take a look at the main three.
Nitrided steel is steel that has undergone a heat treatment process that can create rust resistance, altered tone, and altered sustain. Nitrided steel is known for its crisp percussive quality that can be beneficial for faster or more percussive players.
Raw steel is just that: raw. While most raw steel handpans still go through a “firing” process in their creation, they do not receive the same treatment as their nitrided steel counterparts. Raw steel instruments are often a bit less dry sounding than nitrided steel instruments but may be slightly more susceptible to corrosion.
Lastly, we have stainless steel. Stainless steel is the most corrosion resistant of our three materials and is marked by its distinct gold to bronze color. Stainless steel instruments are infamous for having a long and rich sustain with a naturally warm tone.
There is not one true winner of these materials, each is distinct and certain handpans and scales will sound best on each. Just as before, the best way to find the steel that best suits your taste is to listen to and watch as many recordings as you can find.
Step 4: Choose your number of notes / layout
We’re almost there! But we’re not done yet! Next, we need to decide how many notes we want on our instrument and how we want them laid out. Let’s say we want a “Kurd” scale. Great! Should it have 8 tone fields or 9? Maybe even one or two “mutant” notes on top, or perhaps even a few extra notes on the bottom? Should our tone circle be in the traditional (right-handed) layout, or reverse (left-handed)?
Our options here can get quite overwhelming so to keep things concise I would advise the following: If you want to have a special layout (extra notes, bottom notes, nontraditional layout, etc.) make sure to consult with your handpan builder about this. They’ll be able to offer you some insight into your options and suggest what might be your best choice. If this is too far over your head, I would generally advise to keep it simple.
You’ll discover (especially as a beginner player) that 7 or 8 tonefields are more than enough to keep you busy. If you decide you want something more…you can always buy more handpans!
Bonus Tip: Make sure to pay attention to the instrument’s size. A larger handpan may be too large to rest in your lap so you might need to use a stand.
Step 5: Don’t get ripped off
My final and most important step: DON’T. GET. RIPPED. OFF.
The handpan artform has come a long way from its humble origins and now buying a handpan is easier than it’s ever been. Unfortunately, getting ripped off is just as easy.
Here are a few quick tips to help you avoid being a victim to a handpan scam:
Always get a recording of the instrument you plan to purchase prior to purchasing
Always speak directly and clearly with the seller of the handpan prior to purchasing
If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is
To learn more about avoiding handpan scams check out:
I hope this short guide has been helpful and you feel more confident in making the purchase of your very first handpan.
If you haven't already head over to the “Handpans For Sale” page to check out the handpans I currently have available. You might even find the one for you!