Steel // Drums

What I've learned about tonal percussions


Edited on 2019-04-03 at 19:59:10

The original.

Also known as steel drums or pans, they have a long history that goes back to freed slaves descendants from Trinidad and Tobago. After riots on the islands in the 1880s, African percussions were banned, leading to their replacement with bamboo sticks, which were later also banned. Percussions being an important part of the islands culture, they kept evolving over the years.

In the 1930s, percussion bands were using domestic items such as spoons and gin bottles, frying pans or dustbins. Steelpans appeared a bit later, made from 55 gallon industrial drums (hence the "steel drum" name referring to the container). They were popularized around the world by the United States Navy who arrived on Trinidad in 1941.

In fact, steelpans are not drums because they don't belong to the membranophones family. They are idiophones, meaning they create sound by the whole instrument vibrating.

Steelpans have a concave shape and are played on the "inside" with mallets. The instrument is tuned by carefully hammering its different parts, and notes are produced depending on which part the mallet hit.

The Hang

Edited on 2019-04-03 at 21:56:10

The mythical.

The Hang was created in 2000 in Bern, Switzerland, by PANArt Hang Manufacturing Ltd., also known as Felix Rohner and Sabina Schärer. PANArt was initially in the steelpans business, and came up with the idea thanks to Reto Weber, a travelling percussionist who suggested the concept of a "sounding pot in steel with some notes to play with the hands".

There's no such thing as hang drums. A Hang is not a drum. It's a kind of double steelpan assembled in a convex shape and designed to be played with the hands ("Hang" means "hand" and "landscape" in the local Swiss dialect). PANArt strongly disapproves the use of the term "hang drum", not only because it's a misnomer, but also because "Hang" is their registered trademark.

The Hang is known for two things: its unique, beautiful sound, and the time-consuming, costly and complex process to get one, that required at some point to send a motivation letter to PANArt, and wait. Its production has been discontinued in December 2013, which increased even more the demand for an already rare instrument.

I highly recommend watching this documentary for an insight on the genesis of the Hang.


Edited on 2019-04-03 at 22:08:37

The family.

Handpans is a generic term for instruments that were inspired by the Hang and use the same principles. As the name implies, handpans are meant to be played with hands. It was coined by Pantheon Steel, who was among the first to produce their own version of the Hang.

It's important to note that steel tongue drums can also be played with hands, and that the bigger ones can look a lot like to handpans, so the frontier between handpans and steel tongue drums is sometimes thin. Instruments such as the Rav Vast or the Pulsar, while using slit metal "tongues", are a good examples of this kind of hybrid design.

However, while large, high-quality steel tongue drums usually stay under the one thousand dollars mark, handpans are still more expansive and easily reach at least twice this price. They're harder to build and tune, require finer materials, and are also more fragile.

Steel tongue drums

Edited on 2019-04-03 at 22:10:21

The offsprings: tank drums, hank drums, slit drums, butadrums, UFO drums, whateverdrums...

The term "hank drum" was coined by Dennis Havlena in 2007, after "hang" and "tank". His goal was to create a much cheaper and affordable instrument than the Hang, that would produce similar sounds. He built his drum with an actual propane tank, hence the name "tank drum". But while many makers have kept this approach, others use their own materials and techniques, so this term can be a misnomer.

There are many different tongue drums on the market, from tiny and cheap instruments made with propane tanks to high end, large drums that can look and sound a lot like the Hang, or within a league of their own. Some are built by hand, others by industrial processes. Steel tongue drums are made all over the world, and price and quality can vary a lot.

The market is also quite diverse. Professional and hobbyist musicians use steel tongue drums, but anyone can also enjoy them for relaxation, meditation or music therapy purposes. One should note that it's pretty easy to find cheap and low-quality instruments on various e-commerce websites marketed for these purposes.

Things get even more complicated when tongue drums makers decide to name them differently to set themselves apart and build their brand, not to mention that makers can also build handpans... Last but not least, we shouldn't forget that tongue drums made of wood also exist, even if they look and sound very different.