Over the years I have given out tons of advice to would-be handpan players on how to find a high-quality handpan that they are sure to love. After all, that is the goal, right?
After a lifetime of playing the handpan, I know what to look for in a good handpan, but what about the other end of the spectrum? What about the red flags, the tip-offs, and warning signs that you might be getting ripped off? If you’re a handpan newbie, spotting a low-quality handpan might not be easy especially if you haven’t developed an ear for this instrument yet. That’s why today we’re looking at the 10 signs that you're about to buy a terrible handpan!
Sign #1. It comes with mallets
Ahh yes, mallets. The calling card of nearly every terrible handpan out there today. While it should be obvious from the name, HANDpans are supposed to be played with, you guessed it… your hands! Will the handpan police come and get you if anything but skin touches your handpan? Certainly not. But with that said using anything other than our hands on the handpan should be for a very specific reason, perhaps you're looking for a unique sound or maybe accommodating for a physical disability. Otherwise, 99% of the time you’ll need nothing but your own two hands to play. No reputable handpan builder I know of sells their instruments including mallets, so if you ever see a handpan that comes with included mallets, run!
Sign #2. It comes with gimmicky accessories
Just like with mallets, most high-quality handpans don’t come with anything but the handpan itself and perhaps a carrying case or cleaning cloth. If you see a handpan that is advertised to include things like a camping stool (often labeled as a “handpan stand”), gloves, finger covers, or any other silly accessories this is typically a sign of a sub-par instrument that needs to market gimmicky free extras to create a false sense of purchase value.
Sign #3. It’s difficult to find a video or there are no videos of the exact handpan model
If you find yourself in a situation where it’s difficult to find a video of an advertised handpan, or the provided video seems suspicious (e.g. the photos and videos are not matching up, the video is from a different handpan builder or taken from an unrelated handpan artist, etc.) then it is time to look elsewhere. Any serious handpan builder/seller will make sure that the videos of their instruments are both high quality and easily accessible to the customer. In addition, always make sure that the listed video is of the exact instrument model and scale you are planning to purchase, if not the exact handpan itself.
Sign #4. The English is not very good
Before I explain this point I want to take a moment to say that there are more handpans than ever before being built around the world and an increasing number being produced in non-English speaking countries. This is a great thing! While the quality of this new wave of handpans can definitely vary (and vary widely at that) I personally have played several handpans built in non-English speaking countries that have thoroughly impressed me! With that said, seeing handpans advertised for sale in broken and many times indecipherable English should be an immediate red flag. To be clear, this is not because this is indicative of a company that does not speak English as a first language, it is because it is indicative of a company that does not have the care or attention to detail enough to bother with a proper English translation on their website. If you find yourself struggling to decipher the words on a website or outright laughing at the mistranslations it is probably time to look at some other handpan builders.
Sign #5. It is purchased through a retailer that sells more than just handpans
While it has become easier than ever before to get your hands on a handpan it has also become easier than ever to get ripped off with a low-quality instrument. Still to this day, most high-quality handpan builders craft their instruments in small batches and oftentimes still have waiting lists and occasionally sell out of handpans altogether. A true handpan mastercraftsman prioritizes quality over production speed, so finding a great instrument may require a little patience. This fact has created a dichotomy in the handpan world where most handpan artisans sell in small quantities either independently or through few select partners while companies with production speed as their number one goal have taken to big box online distributors in droves in an attempt to unload their products as fast as possible. As a general rule, if you find yourself about to purchase a handpan through the same website where you could order tennis shoes, jewelry, or a new guitar, you may want to reconsider.
Sign #6. It is referred to as a “Drum”
To keep this one simple; handpans are not drums. They are percussion instruments, yes, but they are not drums. No legitimate handpan builder refers to their instruments as “handpan drums” or “hang drums”, so if you see these terms being thrown around it’s likely you're looking in the wrong places.
Sign #7. There are color options (say no to paint)
With most handpans, the color of the instrument comes from a combination of the shell material, the heat treating/firing/nitriding process, and polishing or other shell treatment. All of these processes which affect the color are done as a way to change the nature of the shell and create the best-sounding handpan possible. Because of this, most handpan builders have little control over the final color of their handpans. Changing the color of the shell, whether it’s through firing, painting, or some other method will generally have a dramatic effect on the sound of the handpan. If you see a handpan that is advertised with multiple color options this usually means that the handpan builder is sacrificing the sound of the instrument in favor of catching customers' attention with eye-popping and unusual colors. Remember, the most important element of a handpan is its sound, so don’t get too hung up on finding one that has an unusual or flashy color.
Sign #8. The price is suspiciously low
It’s true, as more and more handpan builders enter the market the price for beginner handpans has been on a steady decline. However, even the most affordable handpans are still far from cheap. If you see a handpan with a price that is too good to be true, it unfortunately probably is. If you’re on a tight budget you should definitely keep an eye out for good deals. But if you see an instrument that seems priced significantly lower than other prices you have been seeing, you should be extra careful and extra scrutinous of the handpan’s quality.
Sign #9. The scale is not listed / Important details are missing
Handpan builders and players are big nerds! (I can say this because I am one!) And most builders/sellers are eager to brag about all of the cool details of their newest handpans. Whether it’s the scale name, the scale type, the material, the layout, or anything else you should easily be able to find this information in abundance when buying a handpan. Any handpan listed with missing or incorrect information should set off alarms in your head. At the very least if finding the scale name, the notes, or the shell material is difficult, it’s time to walk away.
Sign #10. There is no brand name
While the handpan world hasn’t quite reached the level of brand power of Louis Vuitton handbags, having an instrument built by a trusted brand is important. If I’m grocery shopping, I certainly don’t mind saving an extra $1.50 by buying the no-brand “Pop-Tarts”, but when it comes to handpans, that’s not the case.
Take these words to the wise. If you watch for these red flags you are almost certain to end up avoiding the most egregious handpan ripoffs out there. Just remember, above all be patient and trust your gut. Finding the right handpan for you will be well worth all of the wait and effort.
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