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What Is the Difference Between a Steel Tongue Drum and a Handpan?

If you’re new to the handpan you may be feeling a bit lost. Searching through the endless variations of handpans, and handpan-style percussion instruments, can be challenging. Trust me, I’ve been there!

By this point, I’m sure you have seen one of the most popular handpan alternatives, the Steel Tongue Drum. So what is a steel tongue drum? Is a steel tongue drum considered a handpan? And should you buy a steel tongue drum, or hold out for a handpan instead?


In a Sentence: The main difference between steel tongue drums and handpans is how they produce sound. Handpans create sound from hammered indentations in their surface whereas steel tongue drums produce sound from slits or “tongues” cut into the body of the instrument.


What is a Steel Tongue Drum?

While the steel tongue drum is a relatively new creation in the world of percussion instruments, tongue drums or “slit drums” actually date back hundreds of years, and have been used throughout several music cultures. The steel tongue drum we know today is largely inspired by its idiophone cousin–the handpan. Just like the handpan, the steel tongue drum is typically built in a diatonic scale (meaning that you can only play in one key) and its notes are often arranged in the same circular zig-zag pattern. Unlike the handpan, the steel tongue drum produces its sound through cuts made in the body of the instrument called “tongues”. Steel tongue drums can also be played with the hands, however, some may sound the best when played with mallets. Steel tongue drums can vary wildly in shape, size, color, and note layout and often can be tuned with or without overtones. (Most steel tongue drums with tuned overtones will have multiple cuts in a single tongue.) In general, steel tongue drums are simpler to make than handpans and can typically be produced with a high rate of speed and consistency. Because of this, steel tongue drums are usually less expensive than handpans.

Let’s review! Steel Tongue Drums are:

  • Typically tuned to a diatonic scale

  • Pitches are produced from slits or “tongues” cut into the body of the instrument

  • May or may not have tuned overtone pitches

  • Usually smaller in size than a handpan

  • Often played with mallets

  • Usually less expensive than handpans

  • Typical price range from $100 - $900

A steel tongue drum made by MAG Instruments.


What is a Handpan?

On the other end of our spectrum is the handpan. The handpan, unlike the steel tongue drum, produces its tones from hammered indentations in its surface called “tonefields” and does not have any cuts in its top shell. Handpans are almost always larger than steel tongue drums and are typically louder. The design of the handpan has become much more standardized than the steel tongue drum and all handpans are tuned with the same overtones in each pitch. (Octave and compound fifth harmonics.)

Since handpan building is quite complicated, and the tuning process is not nearly as automatable as with steel tongue drums, handpans often will be a bit more expensive than steel tongue drums.

Let’s review! Handpans are:

  • Typically tuned to a diatonic scale

  • Pitches are produced from hammered indentations called “tonefields”

  • Every note is tuned with octave and compound fifth harmonics

  • Larger than steel tongue drums

  • Usually more expensive than steel tongue drums

  • Typical price range from $1,500 - $3,000

A handpan made by MAG Instruments.


Should I Buy a Steel Tongue Drum or a Handpan?

When debating whether you should buy a steel tongue drum or a handpan it’s important to remember that these are two very different instruments. Although in function they are similar, the sound and playing experience of steel tongue drums and handpans are quite different. My advice is this: While steel tongue drums can be significantly less expensive than handpans I wouldn’t recommend you buy a steel tongue drum if your heart is set on having a handpan. Although the lower price of steel tongue drums may be appealing for handpan-hungry buyers to get playing something quickly. I think it’s generally a better idea to save those funds for the purchase of a handpan. While it may take longer to save a bit more, if your heart is truly set on getting a handpan, then that’s what you should get!

However, if you just love the unique sound of the steel tongue drum then, obviously, get a steel tongue drum! The lower prices, more compact size, and durability of steel tongue drums make them a compelling purchase. I definitely think they are worth owning. If you do decide to buy a steel tongue drum, buy it on its own merits, and just don’t expect it to be a handpan.


Benefits of Buying a Steel Tongue Drum

  • Smaller and easier to travel with

  • Less expensive

  • Don’t typically need to be re-tuned

Benefits of Buying a Handpan

  • Louder than steel tongue drums

  • “Smoother” or “Rounder” sound

  • Generally more versatile


Ultimately, both the steel tongue drum and the handpan are unique and fascinating instruments each with their own special characteristics. Both are wonderfully fun and enjoyable to play and could make a great addition to any instrument collection!

Do you know we have both steel tongue drums for sale AND handpans for sale here at Planet Handpan? Head to thePlanet Handpan marketplace to see our full collection!

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