Choosing your first Metal Percussion Instrument: A buyer's guide (by Donna Maurer)
It’s always a good time to learn how to play an instrument, especially if that is something you always wanted to do. Choosing an instrument is a very personal decision, and your learning experience will massively depend on the quality of it.
If you started looking into metal percussions, then you know that there’s an overwhelming number of choices out there, and some of them are better than others. To make things easier, here’s a quick buyer’s guide that will help you understand what your priorities are and what you should pay attention to as you prepare to buy your first metal percussion.
Should I buy in-store or online?
Just like with every instrument, before you buy your steelpan or handpan, you want to hear how different variations of it sound to get a good feel before investing. The tactile nature of metal percussions and their unique sound dictates that you should try them out before buying. The ideal scenario is to visit a musical instrument shop and test the percussions in person to figure out which one you want.
Unfortunately, these instruments aren’t as widely available as pianos, guitars, or violins, so finding them in a standard instrument store can be a challenge, and depending on where you live, sometimes is close to impossible. That’s why people opt to buy their instruments online, which is the easier option but should be approached with caution.
If you decide to buy through untrustworthy vendors, you might get a better price, but the chances of getting a poor-quality product are significant. Most dropshipping websites don’t offer any guarantees on their instruments, usually because they can’t back it up.
That’s why it’s important to put your trust and future music education in trusted vendors. Consider brands like Metal Sounds, known for their Spacedrum® (since 2008), which provide valuable advice, a 2-year guarantee, and real customer service for steel pans, handpans, and steel tongue drums and can actually help you find exactly what you need. That way, you’re certain you’re getting an instrument of the highest quality, along with a two-year guarantee and active customer support, should you ever need it.
Beware of dropshipping websites that sell handpans made in Asia. These often offer poor quality instruments at incredibly low prices, with no warranty or customer service, leaving many customers feeling scammed. Ensuring the legitimacy of the seller is paramount when shopping online.
These might not be the primary factors that come to your mind when considering investing in your next steelpan, but they’re worth your time and attention. Now, let’s talk about the details of choosing the best metal percussion for you.
How to Choose a Handpan
If you’re about to buy your first-ever handpan, there are a few details you should keep in mind before making your decision. This is a unique instrument that will wow you with rich overtones and melodic textures, as well as a wide dynamic range. The feeling of playing a handpan is distinctive because it combines the melodic and percussive elements very well and creates music unlike any other.
Your standard handpan has a 55 cm diameter and a 9-note scale, usually in D minor. Of course, there are other scales you can choose from, but D minor is the most common choice because of its versatility and optimal frequency range. Space Drum, Pantam, and Hang Drum are popular variants.
Handpans are usually made of either stainless steel (ember steel) or nitrided steel . Ember steel, like SpaceDrum Ember Handpan , is for players who prefer bright, clear sound with vibrant overtones and longer sustain.
Nitrided steel handpans have a deeper sound than their stainless cousins, boasting rounded and warm tones. This is thanks to the nitriding process, which gives the handpan a layered and intricate sound.
When it comes to your budget, a high-quality handpan can cost upwards of 1500 euros. While you can find cheaper options, they might skimp on the quality of the materials and sound, so the trade-off is not worth it.
Bear in mind that handpans require maintenance, and they don’t do well in humid climates because they can rust. Do some research to understand how to maintain your handpan and what accessories you need. A carrying case, a stand, gloves, and mallets are all necessities to ensure your handpan serves you well for many years.
How to Choose a Steelpan
Another metal percussion that’s a great fit, whether you’re taking beginner drum lessons (more lessons for beginners: click here) or you’ve already got plenty of experience, is a steelpan. This unique percussion can take the shape of either a steel drum or a barrel with a concave surface. You play the instrument with rubber-tipped mallets.
The surface is divided into a number of different sections, each of which is a complete note, and there can be anywhere from 9-36 notes, depending on the type of steelpan. The playing surface is connected to the body (skirt), which serves as a resonator, and the size depends on the type of the instrument. Speaking of types of steelpan , there are quite a few to choose from.
Tenor pan (lead pan) has a range of high soprano to soprano, usually 29 notes, and has distinctly melodic qualities. This is why it’s often used in solo performances. The variation to this type is a double tenor pan with two pans instead of one and a bigger range of notes.
Double seconds pan covers the range from mid-alto to soprano and has a wide variety of uses. Because it has two pans, it boasts a wider note range; on it, you can play the counterpoint, harmonies, and melodic sections.
Guitar pans are in the alt range and as such, are perfect for rhythmic sections and harmonies. They got the name “guitar pan” because it has similar rhythmic qualities as a guitar, and the best style of play is “strumming.”
You can go for many more steelpan types, including cello pans , different bass pans , and quadraphonic pans .
The price range is directly connected to the type and number of pans, and handcrafted instruments are usually more expensive. Quality tenor pans cost upwards of 1,500 euros; double tenor and guitar pans can go up to 3,000 euros, while bass, cello, and tenor pans can cost up to 4,000 euros.
How to Choose a Steel Tongue Drum
Finally, let’s talk about the steel tongue drum, one that gained a lot of popularity in the past few years. This instrument is an excellent choice for beginner players who want to dedicate their time to creating a deep and meditative musical experience.
A steel tongue drum is made from stainless steel or alloy mixes. It has a rotund shape and a convex polished surface with a varying number of “tongues” on it. The tongues are tuned to create different notes, and you can play them either with your fingers or with mallets for a more crisp and pronounced sound. Playing it with your fingers creates a more intimate atmosphere, which is perfect for meditation and music therapy.
Another advantage of steel tongue drums is that they’re more portable than other metal percussion we mentioned. You can choose between mini versions (around 15 cm in diameter), standard size (which can vary from 20–30 cm), and large steel tongue drums, bigger than the standard version and with a broader melodic range.
There are also different types of tuning to take into consideration. Pentatonic tuning is well-suited for beginners, while diatonic offers a bigger range for more experienced steel tongue drummers. Finally, there’s the chromatic tuning that’s best used by seasoned players.
As for the notes, a steel tongue drum can carry anywhere from 6–13+ notes, depending on the design. When it comes to the price range, it varies with the size and craftsmanship of the instrument so that the cost can be anywhere from 250–1000+ euros.
The list of metal percussion doesn’t end here, but these are the most popular choices for beginner players. Everything from cymbals and bells to gongs, tam-tams, and xylophones are considered metal percussion, so you get to choose what suits you best.
The cost of a quality handpan typically ranges from 1500 to 2500 euros. Be cautious of handpans priced under 1000 euros, as they are often of Chinese origin and may not meet the standards of quality and sound that a genuine handpan should have.
The handpan is a precision instrument where every note must sound in an equal manner. Inferior quality instruments may have uneven tuning or tone quality, negatively affecting your musical experience. Investing in a decent handpan ensures you enjoy a consistent and harmonious sound across all notes.
Nitrided Steel (Nitro) or Stainless Steel (Evolution, Ember, Travel)?
The choice between nitrided steel and stainless steel depends on your sound preferences. Nitrided steel offers a warm and mellow sound with a percussive touch, making it the classic choice for handpan enthusiasts.
On the other hand, stainless steel, also known as Ember steel, produces a bright, powerful sound with rich harmonics, ample volume, and sustain. Instruments like the Spacedrum Ember offer a percussive experience with extended sustain, making them a unique and vibrant choice.
Choosing your first metal percussion instrument doesn’t have to be daunting as long as you do your research and are patient. It’s better to dedicate more time to finding the quality you want than settle for a subpar instrument because that will affect your entire playing experience.
In the world of metal percussion instruments, your choice can shape your musical experience. Take your time, explore your options, and make an informed decision that resonates with your musical aspirations. Your first handpan is not just an instrument; it's a gateway to a world of rhythm, harmony, and self-expression.
Once you find your perfect handpan, steelpan, or cymbal and hear the gorgeous melodic experience it can provide, you’ll know you’ve chosen it well. Happy playing!