In our series on different types of percussion instruments, we have looked at everything from playing the marimba to playing the triangle. However, now, we are going to be looking at an instrument whose history, technique, and use is completely different. That’s the steel hang, a percussion instrument characterised by its round, shell-like shape, its mesmerising, hypnotic sound, and the fact that it is made in its entirety out of only two pieces of metal. It is quite an incredible instrument – and one that has not yet gained the full attention it deserves. However, you’re most likely to hear it in the street, played by performers from around the world: there are still not a huge number of recording artists in the steel hang. So, if you want to learn an instrument still known, primarily, for its novelty, then you are in the right place. Because we’ll show you not only what this instrument is, but how to get one yourself and then how to develop in the technique. As we said, it is a fascinating and gorgeous instrument. If you haven’t heard one already, get yourself on YouTube. If you are already intrigued, let’s read on.
What is a Steel Hang?
What, then, is a hang? Firstly, it is worth pointing out immediately that it doesn’t – in any sense at all – actually hang. Rather, it is an instrument that you play with it sat in your lap. The word ‘hang’, in the dialect of German spoken in Bern, Switzerland, means both ‘hand’ and ‘hill’ – a combination of senses that nicely describes both the use and shape of this instrument. So, no, it is not something that ‘hangs’ – and nor is it something that we can call a ‘hang drum’, because it is not really a drum in any strict sense either. Rather, the hang is an instrument in the family of idiophones, instruments that consist of blocks of material which vibrates in its entirety to produce the sound. Instruments such as the xylophone, the vibraphone, and the marimba sit in this family too. However, the hang takes this logic to a much more extreme length. The hang is constructed with two round bowl-shaped pieces of metal that are fastened together. The top piece – when the instrument is placed in your lap – has indentations of different sizes hammered into it. The instrument is played by striking those indentations with your hand and fingers – so that different notes are produced through the resonation of the whole instrument. Meanwhile, there is a hole in the lower part that sits between your legs – allowing sound to resonate further and, essentially, to exit the instrument.
A (Really Quite) Brief History of the Steel Hang.
Whilst many of the musical instruments we know are ancient things – whose distant origins are shrouded in mystery – the steel hang is different. This instrument is, actually, far from ancient. Rather, it is very new indeed. The hang was created by two inventors, Felix Rohner and Sabina Scharer – in 2000. And since then, these two, under the company name of PANArt, have created every hang personally in their own workshop in Bern, Switzerland. As you can see, there is not much history to the object. However, what is important to know is that the instrument is built on similar principles to the more familiar steelpan. That, another idiophone, originates from Trinidad and Tobago, and it is one pan-shaped instrument that is struck with mallets. This gives the steelpan a much brighter tone than the hang – but the principles on which the two instruments are based are the same. And Rohner and Scharer did a lot of research on the steelpan before making their instrument. Find out how to play the xylophone!
Are there Different Types of Hang?
Whilst the construction of these instruments is done by the two inventors, there is not just one type of the instrument to choose from – if you are interested in getting one yourself. Rather, the steel hangs come in lots of different sizes and ranges and in different ‘generations’, as PANArt calls them. Whilst the first hang ever made was twenty inches diameter, with a height of nine inches, there are now over fifty different versions of the instrument. They come in different keys, different sizes, and, in some later generations, the two hemispheres of the instrument are integrated into a whole. PANArt have even developed a hang that is strung: with a body in a familiar hang form, but with a guitar-like neck, the instrument combines strings with the percussive essence of the hang.
How You Can Get Your Hands on a Hang.
As we said, the hang is only produced by the Swiss company, PANArt. However, in recent years, they have moved onto different types of musical instruments – and have discontinued the production of the hang. This, obviously, makes a new hang quite difficult to come by. If you are determined to get yourself one of these exceptional instruments, get in touch with PANArt directly. Another option would be to search for a hang second-hand. Head to eBay or Craigslist or check out local listings. Be careful, however. As the instruments are not produced so much anymore – and as they are becoming increasingly famous day by day – the price continues to increase. You can expect these days to pay up to four thousand dollars for a second-hand hang – which might make you think twice about it. And given its price, plenty of scammers lurk around these parts of the internet. However, if you have the money, there is absolutely no shame in forking out for one. Check out our article on playing the tambourine!
Where You Can Hear the Hang.
We said above that one of the best places to hear a steel hang is pretty much by chance, in the street. Hangs remain a favourite instrument of street performers – as there is not yet an established repertoire and audience for the instrument. If you have never had the luck to pass by a hang player in the street, head to YouTube, where you will find hundreds of videos of exactly these kinds of people. However, over recent years, there have been a growing number of recording artists who feature the hang in their performances. Let’s take a look at two of them.
Hang Massive are probably the most famous of the bands that play the hang. Their instrumental, ambient tracks often feature as many as four hangs (played by two people) that allow them to weave together wonderful melodic lines. If you are looking for the rockstars of hang, Hang Massive are the people you need.
Manu Delago is a percussionist and experimental musician who has started to incorporate the hang more and more into his music. Where Hang Massive take a more conventional approach to the instrument – playing it with their hands – Delago combines handwork with mallets, and with other instruments too. This guy shows you what can be achieved with the steel hang.
Some Things to Know about Playing the Steel Hang.
When you are playing the hang, you need to remember that the instrument needs to resonate. And to do this, the opening on the bottom side of the instrument should ideally be unobstructed. Whilst with more sophisticated playing you will be introduced to techniques in which you can open and close this whole, it’s best to keep it open for now. Conventionally, the hang is played with the thumbs of each hand – although, if you are Delago, you will experiment with this – struck into the indentations of the instrument. Luckily enough, there is not strictly any ‘wrong’ note on the hang, as they are usually constructed diatonically.
Where to Find a Steel Hang Teacher.
With the instrument growing in popularity, there are plenty of places where someone can find a hang teacher. One of those places is Superprof, a community of students and tutors from around the world. With nearly ten million tutors teaching in over a thousand different subjects, of course we have hang tutors available. Depending on your location, we have tutors to help you in the hang both in person and online – to help you nail your technique, jam, and find inspiration for future performances. Just get in touch with a tutor to organise a lesson. The majority will give you your first lesson absolutely free!
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