Powerful, portable, and possessing an assortment of timbres, the simple cajon is well-suited to a variety of musical settings. Capable of producing thumping bass tones along with crackling highs, the cajon can convey the impression of a drum set in a box. Although the instrument can function in a full rhythm section alongside a drum set, it is especially effective in a more intimate setting with a sparse instrumental texture.
Rooted in the traditions of “found sound,” the cajon originated in South America with the practice of drumming on a box or drawer. It is easy to imagine how a simple crate could be used as a makeshift drum and eventually evolve into a recognized, commercially-manufactured percussion instrument. The basic cajon of today retains its traditional box shape but with a sound hole in the back
Cajons come in two basic types: flamenco and traditional (also called Peruvian).
The flamenco-style instrument includes cords or snares which rest against the rear of the front plate (main playing surface). When this panel is struck, the cords/snares vibrate against the wood to add a snare-like buzz to the tone.
The traditional version (without the snare device) produces the old-school “box” sound.
Which type of cajon is right for you? It comes down to a matter of personal taste. My first cajon was a traditional instrument, but eventually I invested in a flamenco box. Nowadays my traditional instrument is used primarily for my solo shows while the snare-equipped cajon is my choice for ensemble work.
It is possible to have both types in one cajon. Some companies are producing adjustable snare cajons with the ability to change the snare tension against the front plate or completely turn off the snares. Check out the Echoslap Adjustable Snare Cajon from CNZ Audio, the LP Adjustable Cajon, and the Snarecraft series from Meinl.
You can begin playing your cajon right after you take it out of its box. However, there are a couple of minor adjustments that I recommend:
The top corners of the front plate are used for the “slap tone.” A small tweak will “soup up your slap.” The front plate of the cajon is usually attached with screws. Remove the screws in the top corner areas so that a gap is created between the front plate top corners and the side panels. I suggest using tape to attach the screws to the inside floor of the box in case you need them later. (I doubt you will.) This slight gap will allow for a better slap tone. Try inserting thin card stock to increase the gap. Check out my video tutorial on this little cajon hack.
Cut a piece of foam rubber that will fit the inside floor of the cajon. Experiment with the foam rubber and observe how it affects the tone. This pad can assist in absorbing unwanted frequencies and muffling nonessential ringing–especially when miking. If you use a microphone inside the cajon, the foam rubber provides a soft surface for mike placement. The foam rubber pad is lightweight along with being easy to install or remove.
Cajon Tones: The Basics
The cajon can produce a wide spectrum of timbres. Focus first on the two basic sounds: the bass tone and the slap.
Sit comfortably on the cajon. The front plate is facing forward. Your legs should be spread so that you have full access to the front plate.
Play the bass tone by striking the center area of the front plate with your palm. Experiment with how much force to apply to bring out the bass frequencies. Think about moving the air inside the box when you strike. Try producing even-volume bass tones between the right hand and the left hand. After gaining proficiency with the flat palm, use a cupped palm to play the bass tone. You will hear a slight difference between the two methods; the flat palm will deliver more attack and the cupped palm will produce a “rounded” sound. Master both techniques.
The slap tone can be played on either of the top corners of the front plate. Use a relaxed open hand and keep your fingers together. Strike a front plate corner with the front area of the fingers (see photo). Do not use the palm. With the correct amount of force, you will hear a slap. Practice so that you gain control of equal volume slaps between the two hands. Use the video referenced earlier to hear examples of the slap tone.
In most playing situations, you will bring your hand off the cajon immediately after striking, but invest some practice time in learning to keep your hand in contact with the front plate momentarily after striking.
The exercise below should be practiced in 4/4 time with the notated hand permutations. Work for consistent bass and slap sounds. After mastery in 4/4, try playing the exercise in cut time.
Experiment with the cajon to discover more timbres for your sound palette. Knuckles, fists, fingernails, wire brushes, and bundled dowels can all be used to produce tone colors.
Although highly-skilled players are capable of jaw-dropping technical feats on cajon, most worship music can be accompanied with simple patterns on this user-friendly instrument. Develop the basic tones on your cajon and be ready to dive deeper with the next issue.