A few years ago, during a visit to continental Europe, I was taking an evening walk through the centre of Madrid and heard some wonderful live music coming from the distance. It sounded almost like a full band – a singer, a guitarist, and a drummer. I navigated towards the buskers, and after getting a bit closer I could see that there was no drum kit – just a young man sitting on a box, tapping it with his hands.
“Great!” I thought, “This must be some new kind of sample playback instrument, whereby tapping different areas on the outside of the box triggers the built in sound samples. I bet they are expensive, but I’d love to play with one!” You can imagine how silly I felt when I got home and found out what this actually was.
The Cajon (correctly pronounced Ka-Hon), in its most common form, is an acoustic percussion instrument. It contains no electronic parts – in fact, there is very little inside it at all.
The instrument originates from Peru, with its name translating literally to box or crate – and it is just that: a hollow box made from wood. It is designed for sitting on, with its height generally around seat level. Whilst the top, bottom, back and sides are traditionally made from a stronger solid wood, the front panel (which the player strikes) is often made of a thinner, less dense material, such as plywood. The sound hole is most commonly on the back panel. Wood bracing is often used inside the cajon to support the structure.
For most, this basic design is all that is required to start playing. One can play rhythms with their hands on the front of the cajon and on the side panels if that gives a good sound too.
Generally, hitting the front of the cajon near to the top edge will give you higher pitched sounds. Some equate this to the “snare” sound from a drum kit, although experimenting by hitting different areas around the top half of the cajon can allow you to find a few different sounds as well.
Striking the front of the cajon a little nearer to the centre will give you a lower, bassier sound. In the same way, this is most often equated to a kick drum sound. These effects allow would-be drummers to replicate the drum beats they would normally play on a full kit.
This is also an excellent instrument for percussionists who do not play a standard kit. In fact, anyone who regularly has drum beats running through their head, or finds themself endlessly tapping rhythms onto furniture around them, would most likely find themselves addicted to the cajon.
There are a variety of hand techniques that can be used to achieve different or altered sounds, such as cupping the palm or striking with the knuckles. There is also no reason to limit yourself to using your hands – many also use drumsticks and beaters to achieve the sound they want.
A number of modifications can be and have been made to the basic cajon design.
One of the most common and simple modifications is the addition of bells to the frame behind the front panel.
Another popular modification is the addition of guitar strings or snare wires to the inside front of the cajon. Snare wires are especially popular because one can create a sound that is close to that of a snare drum whilst still retaining the sound characteristics of the cajon. Some people adapt these drums so that the snare wires can be tuned or even disabled completely.
This general idea of altering the cajon opens up a whole world of possibilities for modifications. However, the basic traditional cajon design that has been used for centuries is in many ways perfect in itself, and many will argue that it does not need any modification to sound great.
The Cajon is great for street busking and street performances, live stage performances, studio recording, and for amusing yourself at home. As a relatively large drum, it creates quite a loud sound, which would easily fill an average sized room in your home, or a small music venue. For larger venues, and for recording, the cajon can easily be used with a microphone. Your microphone of choice can be placed at the back of the cajon near the sound hole, at the front of the cajon near to the front panel, or both – whichever sounds best for you.
At Normans we sell a number of Cajons ranging from £55 to £105. For more information or to purchase one of these, you can visit www.normans.co.uk or give us a call on 01283 535 333.