5 Key Features Of A Great Cajon: Learn the Secrets (Part 1)

51CAJ100 Leiva Zoco Cajon

In this first of two posts, I look at 5 key areas (& dispel a few myths) to help you understand what makes a great cajon & where you can start looking to find oneso that you can make the right choice on which cajon is best for you.

As we saw in my post on History of the Cajon, a cajon, as it its name literally translates, is a box.  When I talk about ‘a cajon’ in this article, I am referring to the instruments that originated in Peru.  There are also cajon box drums from Cuba & Mexico which have a different shape & are played in a different way.

1. MYTH BUSTER

First, Let Me Start With A Myth:  The cajon is a simple instrument & therefore, ‘All cajons are equal.’  After all, they are only a box with some snares inside: surely they all sound the same?

Nothing could be further from the truth!

Just like a guitar (effectively a resonating box) every aspect of manufacture, from materials used, to dimensions, to position of sound hole, thickness of materials, how it is put together etc etc, will change how a cajon sounds.

In fact, if you take 10 cajons of the same model, made by the same manufacturer, put them side & play them, they will each sound different!

This is why I want to try every cajon personally before I send it to my customers:

If I play a cajon & think, “That sounds nice!” it goes straight back in the box.

If I think, “Wow! I would love to play this!” then it is a possible choice.

Just picking up a sealed box & sending it is not an option for me.

Please never underestimate the importance of listening to a cajon before you buy it. If you can’t do it yourself, get someone to choose one for you who knows what they are listening for.  And remember, not everyone who sells cajons knows very much about them.

Like any other musical instrument, cajons are individuals, each with its own character.

(I’ll show you the same process I use so that you can choose your own cajon in a future post).

Okay, having covered that important fact, let’s now look at the cajon & understand why they are different.  When I’ve finished, you will know what makes a great cajon.

2. WHAT IS A GREAT CAJON?

In my opinion, an instrument that grabs people’s attention when you play it, sounds great in any musical setting & which makes you want to play more.

A great cajon should have excellent separation (you can clearly hear the difference) between the deep, bass tones & the high tones. If snares are present they should enhance the sound & separation, not get in the way or clutter-up the sound.

We each have a personal preference: some like a big, solid bass tone whilst others like a more subtle tone. Some prefer a looser snare sound with more buzz whilst others prefer a tighter, funkier sound.

Some prefer no snare sound at all.

There  are cajons to suit everyone; the real secret is knowing how to find one that suits you.

3. A WORD ON CAJON MANUFACTURERS

In my opinion the sounds produced by the instrument are MUCH more important than the name on the front, back or side!

That said, a number of ‘high profile’ drum & percussion brands make cajons which buyers flock to because they are well known & carry the all important branding. DO NOT BE FOOLED!  Many of these big names manufacture in the Far East where workers know nothing about the instruments they are building & the materials used are inferior in the sounds they produce.

They are well made but just don’t ‘cut it’ when compared to smaller, lesser-known, manufacturers with much smaller advertising budgets.

Having tried many cajons made by the big names, I honestly conclude that they are not worth anywhere near the money they charge. Many produce a dull, boxy, indistinct sound with a profusion of mid-tones that just get in the way & reduce separation between the high & low tones. The result is an ill-defined sound, that lacks projection in the music & is frequently accompanied by an uncontrolled snare buzz.

They have an advantage that they are selling to a market which, in the majority, does not understand what it wants, so will buy anything because they mistakenly think that a cajon is just a box so they must all sound the same. (See Part 1 above) … or they see their musical heroes playing instruments with the logo of a big name manufacturer on the front (forgetting that these companies have huge marketing budgets) & the cajons will only ever be heard mic’d-up: sure they sound good mic’d up, but so does a cardboard box (I once used a cardboard box in a recording as a bass drum & it sounded ace!

My advice is be prepared to shop around & try some of the lesser-know brands, especially those of Spanish origin which are built on a true cajon pedigree & heritage.

KEY ADVICE CHOICE & MANUFACTURERS:  Always go by sound not by name. Try cajons wherever possible or use someone you trust & who knows what they are listening for to help you select a good cajon for you. In my experience, few music shop assistants know very much about cajons.

4. CAJON ‘STANDARD’ SIZES

Cajons come in all shapes & sizes, but the traditional cajon is a box whose height is about 1.5-times its width & depth, with a hole at the back to let out the sound (especially bass tones) & a thin front tapa playing face.

Traditional-shaped cajons are approximately 12-inches (30cm) Wide x 18-inches (45cm) High x 12-inches (30cm) Deep, front to back.

Bass Cajons are considerably larger (in order to produce a deeper sound) whose dimensions are usually around 20-inches (50cm) Wide x 19-inches (47.5cm) High x 12-inches (30cm) Deep, front to back.

(Please be aware that even ‘standard’ dimensions do vary by manufacturer & by model).

5. CAJON CONSTRUCTION

The top, sides & base of a cajon are usually thicker than the front & back.

The best cajons use marine ply which is very strong & durable.  Materials vary, but harder, more ‘sonic’ woods such as birch are the mainstay of most manufacturers. Again, there are always exceptions to the rule: one manufacturer makes an ‘eco-friendly’ cajon using a pine body construction & it lacks nothing when it comes to sound, which once again demonstrates that a good pair of ears are the most valuable tool we have when choosing a cajon.

NB. Beware of cajon manufacturers who use non-descript or softer woods like rubberwood as these produce a host of mid-frequencies that can get in the way & make a cajon sound dull or instinct.

Thickness of materials used is a matter of personal choice by individual manufacturers. In general, thinner materials for the body are more resonant so produce a more ‘open’ or prolonged sound whilst thicker materials are less resonant at normal playing volumes. 12mm marine play is a good starting point.

However, one manufacturer I have spoken to also use 10mm birch marine ply because they feel it opens up the sound & gives a bigger bass tone & better separation …

… whilst another uses 18mm thick birch marine ply because they feel that for their cajons it gives more focus & punch to the sound.

Both of these cajons sound great.

Some independent or smaller manufacturers make cajons from solid hardwoods like oak, but these can be brittle & split if dropped or knocked hard, such as when being carried or transported.

The back of the cajon is often slightly thinner with a hole cut in to allow the air & bass tones to escape. Size of this hole varies, as does its location: some cajons the the hole towards the top & others towards the bottom of the rear face. The front (Tapa/Top) face is much more variable in design, colour, material & thickness. The tapa face construction influences the overall sound of the cajon much more than many realise. It is often thinner, denser, harder materials that give superior high & slap tone (more about this later).

Joints between the sides are critical when it comes to durability & quality of sound. Many manufacturers use a simple lap joint or a rebated joint. Some handmade cajons use dovetail joints. Internal reinforcing of joints will prolong the life of the cajon & make it more stable & less likely to become distorted or out of shape.

All manufacturers will give the cajon some kind of feet or pins. These not only make the drum more stable & less prone to sliding when being played but they also isolate the cajon body from the floor, increasing resonance & producing a deeper, more rounded bass tone. The feet may be made from felt, rubber, plastic or simply be metal points or spikes (though the latter are rarely used & not good for solid floors).

KEY ADVICE ON CONSTRUCTION: Always ensure that the cajon you wish to buy is well constructed. Cheapest is sometimes false economy as cheaply-made cajons rarely last as long or perform as well as their more expensive counterparts.  

In every situation, a good pair of ears are key to a good choice.

A WORD OF ENCOURAGEMENT: Setting-up a cajon is likely to be the only time that you, as a percussionist, will be ready quicker than a brass player 🙂

I hope you found this Introduction to the cajon useful & you have strated to grasp an understanding of these fascinating & highly versatile instruments.  I am always very happy to answer questions & hear comments on your own experiences.

In the next post we will look in detail at 5 key cajon features that will help you choose a great cajon that is the best one for you & the music you play.

In the meantime, if you want to learn more, why not look at the pages on the Waywood Music & Cajon Expert web sites.

Until next time …

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