In this second part of finding a great cajon for you & your music we look in greater detail at understanding how the different parts contribute to the overall sound of a cajon.
When you have finished reading, along with Part 1, you will be in a great position to choose the best cajon for your needs.
1. CAJON MATERIALS
A key component of a cajon’s sound is the materials from which it is made.
High quality materials are likely to produce a higher quality sound.
Poor, low quality materials will adversely impact the sound of a cajon very significantly.
Cajon bodies made from hardwoods like beech & birch. As mentioned in Part 1, marine ply is commonly used as this is very strong, resistant to splitting & cracking & resonant.
Beech & birch are both excellent in their sound properties & durable.
Birch is a higher density wood, renowned for its broad dynamic range, producing cracking high tones & deep, punchy bass tone (it is used in the manufacture of some high-end drum shells for this reason). It is also considerably more expensive.
Beech is a good wood for cajons, still producing a wide range of tones.
Some manufactures use mahogany or mahogany-type hard woods which are quite strong in bass tones & give good cracking high tones.
Oak is very hard & renowned for its volume & occasionally finds its way into cajon manufacture. It is normally used as a solid timber rather than in a ply construction (see photo below). However, oak is also a brittle wood, is prone to cracking on impact (e.g., if the cajon is accidentally dropped).
The use of softer wood or timbers that produce a lot of mid-tones (or a deficiency of high & low tones), such as rubberwood, result in cajons that produce a fairly dull, uninteresting & indistinct sound. This means that they will not cut through the music or stand-out in the overall mix. Microphones may be used & the sound equalised using a mixing desk, but if you have a great sounding cajon to start with, one does not need to amplify it to sound good & amplification will only enhance the already good sound.
Just occasionally, there are examples that go-against all of the perceptions & expectations. For example, there is at least one manufacturer that makes an ‘eco-friendly’ cajon from pine, a softwood, yet manages to create a really great sound.
Plastics & fibreglass are also used. The can be very strong & durable but they also give a very ‘coloured’ sound which is quite warm & rounded. Their sound is a matter of personal taste. Although some manufacturers claim that cajons made from these plastics are louder, this is of less importance as, if you are playing in a louder band or situation you are also likely be amplified.
KEY ADVICE ON CAJON MATERIALS: Whatever material is used, it should be of high quality & free from defects. Checking the inside of a beautifully polished cajon can be very revealing when it comes to build quality & material quality. As with all ‘rules’ there is no substitute for a good pair of ears to listen to the cajon: if it sounds great, it sounds great, irrespective of how or from what it is made.
2. CAJON TAPA (FRONT – PLAYING) FACE
The tapa or front face of the cajon gets more attention from prospective buyers than any other part, probably because it is the bit that the audience will see.
The design, colour or appearance of the tapa face, or what logo or branding it carries, are largely irrelevant as they are usually only one veneer deep at the most. So a lot of what people seem to worry about most, matters least.
Although designs, finishes etc are important visually, the most important consideration for the tapa face is the fact that is usually the part of the cajon that is played, so the material from which it is made contributes significantly to the overall sound of a cajon.
A good tapa plate is made of more layers of thinner plies to give an overall ‘denser’ material. Beware of tapas comprising fewer, thicker plies as these do not produce such crisp high tones, instead producing more mid-based tones. Typical thickness is around 3-4mm.
Some tapas are made of synthetic materials such as plastic, acrylic or carbon-fibre (see above). Each has its own sound characteristic but the advantage of materials like carbon-fibre is that one can produce thinner tapa faces (around 2mm) that are more sensitive, much stronger & more resonant. However, these are also usually a lot more expensive.
Some manufacturers use screws along all sides of the front tapa head. Others have the tapa glued to around halfway up & then use screws on the top half or third of each side & along the top (see above photo). The difference in sound seems to be very little. The top two screws on either side can be used to adjust the tone of the tapa head & some players slacken these to leave a very small space between the main body & the tapa to add extra click to their high tones.
Some manufacturers use no screws at all, preferring instead to glue the tapa directly onto the body, feeling that this gives thest sound & vibration transmission & therefore, the richest sound.
KEY ADVICE ON THE FRONT (PLAYING) TAPA FACE: The tapa face will be played more than any other part of the cajon & is responsible for a lot of the tone (high & resonance for bass tones). Take time to ensure that it is made of high quality materials. Do not get side-tracked by colour or appearance (other than being happy with the finish). Always check that there is a good separation of high & bass tones when playing the cajon, especially with cheaper models where mid-tones can ‘mask’ both the highs & the lows.
3. CAJON SNARES & SNARE TENSIONING
Cajons may have snares to add some rattle or buzz to the tones. However, some cajons are purpose-built without snares.
The two sound very different: know what you want.
Cajons with snares should produce a controlled buzz with the higher tones & gentle (ghost) strokes & be relatively muted, almost absent when bass tones are played. However, cajons with absolutely no snare buzz when the bas tones are played can sound too dry & boxy & may lack a bit of projection.
In the 1980s when most kit drummers used bass drum pedals with felt beaters, they used to stick a 10 pence/dollar piece to the bass drum head at the point of beater impact. This added a bit of click to the deep sound making it more distinct & enabling it to cut through the music more & be heard.
A bit of buzz of the snare with the bas tones works in a similar way, aiding with projection & helping the cajon to be heard.
Clarification of String cajons & Snare Cajons: Some manufacturers have introduced the terms ‘snare cajon’ & ‘string cajon’ which have added a lot of confusion for customers.
The majority of cajons today use wires or strings to produce their buzz. These are almost universally called ‘snares‘ (see photo above).
Other manufacturers may call these ‘strings‘ because they also use snares which look like the wire brushes used for playing a drum kit, which they also call ‘snares‘ (see above photo).
The simplest way to refer to cajon sounds is using the terms ‘low’ or ‘bass’ & ‘high’ or ‘snare’ & understand that the difference is in how the snare sound is made.
As for differences in sound between the two types of snare arrangements, it is personal choice, made with our ears: If it sounds great to us, that is most of the battle won!
The use of guitar strings is pretty much universal on high quality instruments & many of these have refined mechanisms for tuning/tensioning the snare wires. Some may use tensioning mechanisms which are part of the top or bottom panel of the cajon (see photo above).
Others use tuning knobs situated on the back (see photo above).
Both fulfil the same role: they either tighten the snare wires producing less buzz & a tighter, more funky sound or they slacken the snares, allowing them to buzz more, producing a more ballad, snare-rich sound.
Care should be taken not to over-tighten or over-loosen the snares as this is be detrimental to the sound.
The number of actual snare wires varies by manufacturer & model but typically one or two pairs of wires may be used. Some models use 2, 3 or 4 independently tensioned pairs of snare wires. Although more wires can create more snare rattle or buzz, it is also the tension of the wires that influences how much buzz there is.
The increased number of wires, such as 3 pairs (see above photo), allows more flexibility in control of snare buzz across across the face of the cajon; but these drums are considerably more expensive & probably the difference is only really noticed by an experienced or trained ear.
Some manufacturers address the issue of excessive snare buzz by using diagonal snares across the top corners of the tapa (see photo above). These only vibrate when the top corners of the tapa are played, leaving bass note completely buzz-free. The sound may be a bit too dry for some players but the sound is more reminiscent of the original Peruvian cajons which had no snares. These snares are not adjustable.
Snares On, Snares Off or Choice? The majority of cajons made either have snares that are in contact with the tapa head all-the-time (though as we explained above, their tension can be adjusted) or cajons that have no snare wires. In order to increase flexibility of the cajon, some manufacturers have introduced removable snares which can be either ‘on’ or ‘off’.
Adjustment of these can be simply via a lever or knob on the outside of the cajon or they have to be manually removed, that is, they cannot be removed quickly during a performance.
Once again, choice of removable snares is yours. The advantages include greater flexibility & increased range of tones available from your cajon. The disadvantages can include less consistent snare sound, especially after time when the mechanisms may be loose through wear.
KEY ADVICE ABOUT CAJON SNARES, ADJUSTMENT & TENSION: Flexibility in tensioning snares is available on some models of cajon. Always listen for the sound of the cajon, rather than worrying about how it is made. If you choose a cajon with snare wires (‘strings’) it is always worth checking how easily the snares can be replaced in the (rare) event that one should break as replacement can be lengthy, fiddly & quite a specialised exercise in some cases!
4. THE CAJON SOUND HOLE
The cajon is a box & a box is an enclosed, sealed space.
In order for sound to escape, there must be an exit point for the air that is compressed when the front face is struck to exit. If there is no exit, the drum will produce good high tones but there will be no resonant bass tone.
Cajons use a hole, typically situated at the rear, to allow air to escape & produce a bass tone. The big advantage of a rear sound hole is that if you wish to use a microphone on your cajon you DO NOT have to resort to complex internally mounted microphones & you do not have to worry about knocking the microphone stand etc with your foot when playing.
A sound hole on the back face of the cajon is directly opposite the tapa face so offers the most direct (& therefore rapid) exit of the air from inside the cajon. Exact positioning of the hole varies (again!) by model & manufacturer.
Some have the hole located nearer the top of the rear face (see above photo)
Some have the hole located nearer the bottom (see above photo).
Some cajons use an air-hole located in a side panel which just seems to put everything in your way when using the cajon in an amplified situation.
The arguments for different positions of the sound hole are:
Centre Back – Has more punch & volume at the expense of resonance, producing a quicker, precise note that is great for recording, but may lack the depth of tone that many players love about cajons.
Off Centre – Offer more sustain
Side Hole – Brings the bass tones nearer to the front of the cajon (& hence the audience): more relevant for purely acoustic playing
Optimal position for you depends on personal taste: only you can decide. Use your ears.
KEY ADVICE ABOUT CAJON SOUND HOLES: Ensure that you choose a cajon with a sound hole located in a position that does not interfere with your posture when playing & which does not lead to problems when using microphones for amplification. An off-centre hole will provide more depth to the sound, possibly at the expense of volume (but not enough to make a significant difference).
5. CAJON DESIGN: EXTRAS, MODIFICATIONS & UPDATES
Bells: Some manufacturers add small clusters of bells to a front supporting bar just behind the tapa (see above photo). These sound when the tapa is struck, adding a very high pitch jingle to the high tones & bass tones, which although rarely consciously heard, provide increased ‘cut’ to the sound. They may also be used as an added effect. It is a matter of personal taste whether you like these and the quality/tone of bells varies greatly by manufacturer & model; some are more effective than others. Bells are not fitted by all manufacturers.
Enhanced Bass Response: Some manufacturers add specific extras to their design which boost or enhance bass tones. Some provide a flared sound hole which reputedly acts as a horn or amplifier to give a bigger bass sound. these are usually an integral part of a plastic or fibreglass-bodied cajon. Some may add an addition thick ring of wood (ply or pine) around the inside of the rear sound hole to add more punch to the bass frequencies.
Some cajons have purpose-designed features which enhance bass-to-top tone separation, particularly for use in the recording studio.
This may be achieved through the use of a rear ‘compression-plate’ (see above photo) which covers the rear sound hole, thereby increasing compression & helping to eliminate the high-mid & low-mid tones which contribute to a woody or boxy sound. These mid-tones may also muddy the sound, making high and low tones less distinct.
To allow air to escape, a false bottom is included in the cajon (or the drum is raised off the floor on short legs) & the bottom of the sound chamber is fitted an adjustable sound slot (see above photo). This focuses the bass tones (similar to the reflex bass bin system) producing a more pronounced bass note with less sustain.
These cajons are sophisticated in design (reflected in their price) but can offer a distinct advantage to musicians who spend a lot of their time in the recording studio. They facilitate a good recording source for rapid set-up and EQ (equalisation). They also provide an excellent sound in live situations by virtue of this top-bottom separation & enhanced, clear bass tone.
Cosmetic & Non-Cosmetic Changes: Manufacturers are always looking to improve their products functionally, update their appearance or provide something that fits a niche otherwise unfilled.
An example of cosmetic change is how the appearance of a cajon, especially the logo, changes over time.
Manufacturers may also change specifications of their cajons, such as, how they position, dampen or tension their snares, what type of snare is used, relocation of the sound hole, change in materials from which the cajon is manufactured or change in bass port adjustment.
However, one should also be aware that as brands become established on a good reputation, manufacturers may also be looking to cut costs in manufacturing, perhaps through the use of less reinforcing, cheaper quality components or cheaper quality of wood used. Each of these can have a significant & detrimental effect on the life, sound & reliability of the cajon. We have found that some manufacturers have made such changes resulting in an inferior sounding product. That is why we always recommend listening before you buy: just because a model of cajon sounded good two years ago, never assume it still will. You may be surprised to find that it sounds better, which is great, but you may be disappointed.
Always remember that each cajon will sound different anyway, so it really is up to using your ears or trusting someone to make a good choice for you.
Travel Cajons: These relatively new additions to the cajon stable are designed for the travelling percussionist.
Breaking down into a flat-pack case (see above photo), they are ideal for taking on planes and fitting into small spaces. These can be expensive pieces of kit designed for the professional musician. Their sound is usually superb (as you’d expect for this kind of money you pay) but the balance between portability & cost is an important issue when considering these drums: if portability is a priority for you, that probably justifies the cost.
So there we have it. The minefield that is understanding cajons, hopefully demystified. It can seem bewildering at first & it is always good to enlist the help of someone who knows what they are looking & listening for. Not all cajons are equal. Big name brands can produce sub-standard sounds with little projection & no inspiration. Take your time, ask questions & you will find the right cajon for you.
I hope that this more in-depth review of what is important in determining the sound of a cajon has helped you on your journey to find the best cajon for you (or whomever you are buying it for).
As always, if you have questions please contact me & I will help however I can.
IN SUMMARY — KEY ADVICE ON CHOOSING A GREAT CAJON (THE BEST CAJON FOR YOU):
- Know what sound you are after
- Know how & where your cajon will be used (home; casual gigs; regularly; live/studio/both)
- Trust your ears
- Take time to inspect each cajon for defects or faults
- Check out cajon construction & materials
- Do not go on advertisng materials published by the well-known manufacturers
- Search out independent reviews
- Ask people you know & trust (& who play cajons) for their advice
- Ask experts who can help you through the maze of understanding & choosing cajons.
- Focus on the important issues not cosmetics
- TRUST YOUR EARS (or those of someone who knows what they are listening for)
In the next post we look at the process of actually choosing a great cajon & I take you through, step-by-step, the process I use when I choose cajons for my customers.
Until next time …