In this post we take that knowledge & use it as I show you the exact same key steps I use to choose great sounding cajons for my customers.
STEP 1: CAJON CHOOSING STRATEGY
Your strategy is straightforward: Use a series of simple steps to easily find the best sounding cajon for you.
Remember: Every cajon sounds different, even different individuals of the same model made by a given manufacturer.
It’s about looking at 3 key areas to make sure your cajon performs superbly:
When, Where & How Often It Will Be Used: Will it be used casually, in low risk situations or regularly on-the-road? Will it be used for personal pleasure, live playing (solo, small combo or band) &/or for recordings in the studio? The answers to these questions will influence whether you choose a cajon with particular sound characteristics & whether you need one which is more robust.
Quality of Materials & Construction: We have already covered this in detail in Part 1 & Part 2 the key features that make a great cajon. Make sure materials are high quality, ideally birch or another wood with excellent acoustic properties (usually hardwoods). The quality of construction directly impacts the quality of sound produced by the cajon & how long it will last when in regular use. It will also influence how many unwanted rattles, clicks, squeaks & buzzes you get when playing.
Sounds: Surely THE most important aspect of any cajon is the sounds it produces. ALWAYS aim for the best possible sound source. A great-sounding cajon will always sound great in whatever situation it is used: acoustic; amplified; studio … & it will inspire you to play.
A poor-sounding cajon will lack projection & distinction (it will not inspire you to play more).
STEP 2: CAJON VISUAL CHECKS
General External Appearance: The first check we need to perform on a cajon we’re interested in is an external ‘once-over’ to make sure there are no obvious cracks, defects, poor workmanship etc. Take your time & pay special attention to edges & corners as these are often first damaged but least noticed. Cosmetic, non-structural blemishes are less of a concern.
Internal Appearance & Features: The true quality of a cajon, in terms of materials & manufacture, can be found by looking inside the cajon, through the sound-hole. Check the joints, corners, fittings & finish. It is unlikely they will be beautifully smooth, polished or varnished, but there is a saying in some musical circles about not being able to polish certain dull things, but you can sprinkle glitter on. Some manufacturers create a beautiful exterior or paint job to cover-up underlying issues such as poor quality woods. A quick peek inside will tell you a lot, very quickly (See photo below).
Remember that wooden cajons are usually made from marine ply so looking inside will only tell you about the inner-most veneer. However, if you combine your findings with what you see when you look at the edges of the ply & the outside you will get a good idea of the material quality.
Snares: (See above photo) As we have already discussed, different cajon manufacturers use different types of snares (wires or brushes). Look at the overall quality of appearance, particularly for rusting which can lead to weakness & early failure of snare wires. Also look for loose fittings such as the bars on which snares are mounted. It can be difficult to find problems & I’m not suggesting that you try dismantling the cajon, but a scan over the snares & where they lie can reveal potential problems quickly.
Tapa Face: The thin front tapa face is a key part of the sound of the cajon (see above photos). Check for structural defects, especially splitting at the edges, poorly applied screws & for splits which can occur when screw heads are close to the edge of the tapa face. The best wooden tapas are made from high quality birch marine ply which is made-up from an increased number of thinner plies. These are both stronger & more resonant.
Any Tensioning Mechanisms: Some cajons are fitted with snare tensioning mechanisms, either as screws located in the top or bottom of the cajon, knobs on the back (see above photo) or levers on the side. Where possible (knobs & levers) check for ease & smoothness of action. For screws, take a look inside & see where they locate the tensioning mechanism. Look for wires being tensioned against sharp edges or screws that don’t seat well into the mechanism.
This may sound quite complex & drawn-out but it needn’t be. You can learn a huge amount from a relatively quick glance, once you know where to look & what you are looking for.
STEP 3: CAJON SOUNDS
The MOST important part of a cajon (assuming it is structurally good) is its sound. I am staggered by the number of people who buy these instruments not knowing what they are after or, more dangerously, assuming that because the construction is simple, they must all sound the same. That is like saying all guitars sound the same, all drums sound the same or all pianos sound the same. Most melodic instrument players expect to try them out & hear what they are buying. So why shouldn’t it be the same for cajon players as the same laws apply? It is very difficult to be enthusiastic when someone is raving about their new cajon when it sounds like a crock of rubbish. KNOW WHAT YOU ARE LISTENING FOR & YOU WILL GET A GOOD INSTRUMENT.
DON’T GO BY MARKETING LITERATURE; GO BY YOUR EARS (or the ears of someone who knows what they are listening for). I cannot stress this point enough (which is why it keeps appearing in my different posts).
Here are some KEY things to listen for & also some tricks that I use to check that a cajon will perform well in almost any situation. Think of these as my success secrets.
Bass Tone: Like the bass drum on a drum kit, the bass tones give the music foundation & punch. When you hit the cajon with a flat palm of your hand, cupped hand or fingertips at a spot about half-way across side-to-side & about 6-inches (15cm) down from the top you should hear a definite deep thud. This sound should be clearly heard whether you are striking the cajon harder or more gently. Better cajons will allow these tones to be heard at almost any playing intensity. Some makes may be warmer (more resonant) but it still wants to be distinct & solid-sounding. You do not need to reach half-way down the front face to produce a bass sound. If you do a) the cajon needs putting back on the shelf & b) the life-expectancy of your spine will be radically shortened!
The quality of bass tone is adversely affected (made worse) particularly by the lower & higher mid-tones. These cloud or muddy (mask or hide) the sound of the bass tones making them less distinct so they project less & are not heard as clearly (don’t stand out as much in the music). Generally it is the cheaper, less-dense or poorer quality materials that boost the middle tones of a cajon.
High Tones: The high tones of a cajon are achieved by playing the top 3-inch x 3-inch (7.5cm x 7.5cm) corner areas of the tapa face. If you strike this area with the length of your fingers or ends (top one or two joints) of your fingers you should hear a distinctive cracking sound with some ‘pop’ to the sound too. If you use your whole fingers you will almost certainly get some lower tones in with the high tones, but even so, the high tones should stand out clearly (have good separation) from the bass tones.
Snare Tones: Some cajons have snares. If so, then when you play the high tones you should be able to hear some snare buzz. The amount is personal choice, but I meet too many players who use cajons with snares that are so loose they just buzz uncontrollably. This is a common mistake made by drummers who then take up the cajon as an ‘acoustic kit.’ If your snares sound clearly when you play the high tones, they will be heard in the music. Some drummers like to use ghost notes, very gentle notes underneath the rhythm to help lift or create flow. A good cajon will allow you play these ghost notes & still hear the snares, even if there isn’t a lot of snare buzz.
Super Tip: A common mistake made by cajon players (especially drummers) is that they want a totally clean bass tone. Admittedly we don’t want a bass tone dominated by snare buzz, but those of you old enough to remember playing in the 1980s when bass drum beaters were usually made of felt, may also remember the trick of sticking a coin at the point of impact on the bass drum head. Why? Because it added some high frequencies that gave the bass drum extra projection & definition. So it is with the cajon & snares: a little snare buzz beneath the bass tones will add projection & distinction to the sound, whilst being unheard within the context of the music. Cajons with no buzz on the bass tones can sound too boxy or dry & lack cut/projection within the music.
Other Tones: Are there other tones? Yes; plenty. The sides, top & back of the cajon can be played to create clicks, pops & other effects. I sometimes play conga style patterns on the side with my left hand whilst playing the main rhythm on the tapa with my right. It doesn’t really sound a lot like a true conga, but within the context of the music & relative to the drum-kit sound of the cajon created by playing the tapa face, it adds texture & contrast.
Any tones you play on the main frame of the cajon should sound clear & distinct from the other sounds.
(I will be covering basic playing techniques, how to produce different sounds & effects, posture & a host of other goodies in future posts. Why not Like this Blog & you’ll be kept up-to-date each time a new post is made).
Position & Surroundings: One of the reasons I am so successful in choosing a good cajon is that I understand how drums & sounds are heard in different situations: it’s something I’ve noticed over 35 years of playing drums & percussion in different settings.
You don’t need to understand this; you just need to experiment & use your ears. Here are some steps I use when testing cajons. I have got used to the difference in sound when you are sat on a cajon & when you are stood away from it, but when you are trying one out, play the cajon yourself, then get someone else to play it whilst you are stood over it with your head above the player’s head (so that you have a reference of how it sounds when they play when you are at the cajon) & then stand about 6-9 feet (1.80 – 2.7m) in front & listen again. In this latter position you will be hearing what the audience hears … & you will be amazed how different it sounds to when you are sat on the instrument.
Try the cajon in an open space: The bass tones mainly project from the sound hole, helped by those that are emitted from the tapa face. The high tones project mainly from the front of the cajon, helped by some that emerge via the sound hole. If you put the cajon in an open area (no wall, boxes, drum kits etc behind you to reflect the sounds), you will be able to hear how balanced the sound is overall.
Try the cajon about 1 foot (30cm) from a wall: If you put the cajon in front of a hard reflective surface like a wall or radiator you will get amplification of the bass tones so will be able to appreciate the bass element of the cajon (see above photo)
Try the cajon in front of absorbent surface(s): Anything that absorbs frequencies, such as a carpet, particular from behind will create a less coloured sound from the cajon (see above photo). This is a typical studio environment. You may never expect to play in a studio, but playing the cajon in this situation allows you to hear frequencies that are nasty or get in the way, or unwanted buzzes, rattles or creaks etc.
If you have a good cajon, you will be able to hear the distinct differences in tones & it will sound good in all 3 of these situations. This is the real secret to being able to find a great sounding cajon.
So there we have it. A few key steps that will help you in your search & help you find a great sounding cajon that will work will in any setting: home, room, pub, church, stage, studio.
It isn’t about spending hours examining a potential cajon, but it is about knowing what to look for to avoid problems after you have paid & left the shop.
Use this simple blueprint to choose a great cajon for your needs.
Remember, if you are unsure about anything to do with cajon construction, cajon sounds or which is the best cajon for you, just contact me via this blog or drop an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org & I will help however I can.
BONUS TIP: If you are investing in a good cajon, always be sure to protect it well using a padded bag. Purpose-built cajon bags come in all shapes & sizes. Always ensure that they are well made, with strong, reliable zips & fastenings, plus they must be well-padded to protect against accidental impacts & drops. There are a couple of cheap but excellent examples here that will fit most standard & a few larger cajons.
Until next time …