6 Cajon (Box Drum) Myths Exposed

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Marketing is a powerful tool, especially when there are big budgets involved & this is no different in the world of the cajon.

As a percussionist I have spent years playing, learning & understanding cajons. The most important factor for me every time is THE SOUND. I am less bothered about finish & colour because you can’t see them on a recording & they add nothing musically to a live performance. A great sounding cajon cajon can look shabby & very few notice; a great looking cajon can sound crap & everyone notices.

So what do companies with big budgets tell us?  What do we believe? What isn’t true?

Here are 6 myths that I regularly encounter on a regular basis when talking to customers.

1. All Cajons are the same:  Nothing could be further from the truth!  No guitarist would assume that because two guitars are the same size they would sound the same, so why should it be true for the cajon?

A cajon may be a box of about 18-inches (45cm) high by 12-inches (30cm) wide by 12-inches (30cm) deep, but the sound produced depends on a number of key factors, which include (but not exclusively):

  • Material from which it is made
  • Position of the sound hole
  • Quality & thickness of materials used
  • Type of snare & snare tensions

Every cajon is put together slightly differently, especially those that are hand-built. It is what adds variety & colour to the player’s palette, but it also means that if you put 10 cajons of the same model, made by the same manufacturer alongside each other & played each one, they would all sound different.

The biggest influence in sound quality for cajons of the same size is the material from which they are made. Hardwoods like birch & beech, usually in marine-ply format, produce the best sounds.  These are not as cheap to buy as other woods but the sound difference is huge.  Oak may occasionally be used but it is quite brittle as a material so splitting can be a problem.  Other hardwoods may be used by bespoke manufacturers & occasionally unexpected materials like MDF (Medium Density Fibreboard) & pine can be used to excellent effect.

The biggest problem I encounter with the big-named manufacturers is that they use softer or inferior quality woods in their cajons.  They look fantastic but they lack definition & separation between the high & low tones. In fact many have no real high or bass tones; just a continuum of mid-tones that lack projection & clarity.

If I was given £5 for every cajon I have sold to people who initially bought pretty cajons made by the big names that just did not satisfy, so came looking for something better, I would have been able to retire by now 🙂

All cajons do not sound the same, so if you want one that will enable you to be heard & will produce a great sound without hitting hard, it is important you take time to find one that performs well, producing clear, solid bass tones, crisp high tones & good separation (difference) between the two.

For a more comprehensive discussion, visit our Cajon Introduction Page

 

2. The front veneer (finish) on the tapa (front) face influences the sound: The front of a cajon is what people see.  Visuals appeal to our emotions: if looks good, it must sound good, right?

Not so!

The front face of a cajon is usually very thin, around 3-4mm & is made up of multiple veneers.  The main material is usually a hardwood such as birch.  The material & thickness will affect the response, tone & sensitivity of a cajon.  However, the part we see is only the top veneer & manufacturers understand this.  Application of a veneer of strikingly beautiful wood adds to the appeal of our cajon.

But does it alter the sound?

Potentially yes. A more rigid veneer will influence vibrations & hence resonance but in reality the difference in sound is negligible or inaudible to many people since the sound of a cajon is not just from the top veneer but the whole front tapa face & more significantly the sum parts working together.  The material from which the main box is constructed & quality of construction will influence the sound much more.

So, when choosing a cajon, use your ears not just your eyes: then you will be on the road to finding the best cajon for you.  Find out more by visiting our Cajon Introduction Page

 

3. All cajons of the same make &model will sound the same: As I have already mentioned every cajon is put together slightly differently, especially those that are hand-built. It is what adds variety & colour to the player’s palette, but it also means that if you put 10 cajons of the same model, made by the same manufacturer alongside each other & played each one, they would all sound different.

So, it is dangerous to assume that because you have heard a particular cajon played by a friend or artist that sounds great, by simply ordering the same model guarantees that yours will also sound great.

I cannot stress enough the importance of listening before you buy or, if you cannot, finding someone with experience & who understands about cajon sound to choose one or help you choose one.

Having encountered many different cajon makes & models & having sold many, I make it my duty to try each cajon before I send it out to my customers. I often have to try several of the same model to find one that I would be happy to play myself.

The difference in sound can be subtle: it may lack bass tone; be imbalanced between bass & high tones; have too much or too little snare buzz. It isn’t always easy to describe but you know a great-sounding cajon when you hear it … & that is what I send out.  If I didn’t, I would feel that I am cheating my customers.

Find out more by visiting our Cajon Introduction Page

 

4. You need to buy from the big manufacturers to get a good cajon:  I have already covered this a bit above.  The large manufacturers may have great quality control & consistent manufacturing techniques, but they also have big budgets, glossy brochures, slick videos, a heap of endorsees & more.

What they often lack is personality in their instruments, a good sound & an instrument that cuts through & stands out.

One thing I always stress, but is frequently ignored, is that ONE CANNOT TELL THE QUALITY OF SOUND FROM A VIDEO RECORDING!  As soon as you plug in a microphone, the sound is coloured: some mics will make the cajon sound deep; some will boost the high frequencies etc.  Then, when you put the sound through a mixing desk you can change every sound parameter; add bass; remove bass; cut out dominant frequencies; add a bit of reverb etc.  Then you play it through speakers: some compress the sound; some favour high frequencies; some bring out the bass; most exaggerate certain frequencies to give a specific sound.

When you add all of these together, there is no way that you can tell what a cajon really sounds like from a video (or acoustic) recording.  YOU NEED TO HEAR IT IN THE FLESH.

If you find a cajon that sounds great on its own, in a room, without any amplification it will sound pretty good when amplified, wherever you use it & whatever equipment you use (within reason).  However, just because a cajon sounds good amplified does NOT mean that it will sound good unamplified.

From personal experience, the best-sounding cajons come from smaller manufacturers. They also have individuality.  They may not always be as cheap as some of the bigger, more well-known brands but, as I have mentioned above, they will work-out cheaper in the longer-term as you will not need to replace them.

As a percussionist I only sell what I would play myself & I sell J. Leiva cajons because, in my experience & in the ears of others, they are consistently the best-sounding  cajons I have come across, from cheapest to most expensive.

For further help visit our Cajon Introduction Page

 

5. The most expensive cajons are the best: We all like to think we have something that is excellent & premium pricing (paying more for an item) helps to reinforce that opinion.

Unfortunately in the cajon world, you can pay a lot for rubbish!

Fortunately, you don’t have to pay a premium for excellence!

But you need to know the difference. Price is quite subjective.  We are always looking for a bargain; the cheapest. But what are we really getting?

A lot of ‘entry-level’ cajons are remarkably cheap but to be blunt, they sound awful, with uncontrolled snare buzz, dull tone, no projection: but they look quite nice.

If you find a brand of cajon that offers a range of price models but each range sounds great, then you can still manage to buy a cajon at a lower price (entry level) that will last longer & allow you to make an impact (be heard!) as a musician.

I know I keep mentioning Leiva, but having tried every model from cheapest (less than £100) to most expensive (£700) I can honestly say that they all sound excellent, with the cheaper models (what Leiva may call entry level) sounding better than cajons from other manufacturers selling at twice the price.

You don’t have to break the bank to sound good.

Of course you can pay more & sound will change & probably improve a bit, but at the higher prices we are talking more about personal preference, nuances & specific wants.

Have a look at the Leiva range of cajons here: Buy J. Leiva Cajons from CajonExpert

 

6. Music shops know most about cajons:  For many of us the obvious first place to visit is our local music shop & understandably so.  They should have instruments in stock that we can try & after all, they are likely to give us the best advice because they sell them.

Sadly, this is not always true.

The cajon is a specialised instrument which, like any other, requires a certain amount of interest & knowledge.

Remember those big budgets of big-name companies?  Well, they also translate to commission for sales. So, the salesman may well earn more from selling a big brand cajon than a better, lesser-known brand.  This clearly introduces bias as it is a remarkably altruistic salesman that will actively sell something for which he/she will earn less. Many drum salemen are drummers, not cajon players so actually don’t understand what sets a good cajon apart. I remember trying a cajon in a drum shop by Pearl: the saleman was raving about the sound; I thought it was awful.  Perhaps commission influenced the saleman’s ears & opinion?

Finding a music shop with a genuine interest in cajons is like finding a goldmine, but we are not all in the position.  Our local guitar, keyboard & drum shop may not be one of those stores.

The good news is that there are many online resources which will help you find the best cajon for you.  That is specifically my goal: to help you choose the best cajon for you & your situation & if you want to buy from me too, to provide you with a great-sounding cajon that will serve you for years.

I have written a Cajon Introduction Page where you can find out the basics & learn to understand about the cajon.  This is a great resource for total newcomers or those of you bewildered by the range & variety of cajons available.

I have also written a page on How to Choose The Best Cajon for You which helps you do just that.

I am based in the UK but I do ship Worldwide.  However, as I am not driven by one particular brand (I sell Leiva because I want to , not because I have no other choice) I am also happy to recommend excellent cajons that are available if you are not able to afford export shipping etc.  Why not visit my web sites CajonExpert & Waywood Music for more information & help.

Thank you for reading this article which I hope is of help.  It is a big subject & I know I have not covered all areas.  I will look at those in other posts on this blog.

I am always very happy to receive comments or enquiries, either through this blog or via e-mail (stuart@waywood.com).  I am always happy to chat to people on the phone too.  Contact details on the web sites above.

Take care until next time …

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