How to Expand Your Cajón's Palette of Sounds

Percussionists have been using them for years, but drum set players seem to have just recently discovered the cajón and its many advantages, boosting its popularity tenfold.

Now the cajón is the hottest hand drum on the market. They’re fun to play and are beginner-friendly. Not only that, but they require less coordination than a drum set, allowing you to learn basic grooves in a few hours, rather than weeks or months. Plus, cajóns with internal snares can be used to emulate the sounds of a drum kit, but have the advantage of being much quieter, so they are better suited to low-volume gigs.

Meinl Cajon Brush

One way you can get more sounds and textures out of your cajón quickly is to purchase accessories that widen the palette of sounds at your disposal. Even experienced cajón players employ accessories to create a more varied sound to their grooves. Best of all, many of these accessories don’t cost much or take up a lot of room in your gig bags. However, there are even more ways to expand your cajón’s playability and range of sounds.

The easiest ways to diversify the textures you can get from your cajón is to use brushes or rods. You can use a variety of types, some of which have been specifically designed for use with cajóns, like those from LP, Vater, RegalTip and Meinl. Try mixing things up by using a brush along with your fingers, or using a rod and a brush in each hand. That can transform a familiar pattern into a fresh-sounding groove.

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Use Your Feet

Different areas of a cajón’s playing surface, known as the tapa, produce different tones. One of the easiest ways for a drum set player to sound more experienced on their cajón is to add a bass drum pedal to it. This enables them to play simple beats without having to move their hands up and down the tapa.

Schlagwerk Cajon Pedal

There are special cable-operated pedals designed for cajóns from companies like Gibraltar, LP, Dixon and Schlagwerk, though many drummers simply use a conventional bass drum pedal and either play it backwards or sideways with their heel. The advantage of using a standard bass drum pedal is that the action is usually lighter than cable-operated pedals, which typically introduce a little lag time and can feel sluggish. Using a pedal is handy when you want a bass drum tone and your hands are occupied with shakers or other toys.

A conventional bass drum beater is too hard to use on a cajón and could damage the tapa, so a softer beater that’s specifically designed for a cajón is strongly recommended. Gibraltar, Moravian Percussion and many other companies supply these gentler beaters. I have the Moravian beater and it works well, though my curiosity has been piqued but two new additions to Meinl’s line. They offer their CPB3 cajón brush and CPB2 jingle beaters for more unique sounds.

Building Out Your Cajón

For certain applications, a cajón can replace your drum kit, but that doesn’t mean you have to go fully minimal. The cajón also can be thought of as a platform to build upon.

Latin Percussion Fusheki Pedal

LP offers the Fusheki, which is an oddly-named pedal-operated maraca. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was either short for “foot shaky,” or was an onomatopoeic description of the sound it makes when operated. You’ll need to supply a bass drum pedal and Gajate bracket in order to operate this unique percussive accessory. After all, you’re defying conventional maraca standards by playing this one with your feet.

Both Schlagwerk and Sela offer small cabasas that attach to the side of your cajón with hook and loop fasteners. Meinl’s foot cabasa is a unique device that includes a pedal and cabasa, which allows for hands-free operation. I can think of lots of gigs where this would come in handy.

Don’t forget that you can use you hi-hat stand, too. Attaching a tambourine to your hi-hat’s pull rod is easy enough and if you want to hear it without the cymbals, just disengage the hi-hat clutch. Instruments that are designed to attach to knurled rods can be attached to your hi-hat’s pull rod, so it can be used to hold things like cowbells too. LP even offers their unique hi-hat shekere, which takes the place of your cymbals and attaches to the pull rod via its own clutch.

DW 2000 Series Tambourine Pedal

A tambourine can be used to replace a cymbal or hi-hat texture in your grooves. There are mini-tambourines with an elastic band that can be worn on your foot, knee or hand that are also easy and quick to remove. Meinl’s Heel Tambourine slips into your shoe like a shoe horn. There are many models that attach to the side of your cajón via hook and loop fasteners from LP, Meinl and others. LP’s tambo pedal includes a DW 2000 bass drum pedal and a tambourine that you can use for intricate patterns.

Don’t overlook shakers, bells and plastic or wood rattles. These can come in different forms and many of these are wearable so you can put them around your foot or ankle while others can be played with a free hand. LP’s finger shot and Meinl’s motion shaker have elastic bands and are worn like rings. If you’re on a tight budget, even inexpensive children’s toy shakers and rattles can be useful in low-volume situations.

There are dozens of castanets available of varying sizes and pitches that attach to your drum for easy access. The Meinl ring castanet is a little different; it’s worn like a ring and actually produces a castanet sound as you strike your drum.

Pearl also makes a set of brass and steel jingles that attaches to your cajón’s tapa via suction cups so you can easily remove them at the end of your gig. These create a Pandeiro-like effect and can be muted by tightening a wing screw.

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