Essential Tips For Buying a Cajón

The cajón has become the hottest hand drum on the market and it’s little wonder why. They are affordable, portable and a blast to play. Best of all they can adapt to a wide variety of musical settings. So if you’ve been thinking of buying your first cajón, here are few things you should know to help you make an informed selection.

The word cajón is Spanish for “box, drawer or crate” and this offers a glimpse into the history of the instrument. When African slaves were brought to Peru and Cuba, they were denied musical instruments and many other aspects of their cultures, so they created percussion instruments out of materials available to them, like discarded shipping crates. Since music was prohibited to them, slaves could sit on these crates and disguise their real purpose as drums. Cajóns are still used by multi-percussionists as a “musical” drum stool and this practical benefit has enhanced their popularity.

Beginner Friendly

Probably the biggest reason the cajón has become so popular is that they are beginner friendly instruments that don’t require a lot of technique. If you’ve ever drummed on a desk or a steering wheel, you’ve practiced the cajón!

The main striking surface of the cajón, called the tapa, is a thinner piece of wood that creates the resonant tone of the drum. Many different woods can be used for the tapa, but usually plywood is chosen for the added strength and durability it offers.

Striking the tapa in different areas produces the three main tones of the drum: bass, slap or touch. When you strike further down on the tapa, you’ll produce the bass sound. Harder strikes near the top edge create the slap sound and light touches on the drum are used like ghost notes to keep the timing even and provide more feel in your grooves. Of course, there’s more to mastering the instrument than that, but with just a little practice anyone can learn to play simple grooves and make music with their cajón.

Types of Cajóns

The traditional Peruvian-style cajón is essentially a hollow six-sided box the player sits on while playing and has a hole in the rear of the box for sound projection. However, there are many different types of cajóns.

Flamenco cajóns often have wires, guitar strings, rattles or even bells strung against the backside of the tapa.

Modern cajóns used in pop music often have snare drum wires inside. Wires and strings tend to have a tighter and crisper sound, while snare wires can be louder and emit more rattle.

Since most snare-style cajóns have more rattle, they usually aren’t as articulate when played fast and don’t have as pure a bass sound as those with wires or strings. However, the snare models are often louder, which can make them desirable in unamplified settings.

Drummers beginning their adventure with hand drums will usually be better off buying a cajón with snares or strings, primarily because those can function like a quieter version of a drum set.

Drums and Wires

Entry-level cajóns can be bought for as little as $50 to $100. However, you might want to spend a little more if you desire certain features.

Some models allow you to play with the wires on or off the tapa for either a Peruvian sound (no wires) or more modern sound (with wires). A lever on the outside of the box is often used to adjust whether the wires contact the tapa or not. Being able to disengage the wires is an indispensable feature if you’d also like to use a pedal on your cajón for a bass drum sound.

Many cajóns also allow you to adjust the pressure of the wires against the tapa to alter its sound, often via Allen screws at the bottom of your drum. Looser wires create more sizzle and sustain; increasing the pressure will make the cajón sound more like a tight snare drum. Be aware that looser settings can cause your bass notes to have some rattle too. These features may come at a slightly higher price, but they’re well worth it since they result in a far more versatile instrument.

Slap Corners, Ports and More Features

If you’ve looked at cajóns before you may have noticed that the tapa is often secured to its frame with screws around its edge. These screws allow you to adjust the tapa’s “slap corners.” If the screws on the top edge closest to the corners are slightly loose, striking the drum can create a “clicky" attack sound as the tapa moves forward and backward slapping the drum’s frame, but if they’re tight, you won’t notice this effect at all.

The port placement affects the sound of the drum. If the sound hole is in the center of the rear plate you will tend to get more volume, but less tone. If it’s placed lower it should have more tone, but a bit less volume, the same way portal placement affects the sound of a bass drum.

Additionally, some cajóns are offered with more than one playing surface. Multiple tapa cajóns may use different woods for each tapa or offer one side with wires and another without. Some offer other sound variations built in like a tapa with a bongo cajón that use internal baffles to create the Hembra and Macho pitches. Even if the cajón you eventually select doesn’t have these features, you can still play the sides of your drum for different sounds. While cajón players mainly use their palms and fingers, you can also use your finger tips for rolls and your knuckles for different sounds, too.

Size and Sound

Playing a cajón requires you to sit on the drum and lean slightly forward to strike the tapa, so it’s always a good idea to try your drum to evaluate not only its sound, but whether it fits your body. If you have back problems, playing a cajón could aggravate them. However, all is not lost since cajóns are available in so many different shapes and sizes. There are small laptop models that you can play like bongos and taller Cuban style conga cajóns that are held between the knees and played like a conga or mounted and played while standing. Some have angled tapas for easier access to the bass sound.

The size of the cajón affects their sound. Inexpensive junior models are a bit smaller, have a higher pitched bass sound and are quieter. Larger models offer more volume and a deeper bass.

When auditioning cajóns, check whether the snare and bass tones sound reasonably balanced or if either tone dominates the other. Some cajóns have so much bass it drowns out the snare sound and vice versa. Extra bass can be great if you’re playing with an acoustic guitarist as a duo, but if you’re playing with a bassist it can muddy up the low-end. In those situations, a brighter drum would work better.

It also can be useful to have a friend or salesman play the drums, too. That way you can walk around and check its projection and sound from an audience’s perspective since bass frequencies are usually more noticeable from a distance.

Playing a cajón can be an enriching experience and we hope you’ve learned enough to choose a drum that you’ll be satisfied with for years to come. Happy drumming!

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