Is it difficult for beginners to pick up the cajon? The short answer is no! This percussion instrument doesn’t just look simple but it’s also really simple and intuitive to play, making the cajon accessible for beginners as well as experienced musicians. That said… if you want to learn to play the cajon, it’s worth knowing a few basic techniques. In this blog, you’ll hopefully learn two essential things: the most comfortable and healthy cajon playing posture and how to get the best sound.If you need help looking for a cajon, you can find some pointers here.

How to Play the Cajon

Playing the Cajon with the correct posture

The first and most important part of this cajon lesson is your playing posture. Sitting on a wooden box sounds simple enough yet most people tend to unconsciously sit in a way that not only causes discomfort over long periods but actually hinders their playing. Never sit too far forward on a cajon. Sit a little back from the front of the box and make sure your back is straight with your legs either side and your feet flat on the ground, so that the playing surface is fully accessible. While playing, you may need to lean forward a little to reach the middle of the playing surface but leaning too far forward is not necessary since, generally, you won’t be hitting any further than 15cm from the top of the playing surface. And, it’s worth repeating: keep your back straight and relax you shoulders!

How do you get the best sound of your cajon?

A cajon player usually plays with their hands by slapping or striking the tapa; the cajon’s playing surface or by playing the sides of the box while the sound hole is around the back. It’s also worth knowing that, while the playing surface of a cajon is quite large, you only play a small portion of it, just like with standard acoustic drums. Since most sounds are made by striking the top 15cm of the box, it’s best to begin by concentrating on this portion of the front playing surface. You can essentially play any part or side of the cajon. While the back side is a little more difficult to reach, you can get deep bass tones out of it, especially if you mic-up the sound hole. The top of the cajon can be used to make short and fierce wooden-sounds. If you play the top while sitting, the response is incredibly short but, if you mount the cajon on a stand and play it like a conga, you’ll get much more sustain (a sound with a long, resonating tail) and a slight drop in pitch. And, whatever side you’re playing, he higher up the surface you play; the shorter the sound will be, while, as you move towards the middle, the tone gains more depth and resonance. Also, pay attention to your volume. As a beginner, you might be tempted to go all out but you won’t get the best sound out of a cajon when you play it loud.

Playing the cajon like a drum kit

To get the same kind of sound you would with a kick drum, strike the middle (around 15cm from the top) of the playing surface with a flat hand. You’ll be able to tell as soon as you’ve hit that sweet-spot. To get a snare sound, play a little higher up the surface, near the top edge and, for the best result, play with an open, flat hand, striking with your fingers. The hi-hat sound is produced by literally slapping the top corners of the playing surface, keeping your hands flat and open and striking with the fingers. By alternating between an open, flat or balled hand, playing with your fingers or just the fingertips, a wide range of tones and sounds can be drawn out of your cajon. The playing technique is pretty much the same as that of a conga or djembe. A great tip is to watch what good cajon players are doing and simply try to mimic it. Seek out the sweet-spots of your cajon (the areas where you get the best sounds) and don’t limit yourself to the front. Once you have that down, experiment with the sides, top and back and, most importantly, don’t play too hard! The best cajon sound is always played at a moderate volume.

More cajon methods and techniques…

Playing the cajon is as easy as you make it since you can’t really go wrong. However, if you’re playing a cajon with drumsticks, you are going wrong. Cajons are designed to be played with hands and sometimes brushes or specially designed rods or broomsticks but not standard drum sticks. When playing with your hands, don’t forget to use your fingers for more subtle rolls and percussive sounds. Also, find and study the techniques of professional cajon players like Heidi Joubert, Mario Cortes, Nina Rodriguez and Stephan Maass. And don’t underestimate the value of the many instructional videos available on Youtube where you’ll find a number of clear and helpful explanations of how to play various styles and rhythms. Combine all of this with my tips on technique and posture and you’ll be off to a great start.

A Few Cajon Playing Tips

  • You can learn to play the cajon in a number of different ways. You’ll find countless tutorials on YouTube, but it can also be a good idea to seek out someone who can give you some lessons. Even a couple of lessons is better than none, since learning one-on-one is always the best method. Maybe ask at your local music shop to see if they know of any cajon teachers in your area, or do a quick search online.
  • Before you start playing along to a specific song, it’s important to know the style in which the song was written. Have a good listen to some different songs and try to recognise the style and how this affects the drum beat. Then try playing the beat on your cajon.
  • Grab a shaker and hold it in one hand while you play to add a ‘hi-hat’ to the beat.
  • Sit with an acoustic guitarist and figure out how to play a song together.
  • It’s essential to know where cajon techniques originate. Listen to some good flamenco music and get familiar with the rhythms. Flamenco music is basically where it all began, so in flamenco, you can really learn how multifaceted an instrument the cajon really is.
  • Since you’re going to spend a lot of time sitting on your instrument, back pain is best avoided from the start. This begins with learning the correct technique and playing posture – another great reason for getting a few cajon lessons. Some drummers and percussionists place their cajon on a stand so they can play standing up.
  • Warming up before you start playing is important, so you can loosen up your wrists and prevent them from feeling stiff later on.

Amplifying a Cajon

Want to amplify your cajon? You can mount a microphone on a short microphone stand and aim it at the sound hole in the back. To get the best sound, the microphone can be poked inside the sound hole or positioned close by. If you set up a microphone in front of your cajon, make sure that your hands have enough space to actually play and you’re not in danger of knocking the microphone. Most players choose this setup when playing with brushes. You could also mount the microphone onto the cajon by clipping it onto the edge of the sound hole, or by using a microphone that’s specially designed to be placed inside a cajon.

Interview with Percussionist Arthur Bont

Percussionist Arthur Bont was one of the first drummers to start playing the cajon in the Netherlands. Since Bont is able to play in a vast array of different styles, his percussion and cajon playing skills are in high demand and he’s often found performing as part of the band for big theatre productions or on tour. He’s even shared his cajon skills on his very own instructional DVD. “The beauty of the cajon is that you don’t necessarily need to know anything about it before you can start playing, and it doesn’t take long before you can play something that sounds good. A cajon is also pretty lightweight and easy to carry which is a relief for drummers and percussionists, since we’re used to having to lug a mountain of equipment from gig to gig.” Arthur first got into these compact percussive instruments towards the end of the eighties, and now his preferred cajons are made by Schlagwerk. “I was at a festival and saw this flamenco band made up of just a vocalist and cajon player. This was kind of in the heyday of the djembe, which I was familiar with, but the cajon was something I had never seen before. I spent the whole show watching the cajon player, fascinated by how they were able to get such a wide range of different percussive sounds and such power out of nothing but a wooden box. As a percussionist and drummer, I found it really exciting. A few months later, I was sitting talking with a band that were looking for a different kind of sound for a new theatre production, and that’s when I started playing the cajon.”

Practise, Practise, Practise

At the start, Arthur sought out every bit of information about the cajon that he could find – “The cajon was nowhere near as popular as it is now, and YouTube didn’t exist yet, so I eventually found a flamenco cajon player who lived a train ride away, and they kindly gave me an insight into the technique involved in playing the cajon. As a drummer, I wasn’t used to playing with my hands, so that was the first thing I had to learn. Pure percussionists will probably have less of a problem picking this up. Once I had my cajon and some basic techniques down, I went hunting for other lesson material, like DVDs. I really wanted to get serious, and was studying everything I could find and practising constantly to really nail the technique.” So he learnt how to create all of the different percussive sounds that you can get out of a cajon, and how to get a higher pitched, or lower pitched kick-drum style sound out of his cajon, as well as dampened strikes and ‘slaps’. “Since I’m a drummer, I was trying to pound out the rudiments and paradiddles that I already knew. In the process, I actually developed a few techniques of my own. It’s actually less easy than you might think to play a tight beat on a cajon. It takes a lot of practice. Once you can get a tight beat out of your cajon, only then can you start thinking about how you can use it and what your setup might look like. For example, you can add a small hi-hat, throw some brushes into the mix, and maybe add some more different cymbals, shakers, and other percussive elements. Of course, your setup will have a lot to do with the kind of music you’re planning to play.”

What are the best and most helpful cajon Youtube tutorials you’ve found? Let us know below!

Also see

» Cajons
» Cajon DIY Kits
» Cajon Accessories

» Christmas Gift Ideas for Drummers
» What Do You Need for Drumming?
» How Do I Become a Drummer?
» Drum Notation 101: Tips & Tricks for Beginners

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