Buyers Guide: How Do I Choose the Right Cajón?
If someone asked you which instrument is best for playing a really good groove, a traditional drum kit is probably the first thing that comes to mind. While it's absolutely true that a drum kit can offer a wide palette of sounds with its bass drum, snare, toms, and cymbals, when it comes to mobility, it's far from practical. It also takes up a lot of space—anywhere from 6 to 9 m2 in fact—and makes a lot of noise, which means a substantial investment is involved if you want to play your kit at home.
When we talk about the cajón, all these practical problems vanish into thin air, which is partly why it's such a popular percussion instrument. The history of the cajón, which literally means 'box' or 'drawer' in Spanish was developed during the periods of slavery in coastal Peru back in the late 1800's. People would use old packing crates or furniture drawers to replace their native African percussion instruments, and the cajón was born!
Essentially, the cajón is a wooden box which is played by striking the front plate, or 'tapa', with your hands. A set of wire strings suspended against the front plate on the inside then creates a sizzling sound. This sound is similar to a snare drum, only these strings resound inside a wooden cabinet instead of a thin drum shell. Depending on where and how you strike the cajón, it will take on the role of a bass drum, snare, or hi-hat, so to speak. Naturally, a cajón can never replace these instruments; what we're referring to is the effect of heavy accents (bass drum and snare) and supporting accents (hi-hats).
Benefits of the cajón
The sound. If you're fond of that exotic Latin Afro-Peruvian swinging sound, a cajón can provide it!
It's portable. This lightweight instrument is easy to transport in a suitable bag, (such as this one for Sela cajónes). Street musicians, mobile performers, and percussionists on tour will all love how easy the cajón is to transport!
It's compact. Because you actually sit on it to play it, it doesn't need an extra set or throne, and its size makes it easy to store in a closet at home or take with you in the boot of the car.
It's popular. While this may not necessarily be the most compelling reason to buy a cajón, it means you aren't the only one playing one. In our Western society, it's considered a mysterious, yet widely appreciated instrument, so prepare yourself: you'll probably get a lot of questions when you play your cajón in public. The good news is, you'll have plenty of models to choose from, as most well-known percussion brands offer a version of the beloved wooden box, including Pearl, Sela, Meinl, Nino Percussion (Meinl's special brand for children), Schlagwerk, Toca and last but not least, Latin Percussion.
It's relatively easy to play. Anyone with a basic sense of rhythm would be able to play the cajón without a single lesson, while a drum kit demands much more coordination, aptitude, and practice! The difference is that you play the cajón with your hands, and for many, that is a much more direct and intuitive way to play an instrument.
It's available for every budget. These days, you can find a cajón in just about any price category, depending on how much you're willing to spend. There are even DIY kits you can buy to build your own cajón! There are few things more satisfying than building your own functioning instrument, and a DIT kit also makes a great gift!
Nowadays, there are cajónes in various styles and appearances. Some have a unique wood grain, others are adorned with funky prints or colours. These days, the cajón is more than an instrument, it's a fashion statement!
Many musical instruments have evolved over time into the instruments as we know them today. A wind instrument, for instance, needs to built a certain way because it simply won't function as it's supposed to otherwise. With a cajón, this doesn't necessarily apply. Because it's essentially just a wooden crate, it's virtually craving to be modified. Manufacturers have jumped on the bandwagon and are creating new designs and coming up with innovative new developments to enhance or alter the sound. So, if you've just stepped into the world of cajónes, you can be sure to see new models on the market in the years to come. This is an instrument that's living and growing as we speak!
As the cajón develops, so do the accessories, which offer more possibilities than you might think.
Cajón accessories are great because they allow you to tweak your cajón sound according to your own specific preferences. Think of it as if you were putting together the parts of a drum kit—the more parts your cajón has, the more sound options you'll have! Don't worry, cajón accessories are usually as lightweight as the cajón itself, so your instrument will remain portable even after you've pimped it.
A clear overview
Even though many cajónes are relatively ergonomically built, you may want a cushion if you're planning on sitting on one for an extended period of time. These are compact, yet efficient. A gig bag for storage and transport is highly recommended if you're taking your cajón on the road. Make sure the interior is the correct size for your cajón and check if the gig bag has any extra compartments or pockets, which are always handy to have.
Normally, you play the cajón with your hands, but no one is stopping you from experimenting with a brush. For a relatively small investment, you can change the sound of your cajón significantly! This brush is especially worthy of your attention.
As mentioned before, depending on how and where you hit it, the cajón can sometimes fill the role of the bass drum. To assist you with this, there are even special bass drum pedals designed for cajónes, such as this one! The biggest advantage is that your hands are then free to play other instruments, for instance. This pedal is designed for separate cajónes that are used purely as a bass drum. You need the front plate to strike with your hands, and a bass drum beater would get in the way. You'd need an extra cajón to make this work, which would enlarge your setup and influence its portability. There are percussionists who play many cajónes at once to get a new and creative sound, and do so using pedals and mallets.
Accessories are especially handy for influencing the sound of your cajón. We have some suggestions below that will enlarge your sound options for a more versatile and great-sounding performance!
A foot tamourine is is a simple and efficient way to broaden your sound. After all, you're not using that foot while playing the cajón! With your other foot, you could play a foot shaker or a foot cabasa. You can also get the familiar sound of the castagnettes by attaching them to your cajón with Velcro—the rest is self-explanatory. Jingles on your fingers are practical, and they add the same sparkling element of flair as a foot tambourine. Castagnettes and jingles work well together, as the specially-developed jingle castagnette shows. The special side snare is also worth a shot.
All these small accessories add subtle effects to your sound. If you want something more drastic, how about a kick port, special for cajónes ? It gives your instrument more projection and tone, making it sound even more impressive.
Let it be clear that the choice of accessory has a great influence on your cajón's tone. But, that's not all. If you're prepared to invest in a larger setup, why not include a variety of percussion instruments (and compatible stands) like a crash/ride cymbal that you can play with either your hands or brush. Or, how about a set of chimes? With the compact, versatile cajón as your base, you can expand your setup in many other ways than with a traditional drum kit.
Recording & amplifying
Which microphones are best to record or amplify your cajón? The microphone specialists here at Bax Music have compiled a list. If you want to capture that deep, low attack, then the AKG D-112 is a good choice. Incidentally, this mic also captures a fair amount of high tones as well. For a more complete stereo sound, you could also use a Rode NT5 matched pair in an X/Y setup.
Here, we've put together an overview of some very special cajónes. The Toca Triple Conga Cajón is a unique combination of a conga and a cajón in one. The Latin Percussion Snare Cajon is an example of ho wyou can expand on a cajón kit, as we've described above. While most cajónes are played by striking the front plate, the Pearl Tri-Side cajón has two front plates and enables you to play it more ergonomically. For particularly special performances, there's the Pearl Inner Circle. This is a round instrument inside a cube-shaped frame, which gives it a fairly traditional appearance. Take out the round cajón, and you can walk, dance or move with it in stage! Percussion brand Sela offers a unique line of special cajónes. These instruments feature a switch on the side for turning the snares on the inside on or off to either add or remove that familiar 'sizzle' sound!
Clearly, the popularity of this fun and accessible instrument is on the rise. In the Western world, the cajón is really taking off. Even if you're not interested in all those extra accessories, a 'bare' cajón is a beautiful, practical percussion instrument. Have a look at our complete selection, and having read this guide, you're sure to find the one that's right for you!