What is a Cajon Instrument?

You may have observed that many bands these days do acoustic shows with their drummer seated on a slap-able box. But, you may not be aware of the roots of this fascinating and flexible instrument.

In this article, we’re going to learn more about the Cajon and, if you’re a musician, you might want to consider using this instrument in your next gig.

Before we dig into the nitty-gritty, let’s have a little time travel and discover its history.

Where It Started

The Cajon is a wooden box-shaped drum that African slaves created when they arrived in South America in the early 1800s. The idea came after realizing they couldn’t play drums. The Cajon is also an Afro-Peruvian musical instrument that slaves, also of African origin, developed in Peru.

With this newly created entertainment device, the slaves were able to enjoy music without being caught by the Spaniards since the drum looked like a box and could be mistaken for a piece of furniture.

The Cajon is a wooden box with a hole in the rear that allows sound to escape when the musician slaps the front with his palm. More importantly, the player needs to sit on it.

As time went by, the wooden instrument was named Cajon, which means box (Caja) or drawer (Cajon) in Spanish.

The original Cajons were probably tea chests/boxes that the African slaves would play during their breaks. According to accounts, there are strict rules about musical instruments; thus, many were improvised and home-made.

Tea chests were a typical item back then, built of thin wood and were prone to warping and splitting due to the humidity and heat they were exposed to.

This splitting is said to have given the drum’s distinctive rattling or snare sound, which is still replicated today with the use of snare wires.

The deeper bass tones would be achieved by striking the tea chest’s body, which would produce a sizeable resonant tone.

The Evolution of the Cajon

Although cajons have been used in Peru and Africa for many years, it wasn’t until they grabbed the attention of western audiences that their popularity grew.

The Peruvian Cajon’s initial box design has seen several revisions throughout the years. A sound hole at the back of the box allowed improved acoustic projection and a better snappy sound.

Since the 1970s, Alex Acuña, a high-profile drummer and percussionist from Peru who performs on the US music scene, has used the Cajon on records and in concerts. Despite this, most musicians were unaware of the instrument.

But everything changed when Paco de Lucia, a Flamenco guitar expert, was given a Cajon as a gift by Peruvian composer and Cajon maestro Caitro Soto in the 1970s. De Lucia was so taken with the instrument’s tone that he included it in his repertoire.

The instrument rose to popularity and is now a mainstay of many forms of Flamenco music, a genre that has produced a slew of contemporary Cajon masters, such as de Paquito Gonzalez.

As the Cajon has grown in popularity and got more exposure on television and in films, its design has evolved and changed. What began as a simple box may now be embellished with a variety of accessories, including bells, jingles, woodblocks, and the ability to be played with a foot pedal in the same way as a traditional drum kit.

The Cajon is no longer considered a solo instrument. Instead, it’s now frequently included in the standard or customized drum kit setups, typically alongside the rest of the percussionist’s effects and instruments.

Manufacturers have altered the design, dimensions, materials, and construction of the Cajon in order to get new sounds or what they perceived as sound variations, upgrades, or alterations over the original piece.

Plastics, fiberglass, carbon fiber, and acrylics were used to make the body either in whole or in part. Each substance has its unique acoustic qualities, just like different varieties of wood.

Some Cajons include snares that can be turned on or off with the flick of a switch or the twist of a lever. In contrast, others have built-in mics that give splendid isolation for amplified live performances.

Many of these changes will depend purely on personal preferences.

The Use of Cajons Today

The contemporary Cajon is increasingly popular in blues, pop, rock, funk, world music, and jazz. Also, it is frequently used to accompany a solo acoustic guitar or piano.

The instrument continues to gain popularity as an alternative to a drum kit, as many rock/pop bands use it during acoustic performances. It is unquestionably a “hip” drum at the moment. However, these instruments face the risk of being labeled as traditional drums like the djembe.

We also need to credit other musicians such as Alex Acuña, Sheila E, Marco Fadda, and the late, great Miguel ‘Anga’ Diaz, who creatively incorporated the Cajon into their music.

Most people use the Cajon in place of a traditional drum set. However, it can be utilized in a variety of ways, both with and without a drum kit. It may be used as an effect or as the only rhythm instrument in both live and recorded circumstances.

What does it sound like, and how do you play it?

A Cajon player sits on top of the instrument and uses their palms and fingers to strike the front-facing board. By tapping higher up the front board with your fingertips, you make higher-toned beats, and hitting the center of the board creates a more profound bass sound.

These various sounds are typically mixed to form drum-like patterns. Lower notes function as the bass drum, and higher notes act as snare and accents.

Players can also adjust the pitch of the Cajon with their feet to create more intricate configurations. While the Cajon is usually played with one’s hands, it may also be played using plastic or metal brushes.

In a whole drum kit arrangement, some drummers attach a pedal to a Cajon and use it as a bass drum substitute.

Because the Cajon is small and compact, and there are models at a range of price points, you can target a beginner and hobbyist percussionist with an entry-level instrument or add some of the higher-end Cajons.

With so many firms producing Cajons and its rising popularity in current music, anyone considering supplying percussion instruments should include the Cajon on their list.

Can You Make Your Own Cajon?

The short answer is yes! There are many fantastic tutorial videos on YouTube and websites you can find on the internet that will show you how.

However, this is tricky, especially in selecting the greatest raw materials and understanding how to put them together to create a Cajon that performs well and has great sounds.

The Cajon may appear to be nothing more than a box, but there’s much more to achieving an excellent sound than just fitting the pieces together.

Remember that many traditional manufacturers have been doing it for a long time, have a family musical legacy, or have invested a significant amount of time, effort, and money into establishing their own method and adaptations.

However, building your own Cajon and then using it at a performance may provide a lot of joy, pride, and satisfaction.

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Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.