A cajón (Spanish pronunciation: [kaˈxon] ka-hon, "box", "crate" or "drawer") is nominally a box-shaped percussion instrument originally from Peru, played by slapping the front or rear faces (generally thin plywood) with the hands, fingers, or sometimes various implements such as brushes, mallets, or sticks.
Cajones are primarily played in Afro-Peruvian music, as well as contemporary styles of flamenco and jazz among other genres. The term cajón is also applied to other unrelated box drums used in Latin American music such as thecajón de rumba used in Cuban rumba and the cajón de tapeo used in Mexican folk music.
Sheets of 0.5 to 0.75 inches (1.3 to 1.9 cm) thick wood are generally used for five sides of the box. A thinner sheet of plywood is nailed on as the sixth side, and acts as the striking surface or head. The striking surface of the cajón drum is commonly referred to as the “tapa”. A sound hole is cut on the back side. The top edges are often left unattached and can be slapped against the box.
The modern cajón may have rubber feet, and has several screws at the top for adjusting percussive timbre. Originally they would be only wooden boxes but now some versions may also have several stretched cords pressed against the top for a buzz-like effect or tone. Guitar strings, rattles or drum snares may serve this purpose. They may also have bells on the inside near the cords.
The player sits astride the box, tilting it at an angle while striking the head between their knees. The percussionist can play the sides with the top of their palms and fingers for additional sounds.
Origins & Evolution
The cajón is the most widely used Afro-Peruvian musical instrument since the late 18th century. Slaves of west and central African origin in the Americas are considered to be the source of the cajón drum. Currently, the instrument is common in musical performance throughout some of the Americas, the Philippines and Spain.
The cajón was developed during the periods of slavery in coastal Peru. The instrument reached a peak in popularity by 1850, and by the end of the 19th century cajón players were experimenting with the design of the instrument by bending some of the planks in the cajón's body to alter the instrument's patterns of sound vibration. After slavery the cajón was spread to a much larger audience including Criollos.
Given that the cajón comes from slave musicians in the Spanish colonial Americas, there are two complementary origin theories for the instrument. It is possible that the drum is a direct descendant of a number of boxlike musical instruments from west and central Africa, especially Angola, and the Antilles. These instruments were adapted by slaves from the Spanish shipping crates at their disposal. In port cities like Matanzas, Cuba, codfishshipping crates and small dresser drawers became similar instruments.
Another theory states that slaves simply used boxes as musical instruments to subvert Spanish colonial bans on music in predominantly African areas; In this way, cajones could easily be disguised as seats or stools, thus avoiding identification as musical instruments. In all likelihood it is a combination of these factors - African origins and Spanish suppression of slave music - that led to the cajón's creation.
Spanish flamenco guitar player Paco de Lucía brought to Spain a cajón formerly owned by Peruvian percussionist Caitro Soto in 1977 with the purpose of using it as a more reliable rhythmic base in Flamenco.
In 2001, the cajón was declared National Heritage by the Peruvian National Institute of Culture. In 2014, the Organization of American States declared the cajón an "Instrument of Peru for the Americas".
Today, the cajón is heard extensively in Coastal Peruvian musical styles such as Tondero, Zamacueca and Peruvian Waltz, Spanish modern Flamenco and certain styles of modern Cuban Rumba.
The modern cajón is often used to accompany the acoustic guitar. The cajón is becoming rapidly popular in blues, pop, rock, funk, world music, jazz, etc. Cajón is often used by bands instead of a full drum kit when performing in minimalist settings.
The cajón has become a popular instrument in the folk music of Ireland and is often played alongside the bodhrán. The cajón also features in some Breton music.
Cajon Playing Styles
The instrument has been played not only with hands, but also with plastic and metal brushes, as normally used for drums. Another way of playing the cajón is to use an ordinary bass drum pedal, thus turning the cajón into an indirect percussion instrument. This enables the player to beat it just like a pedal-bass-drum, but it also restricts the player's standard position.
Cajon - the basics
SEE RIGHT HAND SIDE OF PAGE FOR ALL ARTICLES >>>>>
How to mic a cajon can be a tricky business and there are quite a few ways of doing it for both live and studio settings. What you end up doing for either on stage or in the booth depends on a variety of factors. Lets just take the studio for example, what is your room like? is it lively or dead? or does it sound great for acoustic drums naturally? What type of microphones are available and is your engineer willing to experiment? As with a lot of drum sessions, experimentation is key. There is no, generally speaking, one right or wrong way to record the cajon but there are a few techniques that have been tried and tested. The thing with the cajon is that even though it may sound good to the ear, it is sometimes a bugger to get it sound the way you want in a studio or live setting.
Along with having my own experiences, I decided to ask some of my pro-audio engineer buddies who have a fair bit of experience behind them what they thought, and they came back with some pretty solid solutions.
Mic the front and back
What seems to be a general consciences, and I have to agree, is that you really want to mic both the back and the front of the cajon. This will enable you to capture the wide frequency range that the instrument produces. I would say that in the studio this is an absolute must. Mattie Foulds, who is not only an engineer/producer but also a drummer with many years of experience suggested the use of a Neumann U 87 about a foot from the from the front of the cajon and a bass drum mic in the sound hole to catch the depth. He recommended an Audio Technica ATM25 or Beta 91 for the bass end. The Neumann U 87 is really an incredible mic but not the cheapest piece of kit coming it at around $3000 – $4000 so lets look at some other alternatives.
Iain Thompson, another experienced engineer in the business uses an Audix D6 on the back end and a Beyerdynamic M 201 pointed at the front. I have used this combo before and it will definitely give you a solid result at a lower cost. He also recommended the use of a Beyer m88 for the bass end with the careful use of a high pass filter.
The Beta 91
The microphone that was mentioned the most and the one I always go to is theShure Beta 91. This is a half cardioid condenser microphone and is commonly used for kick drums. In my experience both live and in the studio this is the best mic for cajon out there and if you want to buy a mic for you cajon to use live, this is it. The way I place the mic is on a small folded towel or small pillow inside the cajon. This will help prevent the mic from moving around inside.Matt Malakowski, an engineer I have worked with many times said: “when using the beta 91 you should also use a really tight parametric cut around 95-110 depending on the cajon and PA and a little tweaking of 600-1k and the top end and you’ve got huge sounding cajon for days with no feedback”. I would trust Matt with my cajon sound in any situation. You could also put a mic on the front and blend the sound but the great thing about the 91 is that it works very well on its own. This is the mic I use, particularly for a live situations. You just can’t beat it for the cajon as it will pick up the wide range of frequencies the drum will produce by its self. You can consult your engineer about adding a second mic on the front but this thing will stand up to the task in small clubs to stadiums. It also handles the risk of fead back very well.
Shure Beta 91 – One of the best all-in-one cajon mics around.
The Sub Kick
A while back I did a session with Minneapolis singer/songwriter Molly Dean. We had just finished miking up the cajon when I saw a Yamaha Sub Kick in the corner of the room. The sub kick is a low-frequency capture device that picks up the low frequencies (100Hz-2000Hz) that a normal microphone can’t. I felt we just had to see how it sounded. We already had a kick mic in the back and the cajon sounded punchy enough but once we added the sub kick it gave the cajon an immense amount of extra beef. If you have one of these lying around, you should for sure try it out on the back of the cajon along with a regular kick mic.
Let the room speak
If you have the advantage of having a nice sounding room you will also want to set up some room mics. Audio veteran Alex Fiennes gave me another great suggestion for utilizing the room sound. He suggested using an MS pair in front of the cajon. The MS technique gives you more control over the width of the stereo spread than a typical XY microphone recording technique, and allows you to make adjustments at any time after the recording is finished. Here is more information about the MS pair. I would think about using a kick mic along with this just to have some extra low-end if you need it.
This may sound obvious but make sure you use your ears. They will tell you if you are getting a good sound or not. Use some good headphones and experiment with placement until you are getting the sound you want. Don’t think that you can fix a bad sound with plugins and effects. This is simply not true. One of the best pieces of advice when I asked my engineer friends about this was from Jim Sutherland who simply said: “Experiment until it sounds good.”
How to mic a cajon
You've got questions? We have the answers. Hints and tips for Schlagwerk instruments - and answers to the questions you always wanted to ask.
What is the best way to play the Cajon?
Sitting on the top of the Cajon, you drum your hand on the playing surface. Depending on how and where you beat the Cajon, you can produce different sounds. Near the upper edge of the playing surface the sound of the Cajon is high and crisp, further down it sounds like a bass drum. If you want to learn how to play the Cajon, we recommend the excellent instructional material for the Cajon.
Is it possible to change the sound of the Cajon?
Yes. The sound can be changed slightly by adjusting the five screws that are placed on the top edge of the playing surface. However, we recommend keeping the original adjustment. The snare sound can be tuned by adjusting the tension device in the floor of the Cajon. The included screw wrench is attached inside the sound hole. Don’t tighten the strings too much! The best snare sound will be achieved with just slightly tightened strings. For more information go to our download area.
Why is the playing surface uneven?
In order to achieve the best possible snare sound, the upper edge of the playing surface is not glued but screwed. The slightly wavy pattern around the screws is deliberate; it also serves to improve the snare sound. For more information go to our download area.
Why is the top surface of the Cajon rough?
A top of the Cajon is equipped with a non-slip coating; therefore the seat is rougher than the surfaces of the side parts. For more information go to our download area.
Can the playing surface of the Cajon be changed or repaired?
Yes. We can replace the playing surface. For this the Cajon must be sent to the factory. Please contact us for further information.