Anatomy of an Instrument: The Cajon

You may have noticed more bands these day sitting their drummer on a slap-able box while doing an acoustic performance these days, but you may not know the origins of this interesting and versatile instrument.

In the latest instalment of our Anatomy of an Instrument series, MI Focus outlines everything you need to know about the cajon.

What is a cajon?

A cajon is a percussion instrument originating from Peru. The box-shaped drum is primarily played in Afro-Peruvian music, but can be heard in jazz and folk music as well as more modern rock and funk styles.

The cajon was developed during the periods of slavery in coastal Peru, with the instrument reaching a peak in popularity by 1850. Today, the cajon is heard extensively in Coastal Peruvian musical styles, Spanish modern Flamenco and certain styles of modern Cuban Rumba.

The modern cajon is often used to accompany a solo acoustic guitar or piano and is becoming rapidly popular in blues, pop, rock, funk, world music and jazz. The instrument is also becoming popular as an alternative to a drum kit during acoustic performances by rock/pop bands.

‘Cajon’ means ‘box’ or ‘drawer’ and features a thin layer of plywood on one side, in a similar way to the bottom of a drawer. It has thicker wood on each side and top, and typically features a sound hole in the back panel. A cajon can also come with snares to give it a louder-less wooden sound with a buzz-like effect.

A typical cajon measures around 18-inches tall and 1 sq ft.

How do you play it and what does it sound like?

A cajon player sits on top of the instrument and strikes the front-facing board with the palm of their hands and fingers. Hitting the middle of the board creates a deeper, bass sound, and tapping higher up the front board with your fingers to create higher-toned hits. Typically, these different sounds will be combined to create drum-like patters, with deeper notes acting as the bass drum, and higher notes acting as snare and tom accents.

Players can also use their foot to shift the pitch of the cajon to create more complete arrangements.

While typically struck with the player’s hands, the cajon can also be used with plastic and metal brushes. Some drummers also attach a pedal to a cajon and use it as a replacement for their bass drum in a full drum kit setup.

Here are some of our favourite cajon videos:

Should I stock them?

The cajon is small and compact, with models at a wide variety of price points, meaning you could choose to target beginner and hobbyist percussionists with an entry level instrument, or add some of the higher-end cajons to your percussive offering to appeal to sessions musicians and touring bands of various styles. With a large pool of brands making cajons and the increased popularity of usage within modern music, anyone thinking about stocking percussion instruments should add the cajon to the list.

Who makes them?

Gon Bops
Latin Percussion

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About Laura Barnes 427 Articles
Founder/Publisher of UK musical instrument industry publication MI Focus.