The Cajon: Your Friend

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The Cajon (Ka-hone) is an instrument that originates in Peru.  There’s a lot of history behind this instrument, and I encourage all of my readers to find out more information about it on the ‘net.  The purpose of this blog is to not really go over the history or basic techiniques, rather to discuss some different ways to look at the instrument.  I’m a huge proponent of knowing the history of instruments and having a proper understanding of how to correctly play both the instrument and the rhythms and genre of music associated with it.

For those that aren’t familiar with the cajon, it quite literally is a box that you sit on and play.  It produces bass tones and high pitched “slap” tones.  It is an extremely versatile instrument and has become a favorite of mine over the years.  In fact, if someone told me that I could only keep 3 of my current instruments, I would probably keep just one of my steel pans, a cajon, and a shaker. I can do so much with a cajon that it has turned into an essential for me.

Mostly what I’ve used the cajon for is when I’m playing with songwriters and when the “acoustic vibe” is wanted.  It’s basically a great way to play drumkit without bringing a complete set of drums.  In fact, this is the main focus of what I want to talk about.  I mainly approach playing the cajon much in the same way that I do a complete drumkit.  You have bass tones, the slap is like the snare, and you can mute and change the pitch of the instrument much like toms.  It’s absolutely perfect to compliment and accompany acoustic guitars, as well as a myriad of other musical applications.

In the near future, I plan to start adding some video lessons on my site where I’ll go into a little more detail about some playing techniques.  In the meantime, I’m including an easy exercise to get under your belt with some basic variations.  Some guys like to really get out there and use brushes, sticks, and other implements to get some unique sounds on the cajon.  I like to do these too, but just like anything else, I feel that it’s important to get some basic mechanics under your belt.

Let’s just cover a few basic ground rules first off.  Here’s some tips I’ve discovered that have worked for me over the years.  First off, I like to lean back a bit as I play.  In other words, I lean back so that the front of the cajon actually comes off the ground.  I’ve found that this helps not only in an ergonomic sense but also (to me) opens up the sound a little better.  Secondly, consider the sound of your slap.  You can do a slap just like a conga drum on the top corners, which gives you a deep rich color.  Most people just use their fingertips to hit the top corners which usually makes a slap sound.  Now each manufacturer is different, but usually cajon makers will add screws to hold the top plate on the box all across the top of the instrument.  For me, I like to either loosen the two screws in the top corners, or take them out completely.  This way, the top plate is actually separate from the box and produces a much brighter and louder “slap.”  Finally, don’t feel as if you need to hit the cajon directly in the center to produce the best bass tone.  Obviously each box is different so spend some time exploring where the best bass tone is on your instrument.  Generally, however, the best bass tone is to actually hit in between the top and exact middle.  This way you’re not only getting a deep bass tone, but you’re allowing the box to resonate a little better thus providing a richer tone.

There’s two main ways that I generally play cajon: either by itself (like a drumkit) or with my left hand while the right hand plays shaker, tambourine, or some other sound source.  Consider the following exercises.  Exercise one is a very basic drumkit pattern to play on your cajon, and one that I use frequently.  Basically, the right hand plays the bass pattern and the left hand plays the “snare” pattern or slaps.

Variation two begins to utilize some ghosts notes to help secure the groove a bit better.  We all know the power of playing ghost notes on a snare drum or hi-hat when playing drumkit.  The same rules apply on cajon, and I use it often.  Therefore, variation two is just example one with some extra eighth notes in the right hand to help get the groove a little more “in the pocket.”  Note that these ghost notes are signified by the X noteheads and parenthesis.

Variation three is the same concept as before, but now we’re adding in some 16th note ghost notes in both the right hand and left hand.  I really think that it’s important to get used to doing these, as it really helps to solidify your grooves.  The idea is not to have them (ghost notes) very audible.  It’s just a matter of you playing them ever so slightly so that they are “felt” and not heard.

Finally, the last example (number four) goes back to the original example.  However, this time – just the left hand is playing the cajon (or right hand if you are naturally left handed).  The other hand (right hand) is playing shaker.  This is my favorite variation, and again one that I use quite frequently.  I feel like adding the shaker is almost like the hi-hat.  This to me is much closer to a drumkit, as now you’re utilizing the bass, snare and hi-hat.  Give each exercise a shot and, as always, be sure to start slowly until you really get the hang of it.

Have fun with the exercises and try to implement them in a musical setting.  Although this is a very basic exercise, the possibilities are endless on this amazing instrument.  I’m wondering if there is anybody out there that has a unique story about how they utilize the cajon?



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