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What is a Cajón?

A Cajón is a versatile percussion instrument originating from Peru, resembling a wooden box. Players sit atop and drum on the front face, creating deep, resonant bass tones and sharp slaps. Its simplicity belies a rich sonic range, integral to flamenco and world music. Curious about how this humble box can stir your soul? Let's explore its rhythmic possibilities together.
Sheri Cyprus
Sheri Cyprus

A cajón is a wooden box drum said to have been originated by African slaves in Peru in the early 1800s. It looks like a rectangular box with a round sound hole in the middle of one side. The panel that is strummed, or actually slapped, with the hand is directly opposite the panel with the sound hole. The word cajón means "crate" or "box" is Spanish.

The cajón is often made from plywood, with thinner plywood used for the slapping side of the drum. In some areas, a drawer from a chest of drawers is used to make a cajón. The player sits on top of the cajón, angling it between the knees so that the hand can reach the playing surface.

Man playing a guitar
Man playing a guitar

The cajón is used in Afro-Peruvian music as well as in Afro-Cuban rumba music and dancing. Flamenco music also uses the cajón instrument. The cajón is sometimes used in modern music with the acoustic guitar. Los Lobos, The Dixie Chicks, Fleetwood Mac and Jennifer Lopez have all had the cajón in some of their songs.

Some cajóns are narrow at the bottom and have slanting sides. Some types of cajóns have strings added on the slapping surface to bring a buzzing vibration to the music. A cajón may also have more than one playing side to it so that different sounds can be created. For example, one playing surface may emit clear, bright tones while another playing surface may produce more muffled and wooden sounds.

Ultra-modern versions of the cajón include materials such as Plexiglass. Peruvian cajón artist, Chino Bolanos, created the Plexiglass cajón. It is box-shaped, transparent and completely hollow inside. The sound hole is clover-shaped and the bottom corners have four feet. There are many different types and sizes of cajóns and they range in price from about $100 US Dollars (USD) to over $300 USD.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a Cajón and where did it originate?

The cajón is a percussion instrument that originated in Peru during the 18th century. It is essentially a wooden box, often made from plywood, which is played by slapping the front face (or tapa) with the hands. The cajón was created by African slaves who used the shipping crates available to them as improvised percussion instruments. It has since become a staple in Afro-Peruvian music and has gained popularity in flamenco and various modern music genres worldwide.

How do you play a Cajón?

To play a cajón, you sit on the instrument itself and use your hands to strike the front panel, or tapa. Different sounds are produced depending on where you hit the tapa and how you use your fingers or palms. Bass tones are achieved by hitting the center of the tapa, while higher, snare-like sounds are produced near the edges. Foot pedals and brushes can also be used for more advanced techniques, adding to the cajón's versatility.

What are the different types of Cajóns?

There are several types of cajóns, each with unique features. The traditional Peruvian cajón does not have snares and offers a pure, woody tone. The Flamenco cajón, adapted in Spain, includes guitar strings or snares against the tapa for a buzzier sound. There are also Cuban cajóns, which are more conga-like, and hybrid cajóns that incorporate elements like kick drum pedals or electronic triggers to expand their sonic capabilities.

Can a Cajón replace a drum kit?

A cajón can serve as a compact and versatile alternative to a full drum kit, especially in acoustic settings or where space and volume are concerns. While it cannot replicate the full range of a drum kit, skilled players can mimic the bass drum, snare, and toms to a surprising degree. This makes the cajón a popular choice for unplugged gigs, small venues, and street performances.

Is the Cajón suitable for beginners?

Yes, the cajón is very suitable for beginners. Its straightforward design and playability make it an accessible entry point for those new to percussion. The basic techniques can be learned relatively quickly, and there is a wealth of instructional material available for self-teaching. Additionally, the cajón's growing popularity means that it's easy to find workshops and lessons to improve your skills.

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      Man playing a guitar