[CajonExpert - Hints & Tips On Getting Started Playing the Cajon - Beginners to Advanced - We Can All Learn]

Hints, Tips, Help & Advice on How To Play The Cajon: Beginners to Advanced

 

On this page you will find:

Introduction
Basics
Your Cajon
Position & Posture When Playing Your Cajon
Main Cajon Playing Area
Basic Cajon Playing, Strokes & Tones
Bass Tone
High Tone & Slap Tone
Pressed Tone
Ghost Notes or Grace Notes
Other cajon Playing Areas
Practice Playing Your Cajon
Timing
Metronomes & Click-Tracks
With & Without Music

 

Introduction

Playing a cajon is much more than hitting a box or imitating a drum kit. To limit the instrument in this way is as sensible as saying that a Fender Stratocaster is just a loud Spanish Guitar!

Too few players approach the cajon with an expectation of creating something unique that enhances their music. They've seen drummers on TV hitting away on a cajon so they want one. Thankfully the cajon is flexible enough to accommodate this approach; BUT IT IS SO MUCH MORE AS WELL! 

If you're in doubt as what can be achieved, here is a sample by the brilliant Paquito Gonzalez:

 

Yes! There is much more to the cajon than just being a box or drum kit substitute. 

This page will introduce you to playing the cajon, covering playing position, basic strokes, effects, practising (including use of the click or metronome).

We hope you will begin to see the potential of this simple but fantastic instrument.  As always, if you have any questions drop us an e-mail at stuart@cajonexpert.com.

More videos & photographs will be added to support the text & instructions about playing you cajon found on this page.

 

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Basics

Your Cajon

Your cajon is a box, usually constructed from hardwood, that you sit on whilst playing. When you hit any face of the cajon, the wood will resonate to produce a tone. Harder woods like birch & beech tend to produce stronger more defined bass tones & more cutting high tones. Each wood has its own sound characteristics & the need to listen to any cajon you buy (or trust someone who knows what they are listening for) can never be overstated.

The cajon is a musical instrument & therefore, any good manufacturer will have made it with an attention to detail, such as strong joints, good timbers, reinforcing where necessary etc. The top surface forms a seat, so if you are expecting to spend long periods sat on it, you may want to consider using a cushion or padding of some sort. Sitting on the instrument does produce a bit of deadening, as would be expected, but the top face is also one of the two smallest faces on the cajon so the effect is minimal. Likewise, if you are using a padded seat, any dampening effect will be minimal.

The best approach to playing your new cajon is to spend time playing the various surfaces using different intensities (hardness) of stroke & playing in different places (eg. top, middle, bottom, side). Get to know your cajon & understand how you create different tones & sounds.

[Key Facts About Getting To Know Your Cajon]Our Key Advice: Time spent getting to know your instrument is never wasted & will pay dividends when it comes to playing music with others, especially in small groups where the different tones & effects will be more clearly heard.

 

Position & Posture When Playing Your Cajon

Posture is critical to longevity of your cajon playing: it does not affect the cajon but it does affect your health!

Too many players stoop forward because they play the cajon right down in the middle of the tapa (front) face which achieves nothing: it does not give you any more volume or bass tone, but it does slow down your playing, produce inferior sounds & produce chronic back problems.

So How Should You Sit On The Cajon?

The answer is quite simple: in a relaxed, comfortable way.

You should sit with a pretty much straight back. You may occasionally need to lean forward to access other parts of the cajon (such as the sides) for special tones, but that should be for a minority of the time.

Both feet should rest flat on the floor with your legs bent at right-angles or just over. The exact amount of bend depends on the length of your legs. Knees should be well spread to allow access to the front face of the cajon. An angle of between 90-degrees & 120-degrees at the groin should allow access to the tapa face & also allow access to the sides for click strokes.

Your buttocks should be pretty much in line with the rear face of the cajon, although again, depending on anatomy they may protrude beyond. Avoid sitting too far forward as this will restrict the playing area available to you at the front. Avoid sitting too far back as this can extend the centre of gravity beyond the rear of the cajon & make it unstable (you are likely to tip backwards).

Relax. Relax. Relax! Many players, especially drumkit players seem to have an inherent tension in their arms & wrists. This may be because they are used to hitting hard, creating tension in their playing using tension in their body or simply something they hadn't realised they are doing. Tension will reduce speed, impede accuracy & timing & overall reduce stamina. The cajon does not need to be thumped or played hard to create a sound. In fact hitting hard may choke-up the sound & give poorer quality tones.

 

As you play the cajon, you may need to break most of these rules on occasions, for example, if you're twisting round to play the rear face of the instrument. However, continued breaking of these rules will not only lead to poor sound but chronic health issues that could ultimately affect your playing & wider life.

[Key Facts About Posture & Position When Playing Your Cajon]Our Key Advice: Relax & sit comfortably. Maintain a straight back & avoid leaning too far forwards (or backwards). A strong & steady base (playing position) allows you to concentrate on your playing & is worth experimenting with until you are happy.

 

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Main Cajon Playing Area

The cajon has, potentially, a very large playing area from which to extract your sounds. In reality, the majority of sounds are created in the top 6-inches of the front (tapa) face. If you focus on this area you won't need to think about bending or stooping forward.

Why?

Because you don't need to go looking any further. Let's look briefly at the individual tones & see why:

Bass Tone - Most are generated by striking the face 4- to 6-inches down the front face in the middle (from side to side). This is far enough down to allow the face to resonate & create a solid, focussed, punchy bass tone, which is exactly what we want. It is also very easy to reach. If we go down to the middle of the tapa face (top to bottom), sure we can get a big bass tone, but the effort involved is much greater than any benefit you gain from the sound. The downside is that by moving that extra distance you can severely affect the flow of your rhythm by playing these bass tones behind the beat ie. late (more on playing the different cajon strokes below) ...

High Tone - If we play in the top corners of the tapa face, the wood is 'trapped' or restricted on two sides by screws. This means that it vibrates less so the sound is much more 'woody' & high-pitched.  Add to this the snare sound & you imitate the snare of a drum kit. Again, these high tones are created in the top 4- to 6-inches of the tapa (front) face of the cajon.

Other cajon Playing Areas are covered in the next section on Basic Playing, Strokes & Tones.

[Key Facts About Main Playing Area Of Your Cajon]Our Key Advice: You will play the front tapa face of your cajon more than any other. The playing or striking area for most strokes is within 4- to 6-inches below the top of the cajon. Where & how you hit in this area will create different tones, nuances & volumes. Spend time experimenting to understand how your cajon responds to your playing.

 

Basic Cajon Playing, Strokes & Tones

Bass Tone

The foundation of many musical styles is the bass beat, played either on melodic or percussion instruments.

The main area of the cajon tapa (front) face for generating bass tones is between approximately 3 & 6-inches below the top & around the centre (side-to-side) of the tapa.

There are lots of different 'correct' ways to do it, based on the type of music & the intensity at which you want to play. Rather than defining them as right or wrong, I will present them as alternatives that you can try & then use as/when/if appropriate.

The most widely used bass tone is created by striking the tapa face of the cajon using the majority of your hand, particularly from just above the ball of your hand to finger tips. The striking action is simply to let your hand hit the tapa face, impact being made with part of the palm of your hand & most of the underside of your fingers & then to let it 'bounce' off. This will create a slightly warmer, fuller tone. The hand starts from only a few inches away from the tapa face & you do not need to hit hard; the mass of your hand will do all the work in pulling out a lovely, deep, full tone. You can practice this stroke with your fingers together or slightly apart. Both produce a slightly different tone. The main focus is a nice clean strike, rapid removal of the hand & to be RELAXED. Tension will not only restrict your playing but also affect the sounds you produce.

A variant on the above which I use for quieter more subtle bass tones is to keep your fingers together & although you still strike with the palm of your hand, the focus for the impact is on the underside (pads) of your fingers. This gives you a more subdued but equally well-defined bass tone. For percussionists out there, it is more akin to a slap stroke played on congas etc, although you don't use quite as much 'whip' as you play. You can experiment a bit using different fingers & numbers of fingers to vary the tone.

Another variant for more solid, staccato & muted bass tones is to play as in the widely used technique (above) but actually add a small amount of tension in your fingers on impact & not let your hand bounce off the tapa face. This takes a bit of practice to play without interfering with the flow of your play, but can be used to give a nice variation in your playing to compliment the music.

If you are playing very quietly & want subtle but clear bass tones then you can play these simply by striking your cajon tapa face with the pads of one, two or three fingers at the same time whilst resting the heel of your hand on the top of the cajon. This is also a good method of playing time without making much/any noise during quieter passages.

Here's a short video demonstrating how to play different bass tones on your cajon ...

 

 

[Key Facts About Playing Bass Tones On Your Cajon]Our Key Advice: For bass tones the main focus should be a nice clean strike, rapid removal of the hand & to be RELAXED. Tension will not only restrict your playing but also affect the sounds you produce. Once you have mastered this, you can try your own variations to achieve different types of bass tone to suit your music.

 

High Tone & Slap Tone

The high tone provides contrast to the deep, bass tones of the cajon. Once again there are a number of different ways this can be played to create different types of high tone. The playing area for these tones is in the top 2- to 4-inches (4- to 16-square inches) of the tapa face.

The most widely used technique for the cajon high tones is to let your hand drop & as the middle of your palm strikes the tope corner, your fingers (which are kept relaxed) will strike the cajon tapa face. The effect is that your fingers are almost catapulted onto the tapa face (like the conga slap stroke). Your fingers should be relaxed & may be kept slightly apart or close together. Both methods should achieve a nice 'pop' when your fingers strike with plenty of snare buzz underneath. Where you strike the tapa face will influence the tone & amount of snare. Further down towards the middle of the tapa face & your tones will have more bass-component in them,; more towards the corners & your tones will be higher.

[Key Facts About Learning How To Play A Slap Stroke For When Playing High Tones On Your Cajon]Our Key Advice: The slap stroke is notoriously difficult to master & takes patience. A good way to practice is on a hard level surface like a table or kitchen work surface. Let your hand drop onto the surface & feel your fingers catapult onto the hard surface. You should feel the underside pads at the end of your fingers strike the surface & hear a distinctive popping or cracking sound, even at very low volumes. in fact, the best way to practice this stroke is at very low volumes: you will hear the tone very clearly, you won't damage the table top & on a personal level, you won't damage your fingers :-)

A variant on the high tone above is to strike the top corner of the cajon tapa face with your fingers held straight & allow them to bounce off. This produces a different quality of high tone that can be interspersed with the ones mentioned above to give flavour to your playing.

If you are playing at very low volumes or want subtle high tones you can strike the top corner areas of your cajon tapa face with one, two or three fingers to give high tones that are still distinct, yet not dominant. You can try varying your angle of attack by rotating your hand to bring your fingers into contact, rather than by moving your whole hand & wrist in a forwards * backwards type motion. You can also experiment allowing your fingers to bounce off & leaving them in contact with the tapa face for tonal variation.

Here's a short video demonstrating how to play different high (snare) tones on your cajon ...

 

 

[Key Facts About Importance of Relaxation When Playing Your Cajon]Our Key Advice: The importance of relaxed fingers & hands whilst playing the cajon cannot be stressed enough, for endurance, quality of sound & reduced risk of muscle & tendon strains & injuries.

 

Pressed Tone

The pressed tone is a sort of subtle high tone & is played by holding your fingers together & striking the top corner with the flats of your fingers & then leaving your fingers in contact with the playing surface (or even slightly pressing them into the face). This gives a dead, staccato tone with a bit of pop, but tonally very different from the other high tones.

[Key Facts About Posture & Position When Playing Your Cajon]Our Key Advice: Pressed tones are great as part of accents or other rudiments such as the flam or drag. Be careful that your playing feel is not affected & be careful not to play them too hard so as to avoid strained tendons in the back of your hands & wrists.

 

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Ghost Notes or Grace Notes

Rhythm, groove, beat, whatever you like to call it is focussed on making the music sound & feel good; it may also be key to any dances or dancers that use the songs or tunes. Each beat has a definite length. On most drums & percussion instruments those beats are short-lived so there is a defined amount of space between each beat. If we play leaving that space unfilled (silence) we can create a particular feel or edginess to our music. However, many musical styles or even individual songs  require some kind of flow to make them feel good.

Ghost notes or grace notes are our key on the cajon to achieving that flow. However, they also allow us to add nuances, accents & colour to our music, not only making it more interesting but also engaging the listener & the dancer.

Ghost Notes/Grace Notes are very quiet, yet audible strokes that are played between the main beats. Most grace notes can be played as high tones using the fingers in the top corners but bass ghost notes can also be added to create thickening of the beat (as with a flam on the drum kit). The key to good ghost notes is consistency of tone & volume which takes quite a lot of practice. If you are playing at a higher volume, ghost notes can still be used to great effect, but playing them a little further down the tapa face (2-inches or so) will bring out more snare & drum tone without being too dominant.

Here are a couple of short videos demonstrating how to play ghost notes & how to fit them into your playing:

 

Part 1: Playing Cajon Basics: How To Play Ghost Notes On Your Cajon

 

Part 2: Playing Cajon Basics: How To Play Ghost Notes Around Your Cajon - Extending Your Musical Vocabulary & Creativity

 

[Key Facts About Posture & Position When Playing Your Cajon]Our Key Advice: Never underestimate the power of almost silent notes. These ghost notes add flavour, spice & flow to your cajon playing & music. They will also motivate dancers to engage with your music. Use them wisely, use them sparingly, use them tastefully but practice them so that you can use them when needed.

 

Other Cajon Playing Areas

The cajon is essentially an elongated cube & as such, has 5 accessible playing surfaces. The major playing face is the front tapa but sides, top & back provide a wealth of extra tones to spice-up your playing & your impact on music & listeners alike.

The sides of your cajon are readily accessible when playing the tapa face. Playing the front edges will give pops & tacks that are great as accents. Up at the top corners the tone is much brighter. When played lower down the tone are a bit deeper. In the middle of the side faces, the tones are considerably deeper & richer in quality.

The top face of your cajon (where you sit), providing you don't have a cushion or something in the way, also provides a great surface for extra tones. Typically sharper in nature & slightly higher-pitched (due to the reduced size of that face & the fact that you are probably sat on it). If you want to play conga style, you can always climb of your drum & use that top face as a conga head. Slap tones will stand out beautifully, especially if played near to the edge. In the centre, your tones are a bit deeper, certainly enough to stand out.

The back of your cajon is less accessible but nevertheless produces beautiful, deep popping tones, especially if you have your cajon miked-up from the rear. Again, playing nearer the edges produces sharper tones & playing more towards the centre will produce deeper tones.

Here's a short video demonstrating how to enhance your playing using different tones from around your cajon ...

 

 

[Key Facts About Different Playing Areas & Surfaces Of Your Cajon]Our Key Advice: Remember that your cajon is an instrument with great potential, if you are prepared to explore it. Not only can you draw-out a multitude of beautiful tones, but by using different playing techniques on these surfaces you can multiply those tones even further, what about using your knuckles; how about your finger nails? Don't just be restricted to what others may tell you is 'right' or 'wrong', experiment. Try wire brushes on ALL faces; try nylon brushes; try soft & hard beaters; let your imagination & creativity take you forward :-)

 

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Practice Playing Your Cajon

Timing

Playing your cajon on your own, in a bedroom or practice studio is one thing; playing & interacting with other live musicians & with your audience is something completely different!

Timing is the hub of the wheel. You as percussionist are critical to that timing. The foundation you create for other musicians & how you make the music feel will dictate your success as a band & also with your audience if you play music that people want to dance to.

I meet many brilliantly technical musicians who are amazing on their own but are totally useless when you put them with other musicians. Why? Because their technique (or perhaps a need to impress others) has eclipsed the reason they are a drummer or percussionist. Bands, individuals, studios etc will always want someone who can play time, in-time & play the music before someone who is technically adept. Don't get me wrong, technique is an important part of our playing, but when it becomes our raison d'etre, we've lost the plot (unless we just want to entertain people on a show circuit).

Why this long preamble? Because our timing is our passport to successful playing. Learn about it. Listen to music from all sorts of different musical genres (especially those you would not normally listen to). See what works. Listen to what is being played & more importantly, listen to what is NOT being played. In the words of the great studio drummer, Steve Gadd, "What I leave out is as important as what I put in!" (or words to that effect.

Your cajon will, in most instances form the foundation for the other instruments in your band. Therefore, it will fall on your shoulders to hold the rest of the musicians up & hold them together (even if they don't admit it). Understand how your different cajon tones fit into what you're playing & how they make it feel. Do you need grace notes or ghost notes? How much space does it need? Do you need to play at all? These are all key questions that need to be considered, initially it may be a conscious thought process, but as you become more experienced it will become a habit.

Here are a couple of short sections to help focus your thoughts & hopefully inspire you with ideas & with a desire to be better than you are now.

[Key Facts About Your Role & Time Keeping When Playing Your Cajon]Our Key Advice: As cajon player (percussionist/drummer substitute) it is your responsibility to create a solid foundation with good feel for your fellow musicians. If you are playing for dancers, this is even more important as your playing will dictate how well they can dance. Spend time listening ESPECIALLY MUSIC THAT YOU DON'T NORMALLY LISTEN TO & learning what it is that is needed. Always make technique your slave; don't become a slave to technique.

 

Metronomes & Click-Tracks

The metronome or click-track has been over-used & misunderstood, BUT it is still critical if you want to play & record in the studio.

If we think of the metronome or click-track simply as a reference point for where the beats in our music fall, we become less afraid of it & begin to use it to our advantage. One of the hardest parts of playing is maintaining a certain tempo throughout a song. Live music notoriously speeds-up when it gets louder or more exciting & ballads notoriously slow down, as does music when we play it quieter. The metronome or click-track helps us to understand how our playing changes with different styles or volumes of music. If we use it when practicing our cajon, we can make the necessary changes to ensure that we don't speed up or slow down every time we play a particular style or come to a certain place in the song. There isn't space here to cover click tracks in full but here are one or two hints that may help:

Set your click track at somewhere between 114 & 120 beats per minute (bpm). Practice your high tones, bass tones, combinations, ghost notes & rhythms at this tempo. Listen for where you speed up or slow down. Listen where your beats fall relative to the click: are they late; on the beat or earl? Each of these will create a different feel for the music you play. Rock music tends be slightly before the beat to give a sense of urgency; ballads tend to fall behind the beat to give that lazy feel & a lot of modern pop tends to be pretty much right on the beat.

Re-set your click to between 66 & 75bpm & repeat the above & notice how your playing changes. make adjustments where you can & if necessary.

Re-set your click to between 140 & 160bpm & repeat the whole exercise again.

This isn't meant to be a definitive approach but I have found it very useful for monitoring my approach to playing & raising my awareness of how I may respond in a live situation. Live situations are notorious for playing songs considerably quicker than you are used to at rehearsal, simply because there is more adrenaline flowing. If tempo is important (which it usually is) then using a click track to start a song at a given tempo is very helpful; being familiar with click tracks is therefore, very useful :-)

Working in the studio, you will almost certainly have to play in reference to a click track & therefore, familiarity isn't just an advantage, it's essential.

[Key Facts About Posture & Position When Playing Your Cajon]Our Key Advice: Use click tracks or metronomes as a tool to understand your cajon playing better. make adjustments as necessary. Learn your tendencies & habits so that you can make them submit to what is needed.

 

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With & Without Music

Practicing your cajon can be a mixture of agony & ecstasy! Learning new techniques, accuracy of technique, consistency of playing, new beats etc can be a real labour of love. But it is necessary & unfortunately discipline can never be short-cut. However, once we have the basics we need to practice & one way to improve our playing is to do something we enjoy doing so we want to do it more.

Playing along to a click-track or metronome is important but sometimes we just need to enjoy playing along to music. Pre-recorded music is a great source for practice as most has already been recorded relative to a click track so you are playing at a constant tempo if you keep in time. Be aware that you will also subconsciously pick-up various cues from instruments in that particular recording so if you are learning the song, learn the structure first. Listen to how you play; practice your own fills etc & see if you come back in on time. Recordings are great for expanding our understanding of music too: listen to the volume, tones used, instrumentation etc & see whether you can reflect that in your playing.

How you play will be influenced by your musical style but I cannot stress enough the importance & value of listening to other styles & understanding how the cajon fits in & is played in those styles. The more you learn, the more you have at your disposal for your playing :-)

[Key Facts About Posture & Position When Playing Your Cajon]Our Key advice: Practice is important for improvement. The right practice will help you improve; the wrong will simply reinforce bad habits & make them harder to break later on. Learn the basic techniques; spend time mastering them; practice to click tracks & practice to music. Become aware of your natural tendencies regarding tempo etc & work on correcting these.

 

I hope this page has given you new ideas or planted seed for improving your playing, increasing your creativity & enjoying your cajon. If I have one piece of advice I can offer it is this: have fun playing this wonderful instrument that is the cajon & if I can help you in any way please don't hesitate to give me a call or drop me an e-mail.

 

REMEMBER:

+ DON'T BE DISCOURAGED by mistakes; we all make them!
+ Think about your music, your playing & where you fit in
+ RESPECT those around you & the gifts they have.

 

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