I’ve been touring for almost six years, playing various club gigs, festivals, radio shows, and interviews. A small percentage of these shows require me, as a drummer, to play an instrument that is a little unorthodox when compared to a traditional drum set: the box drum.
I’ve settled on this instrument (rather than using something like a shaker) because it makes a lot of noise, is portable, and is very fun to play in an acoustic situation. I can pretty much nail all the rhythmic grooves of a song with this simple drum box. So what exactly is it?
When we say box drum, we aren’t talking about drumming on cardboard. These are known as called Cajóns. The cajón drum is a percussion instrument that originates from Peru.
Flamenco, jazz, and Afro-Peruvian music are some of the more commonly used musical applications of drum boxes, but they are widely used today for bands and artists playing acoustic sets.
How is a Cajón played and made?
Players use their hands to slap the front or rear faces to create a boomy bass drum effect or a snappy snare sound. In addition to hands, players of Cajóns can also use brushes, mallets, or even sticks.
Cajon drum boxes are generally made from sheets of thick wood and ply wall on the interior. The striking surface on the front of the Cajon is referred to as the “tapa.” On the back of the drum box, there is a sound hole cut out to allow the Cajon’s bass frequencies to resonate when hit in the center.
The best Cajóns of 2018 – A quick glance
Statistically, if you’re reading this, you’re looking for a Cajón to either play at home or use for a quieter gig with your band. There are a ton of options to choose from when it comes to buying one and it may be a bit confusing. To address that issue, we will be detailing each cajón below the comparison chart below.
1) Meinl Percussion JC50LBNT Cajón
The first Cajón on our list is the Meinl Percussion JC50LBNT, and for those who don’t know, Meinl cymbals is quickly becoming perhaps one of the most popular brands in drumming. I see more drummers using cymbals and gear from Meinl than I do from most of the big dog brands.
Before we begin looking at how well the Meinl drum box holds up in our review, there are some obvious things you should know about this Cajón; it’s cheaper than most and will not have all the fancy features a more expensive Cajón might have. That being said, let’s see some of the positives with Meinl’s best-selling drum box.
This Cajón has no bells and whistles; it’s pretty much standard. But don’t let that scare you away from it. It’s perfect for jam sessions and acoustic shows. It’s very lightweight coming in at 5 pounds and measures 10.2 x 10.2 x 15 inches. I’ve used this exact Cajon at multiple gigs and songwriting sessions. I wish I had purchased a case for it; it’s a little beat up now.
The Cajón is constructed of all birch and includes internal snare wires. It has a very snappy and punchy sound, depending on where you strike it. If you hit directly in the center with your palm, you’ll get a nice and deep bass tone.
When I have used this drum box on a gig, I actually like to have two microphones on it: a Shure Beta 52 near the sound hole in the back and a Shure SM57 near the front to capture the snappy snare sounds. This, of course, is optional, but if you find yourself at a gig with a PA, it’s worth trying out.
The top front plate corners of the playing surface are adjustable with a screwdriver. You can physically move the front layer, where your hand strikes, away from the resonating body. Depending on your taste, you can vary the amount of slap sound on your drum box. Here’s a video of the Cajon in action.
2) LP Black Box Wire Cajón
Latin Percussion is the standard when it comes to auxiliary and world percussion. They bridge the gap between real authentic world instruments and consumer-level products. They make everything from cowbells to timbales.
LP was formed in 1964 by Martin Cohen and soon after was already making bongos, cowbells, and many other instruments to musicians. He utilized NYC’s Latin nightclubs as research and development labs, seeing if musicians liked the instruments he was creating.
The LP Black Box Cajon is also another best-seller in terms of competitors. As far as features and specs go, this one is very similar to the Meinl Cajon.
Weighing in a solid 12 pounds, the LP Black Box is a little heavier than its competitor. It’s a more-solid drum box. The box measures 21 x 13 x 12 inches, which makes for a bit bigger of a Cajón. This instrument is also the winner of DRUM! Magazine’s Drummies! award for Best Cajón. This is one of the only drums I have seen that claims to be environmentally responsible for utilizing an eco-board and leaving a small footprint.
I personally love the look of this Cajón. One setback, when compared to the Meinl, is that there is no adjustable front plate. The sound from it is punchy, warm, and very musical.
On the negative side, the materials, despite being eco-friendly, are of a poor design. I can’t speak to this as I am short, but some have stated that if you’re taller, you’ll have a more difficult time playing this drum box, due to how you must sit on it. Others have also noted difficulty with assembly and having to physically hammer the pieces together and weaken the particle board. I had no such experience with this Cajón.
3) Meinl Percussion Subwoofer Cajón
Back again with Meinl Percussion! This is our Editor’s Choice pick for this review. Yes, this Cajón is the most expensive on the list, but hey, they say you get what you pay for, right?
This is Meinl’s biggest and baddest Cajón, offering a low-end punch that everyone dreams of. The first time I sat down at this Cajón, I could really feel it. The size of the sound is so massive. According to Meinl, the extra deep body allows for excellent low note development.
The jumbo bass Cajón measures 13.5 x 19.75 x 13.75 inches; this drum box is shorter than the LP Black Box! One interesting thing to note about it is that it features forward-facing sound ports. If you are sitting on top, these ports really allow you to feel the drum and the bass. Again, like the other Cajón from Meinl, it features an adjustable front plate.
I personally love it, but there’s always going to be someone who has a bad experience. One player who used Meinl’s pedal attachment has had issues with the fiberboard being damaged and has had to repair it multiple times. You never know, though. This could have been a result of overplaying.
The best electronic Cajón
4) Roland EC-10 EL Cajón
Roland’s electronic Cajón is a hybrid. While it does operate as a standard drum box, it is also packed with built-in electronic sounds. You can now blend traditional tones with acoustic drums, tambourines, shakers, electronic drums, and more.
The EC-10 is completely self-contained, as it comes with battery power and an onboard speaker. You also do have the option to plug the electronic Cajón into a PA system via the line out on the back of the box.
Things to consider when buying a Cajón
Not all Cajóns are created equal. Some are designed to sound much bigger and fuller than others. Very few have an electronic jack for amplification, so miking it up might be necessary at certain gigs.
What kind of musicians play Cajóns?
In my experience, I’ve seen everyone from professional drummers to young kids playing drum boxes. It’s a very easy instrument to pick up and start playing. Cajons have gained a lot of popularity as of late due to their portability and great sound output.
Can you add a box drum to a traditional drum set?
- Cable driven pedal with superior weight and feel
- Instantly turns a Cajon into a kick drum
- Super slick and quiet cable system
- Patent Pending Beater, produces an authentic palm sound
- Adjustable spring tension caters to all playing styles
You can. By using a special kick drum pedal, you can set up your Cajón next to your hi-hat (for example) and play your Cajón with your left foot on the kick pedal. This setup isn’t the most user-friendly and you probably won’t get the best tone from your box drum in this situation.
Are Cajóns loud enough to upset the neighbors?
If you live in an apartment or condominium complex, a box drum will be loud enough to upset your neighbors. Be sure to respect them the best you can and see if you can arrange a time when you can play your Cajón. We all like our peace and quiet, too.
Is there any way to make a DIY box drum?
If you’re a handy person, you can build your own Cajón for about $25, thanks to this handy guide. They instruct you to use plywood for the drum faces, but if you wanted to go for a better sound, you could instead use a solid hardwood like mahogany.
A DIY project may sound like a good idea, but unless you’re a master craftsman, this project could get intense. If budget is your main concern, check out the Cajón below from Sawtooth. It won’t get you the greatest sound but does help in the money department.
- Ash Wood Front Panel
- Adjustable Internal Snare Wire System and Adjustable Front Plate to Achieve Desired Sound
- Durable Rubber Base Feet
- Maple Back and Sides
- Includes Carry Bag & Padded Seat Cushion for added comfort
How to play Cajón – Best resources to start learning
The Cajón is a very simple instrument. Here’s the basic rundown: You sit on top of the drum box and using both your hands, hit the box in different areas. You’ll notice near the top of the drum box when slapped, you will hear an articulate, snappy sound. When striking the Cajón with your palm in the middle, you will get a more bass heavy tone. Using these two sounds in conjunction with one another is the best way to start playing simple grooves.
YouTube is an excellent resource for learning how to play the Cajón. If you’re completely new to playing, check out some videos and watch how people are playing. Try to emulate the motions and grooves you see. Here’s a video that details the basics.
A brief history of the Cajón
At its purest form, the Cajón is a drum, a stand, and a seat, all in one. The simplicity of this design may have been key in allowing this instrument to travel many miles across multiple continents and cultures. Despite its simplicity, the drum box remains to be one of the most popular percussion instruments played today.
The Cajón originates from West Africa
The word Cajón is a literal translation from Spanish meaning box. We see the Cajón in many cultures spanning across several continents and generations. In West Africa, the indigenous people had (and still have) musical traditions that were rich in rhythm and dance.
Their drums originated from carved logs, made with chisels. Some popular variants include the djembe, bongos, conga, and batá drums. Djembes, like Cajóns, are also very popular hand drums.
Drum circles across the world have grown and many major drum manufacturers have taken notice, creating popularized versions of these hand-made drums.
The development of the Cajón can be traced back to the Spanish colonies in the Americas. Many slaves were captured and brought to the Americas. They had brought the culture with them, but not their drums.
The slaves did not possess the ability to craft or create their own traditional drums, so they improvised using boxes, crates, or anything else that they could find that would work as a drum.
Shipping crates would create the blueprint for the modern-day Cajón. During this time, playing music or instruments was banned by the slavers. Their inconspicuous appearance may have played a role in keeping this culture alive, as owners did not want their slaves engaging in musical entertainment.
An Afro-Peruvian culture was born, and new forms of dance and music were created. The Cajón had become a dedicated instrument native to this culture. The abolition of slavery also brought the Cajón to new populations of people and continents.
- During the 18th century, all forms of drums and drumming were banned
- People in power believed that drumming threatened their authority
- Peruvian port cities began noticing an unusual number of crates and boxes being used as instruments by slaves
- While we don’t know the exact time the Cajón was born, one of the first images of a drum box was in a drawing by Peruvian artist Ignacio Merino, dated 1841
Peru is a major exporter of Cajóns and other percussion instruments still to this day due to one of its native sons, Alex Acuña.
What is a Cajón?
In its rawest form, the Cajón is a six-sided wooden instrument with a sound hole cut into the back. The front panel is referred to as the tapa and is made from a thinner wood than the rest of the box. The tapa provides the necessary resonance to create both a boomy bass tone and a slappy snare sound. The primary role of a Cajón is an accompaniment instrument.
The Cajita and its relationship to the Cajón
Peru is also the innovator behind another cool percussion instrument: the cajita. The cajita is a small, wooden box with a lid, originally used to collect money in churches. The cajita usually hangs from one’s neck and is struck with a small mallet or stick while opening and closing the lid.
Is the Peruvian Cajón the only variant of drum boxes?
No. Peru wasn’t the only country to be developing the Cajón. At the same time, Afro-Cuban dock workers were similarly using candle crates as instruments. From the streets of port cities like Havana and Matanzas, we got wonderful styles of music like rumba: Columbia, guaguanco, and yambu.
The Cuban Cajón was different as most of them were five-sided and shaped like a pyramid. Cuban Cajóns are generally held in the lap and pitched in high, medium, and low tones. The pitch and melody of these instruments are far more important in rumba than its Peruvian counterpart.
The Cajón’s rise in Western popularity with flamenco music
Far after the invention of the Cajón, the box drum eventually made its way back to Spain. Spanish flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia and Brazilian percussionist Rubem Dantas discovered drum boxes while traveling on tour in the 70s. The Cajón quickly gained popularity in the flamenco scene, as prior to this time, percussion instruments used were mostly hands and feet. At this time, musicians began experimenting with snare wires and guitar strings stretched inside the Cajón, giving it a characteristic that resembled a buzz-like snare sound. It gave it a sound closer to a drum set. The Cajón has since been used in genres like folk, jazz, blues, and rock.
The modern-day Cajón – Drum boxes for all genres!
The use of Cajóns in the modern day has vastly changed from what they were originally intended for. You can now hear Cajóns on records, at acoustic shows, and on the busy streets of major cities. I recently saw an interesting video of musicians jamming together using a Cajón, a kalimba, and a djembe. There’s no right or wrong.
Modern musicians have adapted new designs, adding guitar and pianos strings, drum snares, tambourine cymbals, and even adopted the use of mallets and brushes for playing drum boxes.
Our Best Cajón Pick
The Cajón drum that stood out to us was the Meinl Percussion Subwoofer Cajon. It features excellent build-quality, wonderful sound, and a great-looking design. These three factors led us to our ultimate decision. If you feel like we left out your favorite Cajón, please leave us a comment below and we will update our review!