“That’s the Best Cajon I’ve Ever Heard”

Cajon tapa made with bookmatched veneer

I guy came up to me on the street the other day and tried to buy my cajon. A few days earlier another fellow told me it was the best cajon he’d ever heard. Last night a traveling street musician wanted a YouTube link he could send to his cajon builder friends in Argentina. Most folks on the planet don’t have much experience with cajons, but I was busking in Montañita Ecuador, a haven for world travelers looking for a little quality beach time. So there’s perhaps a higher percentage of folks passing through that actually know what a cajon is.

Four cajons made in Buenos Aires Argentina
Cajons made in Buenos Aires Argentina: JC Percusion ; Alexander Percussion; tierrapiano and Skull Percussion

All total I’ve played about 36 brands of cajon, which is not very many when you consider there are over 350 cajon makers on the planet, 50 in the USA alone. Any website that claims to have objectively sampled them all is probably BS’ing you. I’ve played all the common ‘Made in Thailand/China’ cajon brands sold in most music stores. I own a wonderful cajon made in Germany. I’ve got a start on a collection of South American cajon models. And I’ve played every locally made brand I could find in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Argentina, Chile and the Philippines.

JC Percussion cajon made in Colombia
Outstanding JC Percussion cajon made in Bogota, Colombia

But this is a drop in the bucket, there are so many great cajons made in Japan, Australia, Poland, Russia, Spain, and many other countries. We recently had a discussion in the “Play Cajon” forum about the best sounding cajon in the world. Perhaps we should have re-titled it “the best sounding cajon sold in music stores” because while there were a few regional brands mentioned, over and over the recommendations were factory made cajons from a few global manufacturers.

Five cajons made in Latin America
Five cajons made in Latin America: Right most is a music store cajon from Cali; Tovar Percussion in Bogota; JP Percussion from Popayan, Colombia, Afrika Percussion from Colombia and a music store cajon in Santiago de Chile.

Of the cajons I have played, I can’t really say which brand is ‘best’. Most cajon makers have several models. The high end models are usually very, very good. But many of the low end models are simple and basic. It’s understandable. Basic models costing as little as $30 are affordable to almost anyone. Sometimes I’ve been able to play and record the high end models, sometimes not.

A&P Cajon made in Colombia near Cali
A great sounding, professional A&P Cajon made in Colombia near Cali

Another thing, cajons are different, no two alike. For many people the sound is almost personal and specific. It’s like asking which guitar is best, a Les Paul or a Gretsch? I may love the tone of one and you might prefer the one next to it. We are both right. Some people like a lot of snare, some people want none. Some cajons have a ‘dead’ space at the seat that makes ghost notes easier, some do not. Some people prefer the flat, clean boom produced by a thick back, some want the resonance of a thin back. And some cajons sound better when accompanying music of a certain key or style, which should be a blog unto it’s own.

Firebox Cajon solid wood cajon
Firebox Cajon #43, solid wood cajon

Mostly I play my current build, number 43, completed at the end of the Alaskan summer of 2019 in the shed outside my house. It’s got the sound hole on the bottom, the sides are Sitka spruce, western red cedar and yellow cedar. The top is yellow cedar. It is perfect for busking, the sound hole on the bottom directs the sound forward. The back is polycarbonate and it has my new angled, flexible snare system which is great for flamenco or rock. It’s the cajon I’m hauling around Ecuador and it gets a lot of attention.

VP Cajon made in Peru
VP Cajon made in Lima Peru with great sound, for some songs I prefer this to #43

I have played cajons with cleaner bass, and some with lower bass. And many high end cajons look nicer. #43 is a very good cajon, certainly not the best in the world, but good enough to impress and keep me happy. While it is flattering that many world travelers in Montañita really like this cajon, their opinions are subject to the same limited experience that we all have: they’ve only heard a very small percentage of all cajon brands.

Cajon Fly made in Medellin Colombia
An awesome cajon by Cajon Fly made in Medellin Colombia

I’m no wood whisperer, yet I was able to make a great sounding cajon. Building a good cajon is a doable project for most wood workers who have a basic wood shop, patience and a penchant for detail. Local cajon makers who have built hundreds of cajons are often making great sounding, quality instruments at reasonable prices.

Cajon with Puerto Rica flag made in Colombia
Cajon with Puerto Rica flag made in Colombia

If you’d like a cajon similar to #43 please contact a local cajon maker and give them the links in the paragraph up above. The construction information is all there. And I’d be happy to answer questions. But before you have them duplicate these plans, please try one of their cajons, chances are you’ll find a winner.

Flamentr3lok cajons made in Chile
Beautiful Flamentr3lok cajons made in Chile

Well that’s it, in your search for the best cajon in your world, please start with a local cajon maker. “Try before you buy” is nice but if you must, throw caution to the wind and just get one.

JA Cajon made in the Philippines
Marvelous solid wood JA Cajon made in the Philippines

In the next few weeks I’m going to start a page on the Cajons of the World site devoted cajon construction. Stay tuned. If you would rather just buy a great locally made cajon right now here are links to your local cajon makers:

Cajons Made in the USA

Cajons Made in Europe

Cajons of the World

Cajon with Ruben Blades artwork
Cajon with Ruben Blades artwork made in Colombia
Busking with two cajons
Busking with two cajons, each has a unique sound

Learning to Play Cajon – Intro for Newbies

Buskers with a cajon

“The stuff you don’t want to hear but probably need to.”

You got a locally made cajon for your birthday! Awesome! What’s next? If you can take lessons from a live human being, go for it, it’s absolutely the best way to learn any instrument. On the internet there’s an overwhelming number of good YouTube video tutorials available. Straight off I’ll recommend you visit Ross McCallum’s channel. He’s a good cajon teacher, a nice guy, and he’s not pushing any products. Go straight through all his beginner tutorials. Try out his advanced stuff. Play along at home to your favorite tunes. Explore other YouTube channels, there’s plenty of great ones to choose from.

Below is some real world advice for first day cajon owners about playing with other people. It’s not sugar coated. But in addition to YouTube tutorials it should help get you started.

Most of us are amateur cajon players – we play because we enjoy music and rhythm. We play for fun. Which is great. But issues can arise when new players join in with seasoned musicians. Drum machines, professional drummers and/or post-recording quantization ensures the public hears music with perfect rhythm. As a cajon player in a group, your job is to be the ‘humanized metronome’. The standard most people and other musicians have for this, that they hear on virtually every song they listen to is, perfection. This is hard to live up to.

Band wtih two cajons playing in Montanita Ecuador
Band with two cajons playing in Montanita Ecuador

If we wanted to be professional drummers we’d probably go to school. And as with all studies there would parts we really enjoy and other parts that would be more of a grind. As a percussion student you would have no choice but work with a metronome to perfect your timing. We’re talking hours and hours of practice to perfect hits that differ by milliseconds.

‘Git’n gud’ at anything requires a certain amount of practice, concentration and repetition – activities which are in conflict with our primary driver: fun. So to mitigate these realities I’d suggest you divide your cajon playing into two worlds: solo practice and everything else.

When practicing alone try new things, experiment, have a lot of fun but use a metronome regularly to perfect your timing. When playing and practicing with other people remember: you are their metronome. Play beats you know perfectly. Simplify. Be conservative. Better to have no fills at all than to mess up the timing. Over time, as you progress, add material you’ve perfected in your solo practice to your playing with other musicians.

A band busking in Montanita Ecuador
A band busking in Montanita Ecuador

In a recent Facebook forum Janine Otto had this to say about playing cajon in a band: “If you can keep the beat anything you do will be OK. Keeping the beat is THE most important thing. It’s really the only thing the other musicians want.” Early on forget complex fills, focus on basic rhythm patterns, simple beats. Not very exciting but it’s what’s needed, it’s your primary job as a drummer with a group. Practice fills alone in the privacy of your own home. When they fit perfectly with your rhythms, use them in public, sparingly. As time progresses, you’ll learn to be spontaneous.

You might say, “Well, singing around a campfire is different than playing with a band.” My response, “No, it isn’t.” I’ve sat around campfires with newbie cajon players trying to play back-to-back fills to “Dust in the Wind”. It’s painful. For everyone. In a big band the other musicians should be able to carry the song through a few miss-beats, but in close quarters not so much.

A tourist tries out playing cajon.
A tourist tries out playing cajon.

It’s a bit harsh for new players but there is a saying in the music world: “It takes a very good drummer to be better than no drummer at all.” You’ll sometimes hear this coming from other musicians. It’s a statement. Maybe to you. Perhaps looking you straight in the eyes. It would be nice to avoid having this experience. A lot of musicians work very, very hard to write their songs and perfect their playing, pitching and timing. If the drummer hits a bunch of bad beats, you’ll get the side glance, the look. Better to play simple beats and blend in than to stand out as timing challenged.

I’m not trying to throw water on your fire to play cajon. The above musing are the realities of playing music with other people that a face-to-face music teacher would convey, gently, over time. But you might never hear this information in any internet course. Many new cajon players are first time musicians. You are better off hearing this stuff early on. A little perspective now will make you a much better cajon player sooner than later.

Get a metronome. Use it. And above all, have fun.

The Cajons of Popayan Colombia

There are at least two cajon builders in the Popayan area, Fabox Cajones and JP Cajon. Both make good instruments.  They are both innovators, their cajons often have small or sometime significant enhancements that make them unique and interesting. Both are serving the local populace and have simple, basic models as well has higher end models. A nice higher end model will run about $100 USD. These cajons would cost 2 times the asking price in Europe or the USA. Fabox Cajones are available in a few music stores in Cali and Bogota. JP Cajons are also available in Cali.

Some models of FaBox have internal baffle directly behind the top of the tapa. Some of their cajons have unique guitar string snares. And some have adjustable sound holes. They all look great and play well. The guitar snare wires are found in typical flamenco style cajons typically run vertically. FaBox snare wires are horizontal at the top which is nice as it isolates the snare sound from the bass sound.

FaBox cajon with adjustable guitar snare
FaBox cajon with adjustable guitar snare

JP Cajons also sometimes have internal baffles directly behind the top of the tapa. This isolates the sound of the snare, sending it outward from the tapa and decreases the amount of snare in the bass from the sound hole. 

There was also an un-branded cajon with an interesting snare wire modification. Occasionally cajon makers attaching the snare wires directly to the seat or to a re-enforcement along the front seat edge. It is a simple method of adding snare, but there is no way to adjust or remove the snare. In the photo below you can see that the snare wires along the bottom are being held in place with a guitar string stretched between the sides, I’d never seen this before.

Snare wires attached at the top and held in place by a guitar string.
Snare wires attached at the top and held in place by a guitar string along the bottom. This is a simple, un-branded cajon sold in the Armonia music store on Carrera 8.
Snare wires on a basic cajon model
Attaching snare wires directly to a side support is a simple but effective way to add snare.

There more than 7 music stores scattered in the colonial center of Popayan. Many carry locally made cajons and all have a selection of other percussion instruments, often made in Colombia. Prices are low and quality is good.  If you are a musician or want a locally present for a musician friend, visiting these music shops is a good way to connect with quality, local products. The following music stores with street address carry locally made cajons:

  • Serenata, Calle 5, 10-68
  • Armonia, Carrera . 9, 7-11
  • Pentragram, Calle 6, 9-22
  • Mi Guitarra, Carrera 8, 6-32
  • Melodia, Carrera 8, 6-58
Location of music stores in Popayan Colombia that carry local cajons.
Location of music stores in Popayan Colombia that carry local cajons.

When I was there in March of 2019, the high end FaBox models were probably the best cajons in Popayan. They are good plywood cajons with some interesting innovations and nice finishes. JP cajons are decent inexpensive cajons, I actually bought one in Cali and donated to the hostel I was staying in.

FaBox cajon as recorded in Serenata music store.

Cajons with Resonant Heads

Five cajons with resonant heads on a beach

The ‘batter head’ is the part of a drum you hit. If the drum has a vibrating head opposite the batter head it is called the ‘resonant head’. Not all drums have resonant heads, conga drums and bongo drums for example do not have a resonant head. Some drums such as marching band bass drums and bata drums, have two batter heads, which also act as resonant heads. The cajon’s batter head is called the tapa. Some cajons have thick, stiff backs that are not designed to vibrate, others have thinner backs which vibrate and create resonate. The back of a cajon which is intended to vibrate and produce resonance could be consider to be a ‘resonant head’. There are a few cajon models that have two batter heads – the ‘back’ is thin plywood, usually a little thicker than the primary tapa, and is designed to be played.

Polycarbonate cajon back
Polycarbonate cajon back as a resonant head.

Many commercial cajons have thin plywood backs, some slightly thinner than 5mm. Some thin backs even seem to be impregnated with plastic or flexible epoxy, simulating a stiff drum skin. Some are attached very tightly, almost as if the manufacture found a way to stretch the wood across the back. These cajons have more resonance than cajons with thick backs. To the manufacturers benefit these cajons also weigh less, hence are cheaper to ship in bulk resulting in less carbon burden.

Inside a cajon with a resonant head made from polycarbonate.
Inside a cajon with a resonant head made from polycarbonate and attached with epoxy and screws

Unlike drum kit drums, the back of the cajon is important structurally. The back provides support to the sides, at least under lateral pressures. A cajon with a membranous drum head on the back would need to have thicker sides with extreme corner bracing to be structurally stable. Or it would need some sort of reinforced edging around the back. Some cajon manufactures have used a typical circular drum kit head system inserted in to a solid plywood back to simulate a resonant head on a cajon, but this is costly and rare.

Clean edge between wood and polycarbonate when 2-part epoxy is used. Edges sanded clean.

I’ve built about 40 cajons using polycarbonate for the cajon back. I consider these to be cajons with resonant heads, perhaps the most resonant heads found on any cajon. Polycarbonate is very strong, it is typically found in the face shields of motorcycle helmets. It has excellent lateral strength but when flat sheets are attached along the edges, it readily vibrates in the center. Used as the back of a cajon it provides significant lateral support and significant resonance. Unlike a membranous head, polycarbonate does not need to be stretched to produce resonance. Some of my cajons are made from solid softwood and have slightly shrunk over time. The polycarbonate heads are slightly buckled but continue to produce about the same amount of resonance as they did when the cajon was new.

Solid wood cajon with polycarbonate back held on with only 2-part epoxy. I now add screws to reinforce the epoxy joint.

Polycarbonate is not the same as ‘acrylic’. Acrylics have much less strength and can shatter. I would never use acrylic on a cajon back.

Attaching polycarbonate to the edges of a wooden cajon is an issue, you can not simply glue it. Most glues do not adhere to polycarbonate. I’ve been using two part epoxy and screws. This last summer I tried a few other methods hoping to find a simpler method. I tried a variety of double sided tapes and screws. I didn’t like any of them. The tapes gave inconsistent visual results and unless you use a lot of screws, the tape actually seems to slightly mute the polycarbonate.

Polycarbonate attached with 32 screws, no epoxy or tape.

The simplest method with acceptable visual results was to simply use a lot of screws to attach the polycarbonate, no tape, no epoxy. But this is tedious, the polycarbonate is tough and drilling 32 holes and counter sinks is time consuming. Plus the results around the edge are not as visually appealing as an epoxy edge.

Cajon with a polycarbonate back attached with only screws.
Cajon with a polycarbonate back attached with only screws. The polycarbonate is slightly buckled between screws. More screws are needed on this cajón. If the back was also attached with epoxy this would be the correct number of screws.

So I spent part of the summer of 2019 trying to simplify attaching a polycarbonate back to a cajon using 2-part epoxy and screws. I’ve updated a previous blog with the most recent methods. It is more efficient than the previous version and is the result of 5 years working with cajons with polycarbonate backs.

Flexible Snare System for Cajons

Shows the Alaskan snare wire system looking down.

I’ve been building cajons with “sound holes on the bottom” for 2 years and finally decided it was time to fit a few with a snare mechanism. I wanted to keep it simple and I wanted something that doesn’t require a hole in the side of the cajon box. On my cajons this is a super easy mechanism to take in and out. On a cajon with a normal sound hole it would take a bit of practice but would certainly be doable.

There are two common kinds of snares on cajons, those that use guitar strings, flamenco cajons, and those that use the same snare wires found on snare drums. There are many snare wire holder designs used in cajons with snare wires. Some have rigid stationary bars to hold the snare wires, some have rigid rotating bars or dowels that allow on-off and some cajons have rigid but removable bars.

Flexible cajon snare mechanism in place

This design is based on snare wires but it works because the wires are angled and held in place by a thin flexible bar that helps to press the wires onto the surface of the tapa. The design gives good snare, clear bass and is easy to remove. A disadvantage is it can not be removed while playing, you must reach into the cajon to add it or remove it.

Flexible mounting bracket and angled snare wires.
Flexible mounting bar with angled snare wires.

Angled Snare Wire Orientation

The wires themselves have three important angles, one is the positioning of the wire mount on the bar to angle the wires towards the center of the cajon. The second is the cut off end of the wires, it progressively lengths such that all the wires end at the seat of the cajon, towards the center. I like to make the device then cut the wires so they just touch the seat. Because of these 2 angles the wires are not held tight by the seat. A direct hit over the wires results in a good snare but a hit to the side has much less snare. Contact with the seat causes a slight muting if the hit is high in the middle against the seat. I like this as I am constantly looking for different tones and this provides two distinct tones in close proximity.

The main advantage of the angled wires touching the top is that the snare sound is good in the upper center, but minimal to the side and minimal in the bass.

I bend the wires out from the bass of the metal snare wire mounting bracket. They must be mounted on the wooded bracket to maximize the angle toward the tapa. In the cajon the tapa would be vertical at the bottom of this photo.
I bend the wires out from the base of the metal snare wire mounting bracket. They must be mounted on the wooded bar to maximize the angle toward the tapa. In the cajon the tapa would be vertical at the bottom of this photo.

The third important angle keeps the snare wires pressed tightly against the tapa. It is achieved by both the inclination of the wires on the bar and the inclination of the bar on the bracket. I usually bend the wires where they attach to the metal bracket that holds them all together. The wires must be mounted such that the angle to the tapa is maximized. If you mount them on the other side such that they are flush with the tapa, the tension may in insufficient and the mechanism may fall out.

Flexible Bar

The flexible bar is a piece of thin 3mm tapa plywood cut narrow, about 19 mm and just long enough to fit between the sides. I am still experimenting with the best position but in my current favorite build the bottom of the bar is 11 cm below the bottom of the top. In some of these photos I’ve add three pieces to give the screws wood depth and change the flexibility, but I’ve also used two or even none. Even with a piece to thicken for wood depth, the screws poke through and should be ground flush.

Adding thickness to give the screws purchase.
Simulating the pressure of a tapa. Without a tapa the mechanism will fall out.

After the mount is built if the wires are too long, cut them shorter. I use a 10 inch metal cutting wheel to cut snare wire, with the wires mounted in a jig it is much easier and cleaner than than with wire cutters. Snare wire is very tough. There are more photos on how to cut snare wire in the gallery at the end of the blog.

Cutting snare wire

Mounting Brackets

The bar is held in place by small notches in the mounting pieces and by the tension of the snare wire strings pressing against the tapa.

Four examples of bracket mounts for the flexible bar attached to the side of cajons. The three to the left have long backing pieces. The right most example with the short backing piece is not recommended, it proved difficult to insert the bar.

The bar mounting pieces are small. It’s nice to have a hand or mechanized scroll saw to shape them. I experimented with different lengths for the mounting brackets and found that a short piece with the notch is good but it is better to have a long backing piece. It makes it much easier to put the device in.

I’m currently using a bar to tapa angle somewhere around 30 to 40 degrees but I’m still experimenting. If the angle is too steep there will be little or no snare. If to shallow the device could fall out. The distance elevated from the tapa is very important. It must be close to the tapa, but not too close. Right now I am using about 15mm. This is a new design, please think of the measurements as preliminary. I don’t want to lock anyone into numbers that may not be optimal. If you make this design you are part of an experiment and please let us know what worked and didn’t in the comments.

I cut the slot for the bracket a little small. After the bracket pieces are glued in I round the contact edges/corners of the bar until the device slips into place.

Shaping the ends of the flexible snare bar to ensure a tight fit.

The snare wires are held against the tapa by the combined pressure of the flexible bar, the inclination of the snare wires and the notch in the bracket. The pressure of the wires slightly bends the flexible bar. With each hit the bar flex and string rebound combine to produce a good snare sound.

Flexible snare wire bar inserted but not yet snapped into place.
Flexible snare wire bar inserted in to mounting bracket and snapped into place. With the tapa on the cajon, the mechanism will stay in place.

If you want you can make two layers of mounting brackets. This will enable you to position the bar high or low. Which will change the amount of snare. The photo below shows the basic idea but it was the first and only time I have tried this so the shape of the pieces was not optimized. Next time I’ll make them progressively longer to help with getting the bar in. This will give you the option of a little snare or a lot. But you’ll get a lot of snare sound in the bass using the lower position. You could also have multiple flexible mounting bars, the one to fit the lower mounts could have longer snare wires, angled in or not.

Multple mounting brackets enable the bar to be placed higher or lower, changing the amount of snare.

There’s no on-off mechanism. Simply remove the snare bar to eliminate the snare sound. The only fine tuning is which level you place the snare.

Solid wood cajon with edging, snare brackets and internal bracing.