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.