“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

“The Best Cajon” in the Time of the Illusion of Choice

The top of a cajon tapa.
The tapa top of a precisely made cajon.

It think the French girl I chatted with in the hostel kitchen this evening thinks I’m a bit daft… I went on for a bit about how “cajons are like toothpaste”. She may have misinterpreted my meaning. I tried my best to really emphasize the C in ‘cajon’.  I tried, I really did. In Spanish class today my professor tactfully pointed out the significant differences between the hard C and the soft c when pronouncing ‘cajon’. I never knew.

My thesis revolved around the concept sometimes called the ‘Illusion of Choice’ – the marketing technique whereas a company produces many, more or less identical products, with completely different names and packaging. Thus giving the consumer the appearance choice. Yet all come from the same company, similar factories, with perhaps slightly different amounts of… sugar, or something.

Cajon guitar snare wire adjustment wrench
Many cajons come with wrenches stored inside to adjust the snare wires. The Velcro holds the snare wire against the back of the tapa.

I went to 9 music stores here in Quito, Ecuador today… looking at and playing cajons.  I sat on and tried out 6 different ‘brands’. Turns out most were made in Thailand. It got me thinking about one of the webs ‘best cajons reviews’ I recently suffered through. They looked at 10 cajons, but as I counted up there were 2 models from the global manufacturer I call ‘Big Cajon’ and 4, maybe even 6, from ‘brands’ who I suspect are either completely owned by or partnered with Big Cajon.  The 2 brands I think are fully independent were given good but not outstanding reviews.

I tried to explain to the French girl how 3 or 4 companies make most of the toothpaste in the world but if you look at the shelves in many stores you seem to have an amazing number of choices. Choices that are an illusion. My passionate comparison of toothpaste to cajons was perhaps not well thought out. But as a millennial with good teeth and not much interest in percussion, she shrugged it off and the conversation moved on.

Tomorrow night I will attempt to clarify: as with toothpaste, when searching for a quality cajon, there may be many ‘brands’ in reviews and stores that could actually be from the same company, similar factories, with perhaps slightly different amounts of… sugar, or something.

Inside a cajon box. showing snare wires.
Attachment of snare wires in a cajon.

Unlike health care products, the labeling and reporting origins of factory made cajons may sometimes be incomplete. This website, Cajons of the World, is devoted to promoting the work of local cajon manufacturers.  I try to ensure the lists are accurate.  I look at and evaluate each builders website and videos. I chat with builders I am uncertain of to verify their location. Occasionally I may ask for additional photos of the manufacturing process or to tour the workshop. I consider the output from one factory, no matter what the tapa graphic or labeling may tout, to be from a single manufacturer.

For more-or-less unbiased help navigating the drum box illusion of choice check out: The Best Cajon from this site.  For more information on why cajon brands are added or removed from this site please see “About CajonsMadeIn.com“, “Tapa Graphics” and “Made-in vs. Assembled-in

Moral of the story: Consumer, beware the illusion of choice in the time of “the best cajon”.

Inside a cajon showing the attachment of snare wires at the bottom of the tapa.
Attachment of adjustable snare wire inside the cajon at the base of the tapa.

Buying a Cajon in Guayaquil, Ecuador

Which Cajon Brands are Available in Guayaquil?

Similar to Lima Peru there are many music stores in central Guayaquil clustered in a small area. But there the similarity ends. Ecuador has import taxes and the price of many imported instruments seemed to be considerably higher than what I would pay in the USA and or in Peru.  Another big difference was the selection of cajons, there are not many locally made cajons available.

Inside a Tycoon Acrylic cajon at Ecko Music on Rumichaca 817.

It is an interesting selection of imported cajons in the central stores. Several brands imported from Asia, a few PR cajons from Peru and one SR Cajon from Brazil. There were 4 Tycoon acrylic cajons (made in Thailand) for sale. I played one a couple times, they are loud, with a lot of rattle from the adjustable guitar string snare system. The colored one is flashy and I can see where they would have a lot of stage presence in small venues. The import tax in Ecuador pushes them to about $550 each. The other imported brands, Stagg, Primer, Mirage and others, were priced in the $150 to $200 range. There were a few ‘made for kids’ cajons available that looked like Peruvian CPeru type cajons with equivalent prices.

One of two Percusion Real cajons available at the Gallardo Music store in central Guayaquil

After a couple visits to one store I spotted two PR cajons from Peru, one high on a storage shelf, the other behind a chain-link fence. The price on one was $180, which is about $80 more than you’d pay in Lima, the other $120. Both considerably less than what you’d pay in Europe or the USA for an equivalent cajon.

SR Cajon made in Brazil

The MAG Guayaquil Craft Market at the corner of Montalvo and Moreno has two stalls selling cajons including two ATempo cajons from Peru. One was $250 the other $200.

Guayaquil Craft Market, Stall #40 with 2 ATempo Cajons.

There is also a music store in the enormous ‘Guayaquil Bus Terminal’. La Victoria had a Mirage cajon ($150) and a LP Aspire Wire ($230) for sale.

Which is the best cajon to buy in Guayaquil, Ecuador?

The PR Percussion cajons are perhaps the best mid-range cajons available in Guayaquil stores. One was solid hardwood. But they may not be there long and who knows if the stock will be replenished. The ATempos are great cajons at the high end. With a bit of time and effort you could get a mid-range or high-end Nativo from their Facebook page or from website www.mecadolibre.com.ec or perhaps directly from the factory 17 km outside of Guayaquil.

The best cajon is one you sit on, play and like better than all the others you’ve played. Hopefully this blog will help you in your decision making. Check out this blog for more information on selecting the best cajon for you.

To visit the cluster of music stores in central Guayaquil just walk to the intersection of Rumichaca and V.M. Rendon streets about a block away from Parque Centenario. There’s over 10 stores in about a 2 block radius.

To visit the store recommended by Nativo (Instrumentos Musicales JC), Uber to Albocentro 1, Guayaquil and walk east down Jose Maria Roura Oxandaberro street about one block. It is right next to the Area 51 Barber shop and tatoo studio.

I did not visit every music store in Guayaquil so there could be some gems out there. And cajons in stock will certainly change with time. If you know of any stores in the Guayaquil area with other cajons please add them to the comments section of this blog.

All prices are 2018 in USD, the currency of Ecuador.

Most music stores also sell sound systems.

PR cajon high on a shelf.

One of the better stocked music stores.