Originating as a slave instrument from the 18th century, the cajon has quickly become a fixture in both jazz fusion genres and flamenco. It’s popularity has also started to bleed over into other genres to the point where it’s not unheard of as an accompaniment for blues, pop, rock, or even funk.
While the cajon is undoubtedly pretty popular, just like any other instrument it can be pretty overwhelming for the uninitiated to try and find a model that well work for their needs without stretching their budget. If you’ve ever had a hard time figuring how to choose the best cajon for your needs, you’ve come to the right place. This article will give you all the information that you need to make an informed purchase as well as give you five great recommendations.
- The Basics: Cajon 101
- What Should I Look For In A Cajon
- The Top 5 Cajons
The Basics: Cajon 101
While there are a variety of theories as to the origin of the cajon, it’s most likely origin is that it was an attempt to subvert the Spanish colonial bans on African music. Slave owners in pretty much every corner of the globe attempted to ban slaves from playing their native music to distance them from the culture. The French, British, Spanish, and American slave owners all tried this at one point or another.
And when you think about it, the cajon was a pretty clever solution to this problem. Considering that it’s essentially just a wooden box the cajon could be stored in plain sight without arousing suspicion. And as the recent widespread adoption of the cajon has shown, the instrument really does have the potential to provide just as good of a rhythmic base as any traditional drum.
While the cajon has been played Peruvian music since its inception, it recent fame can be attributed to the Spanish flamenco player Paco de Lucia. Paco de Lucia used the cajon as a way to provide a more reliable rhythm section to flamenco music, and he chose the cajon because it features a timbre more similar to the more common percussive guitar slaps found in the genre.
Unfortunately, sometimes the cajon gets a bit of a bad rap from people unfamiliar with the instrument because it’s seen as a novelty item. However, the beauty of the cajon is that it’s not a drum set. There are a ton of genres that benefit from having a good percussion section but can’t utilize a full drum kit. That’s why recently the cajon has become so popular in intimate acoustic settings. A skilled cajon player can pull a pretty wide variety of sounds out of their instrument, none of which have the sustain or power to distract from more minimalist pieces of music. When used tastefully, a cajon really is a great fit in a wide variety of genres.
What Should I Look For In A Cajon?
Cajons are generally built to emphasize a woody bass tone or a woody snare like tone. It really depends on the original intent of the manufacturer. With the exception of traditional Peruvian cajons, most recently made instruments come with some sort of mechanism to approximate a snare-type sound. This is generally done with either wire or guitar strings that are ran on the front side of the box. Recently, J Leiva have been manufacturing a cajon with an easy to use snare adjustment mechanism on the back side of the instrument. This is a great option if you’re a dedicated cajon player because it allows you to dial in a wide variety of tones with a minimal amount of effort. Through use of technique, you can somewhat compensate for the different properties of a particular cajon.
The Top 5 Cajons
As always, our recommendations are meant to appeal to as wide a variety of our readers as possible. While we recognize the fact that many more expensive instruments are superior to their budget minded counterparts, we also know that it doesn’t matter how good an instrument is if you just can’t justify the expense. So keep in mind that the best option for you may not be the best option for your neighbor, and vice versa.
Meinl Percussion Headliner Series HCAJ1NT Cajon
Founded by Roland Meinl, Meinl has a great reputation for producing killer percussion instruments. The brand has been in operation since 1951, and while percussion quickly became their primary endeavor they actually produced a variety of wind instruments during their inception. However, following the introduction of their cymbals in 1952 the brand went on to focus almost exclusively on percussion instruments, crafting everything from chimes to cowbells.
While the brand has a better reputation today, during their early years they focused more on providing musicians with a budget option, which while that doesn’t earn a company a lot of acclaim it is a necessary niche to occupy nonetheless. However, in the mid-80s Meinl did dip their toe into the world of producing professional quality instruments. Since then the brand has been just as highly regarded as any of its contemporaries, which judging by its current performance isn’t likely to change any time soon.
A great example of the commitment to quality that Meinl currently has, the Meinl Percussion Headliner Series HCAJ1NT Cajon is a great option for any percussionist looking to experiment with the cajon.
The key thing to note about this snare is that its designed with both flexibility and live applications in mind. The cajon features snare wires on the top corner of the coverplate, and as you move farther away from these plates you move more towards a bass drum sound. The inclusion of snare wire opens up a world of possibility with this cajon, because it allows you to perform a variety of different rhythmic accents. You can also adjust the tension of the snare wires, enhancing or diminishing the response they have based on your needs at the time. The snare wires are adjusted with a hex key on the bottom of the cajon.
An interesting feature of this cajon is that it comes with adjustable top corners, which allows you to alter the distance between the playing surface and the body of the cajon. The purpose of this is that the distance between these two areas is what dictates the amount of percussive slap in your sound when you play corner hits, with a greater distance resulting in this element being more emphasized.
The Meinl Percussion cajon also has a read sound port, which makes using the instrument during live performances significantly easier than it would be otherwise. The sound port focuses the sound, which makes it easy to mic the cajon without having to turn up the gain to the point where you start getting uncontrollable levels of feedback. This cajon is made entirely from rubber wood. It also has four solid rubber feet in addition to a matte finish.
This instrument’s tone has a very nice balance between the snare and bass tonalities, something which many cajons struggle with. It also has a reasonable amount of volume.
It should also be noted than when you purchase this cajon from a licensed seller you do get a two year warranty. So should you receive an instrument with any flaws in workmanship or materials you can return it and receive a replacement at no additional cost.
The Meinl Percussion Headliner Series HCAJ1NT Cajon is a great value for any musician looking to add an affordable cajon to their collection of instruments.
Schlagwerk CP 408 Dark Oak Cajon
The thing that many don’t realize about manufacturers of cajons is that those who have been doing it for more than a couple decades are innovators in every sense of the word. The cajon has become almost ubiquitous at this point, to the point where it’s not really a novelty instrument to see anymore.
A good analogue to the story of the cajon would be if a luthier at Guild was entranced by the capabilities of the Oud and convinced the company to put its whole weight behind marketing it. The adoption of the cajon was a bold strategy at the time, and the companies who heavily invested in it during the period of time where it wasn’t a common thing to see deserve some recognition for their willingness to try and expand the amount of commercially available products that percussionists have access to.
A perfect example of this is Schlagwerk who were one of the earliest companies widely market and produce the cajon. And true to their early roots, the Schlagwerk CP 408 is an affordably priced percussion instrument that offers utility both to traditionalist musicians as well as those looking to add in a new sonic flavor to their recording and live performances.
The defining feature of this cajon is that it allows musicians to quickly and easily remove or introduce the snares to the instruments sound. The cajon features a mechanism that can completely remove the snares from the playing surface, essentially making this two instruments in a single package. The benefits of this should not be understated, because it allows you to quickly and easily fundamentally change your instruments sound.
The body of this cajon is made from 8-ply birch, a tonewood which is highly desired in percussion instruments for its quick and focused response. The instrument also features 40 snare wires, ensuring that when the snares are introduced into the tone of the cajon you get a very formidable snare sizzle. This cajon does come with a soundport, which does a lot to increase the ease with which it can be miced for either a live performance or a recording session. And while this isn’t going to have much of an impact on the tone, the dark oak veneer front plate is a nice aesthetic touch.
This cajon doesn’t come with a carrying bag/case, though while this is unfortunate it’s a common enough occurrence that we wouldn’t call it a notable flaw with this model because it’s a common occurrence with cajons in this price range.
Overall, the CP 408 is a good value for the price and has the versatility needed to really explore the instrument and make the most out of the cajon.
Pearl PBC507JC Primero Jingle Box Cajon
Founded in 1946, Pearl is a multi-national corporation based out of Japan that was founded by Katsumi Yanagisawa. While the brand has become a household name among musicians, a little known fact about the company is that they actually got their start manufacturing music stands. It wasn’t until 1950 that the company shifted to their now primary focus: percussion instruments.
While Pearl is currently known for their drum kits, they have always manufactured a variety of different percussion instruments. These include the aforementioned drum kits, but also extend to marching drums, timpani, Latin percussion instruments, cymbals, and percussion accessories.
During the late 50s to early 60s Pearl was actually the manufacturer for more than thirty different music distributors, such as: Maxwin, CB-700, Stewart, Werco, Silvertone, Apollo, and Coronet. They manufactured all of the instruments they produced during this period in Chiba, Japan. This is a far cry from the current infrastructure of the company, which includes five separate factories.
While the cajon may not be Pearl’s exclusive focus like some other companies, judging by its past reputation it’s safe to say that the Pearl PBC507 JC Jingle Box Cajon is just as quality an addition to the market as any other percussion instrument manufactured by the company.
The most important thing to note about this instrument is that it’s essentially four percussion instruments in once package, all of which can be used simultaneously to create a wide variety of different rhythmic patterns.
Like any other cajon that features snares, you have the obvious option of striking the instrument in a way that produces a tone that resembles either a bass drum or a snare drum. In addition to these two common tonalities the pearl cajon also has the ability to add in tambourine jingles as well as Brazilian Platinella-style jingles. Essentially, a platinela is a Brazilian analogue to the tambourine that is used in Samba. The inclusion of these two different sets of jingles give this cajon a flexibility that it wouldn’t otherwise have, opening up an entire world of sound that would be impossible to attain on a cajon that lacked these features.
We also know that there are going to be those of you who don’t want these elements present in your cajon’s sound in certain situations, so thankfully the Pearl PBC507JC does give you the option to mute the jingles via the switches located on the front plate. Also importantly, the inclusion of the jingles and the mechanism that mutes them doesn’t have an adverse effect on the responsiveness or volume of this instrument.
LP Americana Groove Wire Cajon
A subsidiary of Drum Workshop and established in 1964, Latin Percussion (sometimes known simply as LP) is a company dedicated to producing affordable ethic instruments and Latin percussion that can withstand consistent performance and live practice. The company modifies many of their instruments in a way that both enhances durability as well as increases overall volume, allowing them to be used in conjunction with drum kits and modern orchestras.
LP was actually founded as a result of Martin Cohen, the founder of the company, being unable to find ethnic instruments for his own use. He saw other performers utilizing instruments like congas and bongos and wished to be able to do so himself, and after much trial and error he managed to design suitable ethnic instruments. It turns out that there was a huge market for this in Cohen’s native New York, which eventually allowed him to expand his business to where it is today.
A great example of the company’s dedication to providing affordable and quality instruments, the LP Americana Groove Wire Cajon is a great option for any musician looking for a beginner level cajon.
The most important thing to know about this cajon is that it’s made in the United States. While the United States does not have a monopoly on producing quality instruments, instruments produced in countries with proper labor laws and restriction generally result in an instrument with higher levels of quality control than those made in countries that aren’t quite as stringent in this regard.
An important thing to note about this cajon is that it does not have a way to disengage the snare wires, so if you’re looking for a cajon with this capability you’re going to want to look elsewhere. This isn’t really a flaw because it’s pretty common with cajons in this price range, but it’s something to be aware of nonetheless. With that being said, there is another version of this cajon that does have adjustable snare wires, it’s just roughly $100 more expensive.
Just like the majority of cajons, the Americana does have a rear sound port. This is a must have feature if you plan on using the instrument for live applications, because otherwise micing it would prove to be incredibly difficult.
Lastly, this cajon does not come with a carrying case. This is pretty common on entry to mid-level cajons, but it’s still something to be aware of while you’re looking for the best option for your needs.
The general consensus of the tone on the instrument is that while it may not have the versatility of more feature rich cajons it does have a very good representation of the sound exclusive to a cajon. It’s commonly cited as having a useable balance of snare and bass drum tones, though some do state that it doesn’t have the volume of high-end cajons. But when you consider the fact that this is priced just a bit higher than entry level cajons it would be hard to say that not performing as well as instruments costing two or three times as much is an objective flaw. There are also aftermarket cajon soundports which can help to increase overall volume, though of course your experience and opinion with them is going to come down more to a matter of personal preference.
The LP Americana Groove Wire Cajon offers a great value to any musician looking for a great sounding and affordable cajon. The only potential downside is that it doesn’t have quite as many features as more expensive instruments, but with that being said the company likely wouldn’t be able to maintain this level of quality at this price point if they added the more complex mechanisms you find on more expensive instruments.
Meinl Percussion JC50LBNT Cajon
Founded in 1951, Meinl Percussion is one of the premier manufacturers of percussion instruments currently in operation. While the company does have a long history of producing great percussion instruments, they actually got their start by producing wind instruments. The company was in operation for more than a year before they started producing their first percussion instruments, which were cymbals.
Like many companies that existed at the time, Roland Meinl (the founder of Meinl Percussion) took a hands-on approach to the products that were produced. In the early days of the company he actually cut, hammered, lathed, and drilled all of the cymbals by hand. He also took it upon himself to transport them. While the current incarnation of the company may not share the approach taken by Meinl, the Meinl Percussion JC50LBNT Cajon is still a great option for an entry-level cajon.
As we already mentioned, the first thing you need to know about this cajon is that it’s an entry-level instrument. This doesn’t mean it’s bad, it just means that it will most likely not have as many objectively good sonic properties you’d find in a higher-end instrument. However, for the price entry-level instruments can be a really good way to get into playing an instrument without breaking the bank.
Another thing to be aware of with this cajon is that it features fixed snare wires. Fixed snare wires can still sound great but you can’t adjust them to dial in your preferred tone. So if you’re looking for something with more versatility you may want to save up a bit more cash to afford a cajon with adjustable snares.
A positive feature of this cajon that many instruments in this price range don’t have is that you can adjust the top playing surface. This allows you to control the amount of percussive “slap” that’s present in your tone.
Lastly, the most notable feature of this cajon when you consider its price point is the fact that it comes with a two year manufacturer’s warranty when purchased from authorized retailers. The general stipulations apply of course, so the warranty doesn’t cover things like damage from modification or improper handling. The inclusion of a warranty means that you can purchase this cajon with a lot more confidence than you’d be able to with entry-level instruments that don’t come with a warranty.
The instrument has a good tone and volume for the price, standing head and shoulders above many of its competitors in this department. It is smaller than many high-end cajons, but regardless of this it’s still regarded to produce a very respectable amount of volume. In summary, the Meinl Percussion JC50LBNT Cajon is a great option for beginners.