From DRUM! Magazine’s January 2018 Issue | Text, Photos And Music By Mark Powers
The cajon has a deep history, with its Peruvian and Cuban roots stemming back a couple of centuries. With all due respect to how the instrument originated, let’s face it, most of us (especially those of us who usually play the far younger drum set) are never asked to play traditional cajon rhythms on a gig, such as lando from Peru or rumba yambú from Cuba. What we are often asked to do is to play more quietly on this upcoming pop gig; strip down our setup (size and/or time) to fit a small stage; or provide percussion accompaniment for a singer/songwriter during their low-key coffeehouse set.
Enter the cajon. An entire drum set in a single box! You’re out the door in seconds flat — your whole kit slung over your shoulder in one gig bag — and are finally able to take the train for a change, instead of fighting all that rush-hour traffic.
Are you unsure how to play this foreign-to-you instrument? Not to worry. All you need are a few varied strokes and sounds (which we’ll borrow from playing the likes of conga, djembe, or bomba drums), rhythmic knowledge of an appropriate drum set pattern for any given song that you might choose to play, and a little creativity.
Change Is A-Comin’
I can already hear the purists out there: “You can’t do that!” “Slaps can only be played this way!” Truth is, there are many ways to approach the cajon, as is the case with every other musical instrument in existence. Right and wrong are subjective here and you need to discover what works best for you and your musical situations. The process of applying the cajon to popular music styles and integrating various playing techniques is simply part of the instrument evolving. Evolution is crucial to an instrument’s development over time, and is something that we have embraced in many other percussive ways. Raise your hand if you’re a metal drummer who primarily plays your blazing thirty-second-note fills across a row of temple blocks mounted on top of your bass drum. Nobody? Okay, now raise your hand if you’re a jazz drummer who usually plays your “ride” swing patterns on nothing but the snare drum. No one? I rest my case.
So Many Options
There are many types of cajons currently on the market: wood/acrylic, three-sided, amplified/electronic. Much like choosing a snare drum or cymbal, I recommend experimenting with any that you find and deciding for yourself which version(s) sound most pleasing to your ears. A commonly asked question is whether one should get a cajon that has internal guitar strings or snare wires mounted against the playing surface (Spanish flamenco style) or a cajon that has neither (traditional Afro-Peruvian style). Again, this is 100-percent your call. Personally, I enjoy the snappy snare-like qualities that strings or wires bring to the instrument, particularly because, as we’re discussing here, I typically find myself playing drum set grooves on it. If you can’t decide, here are two options: Get two cajons (one with and one without), or purchase one that has snares that can easily be turned on and off with an external lever or knob.
Regardless of the type of cajon you play, let’s begin with two primary cajon strokes, each creating a significantly different sound.
The lowest tone we will create, the bass stroke (Fig. 1) emulates the bass drum on a typical drum set. Sitting squarely on top of the cajon, begin by keeping your fingers gently held together, with the palm of the hand flat, relaxed, and held parallel to the front panel (or face plate). It’s unnecessary, as well as tough on your back, to lean over and reach all the way to the center of the panel. Just make sure that your entire hand is hovering over the front panel, rather than part of it extending above the upper edge of the panel. Strike the cajon and let the hand quickly pull away an inch or so, returning to your starting position. Instead of pressing the hand into the panel and holding, we’re pulling away to draw the maximum low frequencies and resonance out of the box.
Practice this bass stroke slowly with each hand, one at a time. Then practice alternating right and left strokes, striving to make both hands sound identical.
To re-create the crack of a snare drum, we’ll now play the higher-pitched, sharp-sounding slap stroke (Fig. 2). Starting from the bass stroke position, pull back and raise your hand upward and toward yourself just a bit, so that the base of your palm is now in line with that upper edge. That part of your hand will connect with and come to rest on that part of the instrument while playing slaps. We do two things differently when we play a slap on the cajon: 1) let our relaxed fingers splay slightly apart (more of a djembe slap technique, rather than a conga slap); and 2) keep the hand on the playing surface momentarily, instead of immediately pulling it away. With practice, this stroke will provide a high, crisp, accented slap, perfect for suggesting snare drum backbeats on rock/pop tunes.
As we did with the bass stroke, play these slap strokes slowly, first focusing on each hand individually. When comfortable with that, move to hand-to-hand strokes alternating between bass and slap sounds.
For Those About To Rock
With nothing more than these two strokes, we can begin to produce a wide array of rock/pop grooves. Using bass and slap, let’s play some common bass drum and snare drum grooves. In Ex. 1, alternating between the bass and slap sounds generates a solid straight-ahead beat that can fit into many songs as-is, or can easily be added to and built upon.
Eighth-note bass variations in Exs. 2–4 create interesting beats that might be a perfect match to accompany a particular song (or, more specifically, to lock in with a specific bass guitar pattern).
Kick into Ex. 5 at a gig, with its flam backbeats, and the unsuspecting audience will be tapping along and singing “We Will Rock You” before they even realize they’re doing it.
Exs. 6–8 add in eighth-note slap variations, similar to those we might occasionally play on the snare drum.
These beats are a great start, but there’s a little something missing. It’s not uncommon for drum set players to have something (hi-hat, ride, shaker, etc.) creating a steady undercurrent of subdivisions along with our bass and snare patterns. That’s where our next stroke comes into play: the touch.
The softer tap of the touch stroke is ideal for inserting between bass and slap strokes to add even more feel to the pattern, propel the groove forward, and help with timekeeping and note placement. It’s played by lightly setting the tips of your fingers down against the playing surface, anywhere below the upper edge of the cajon (Fig. 3).
As its name suggests, this touch stroke is precisely that: a touch. Don’t try to smack hard and produce a loud sound. The touch is sometimes felt more than it’s heard. Practicing alone, you might hear every single touch that you play, although some of them get lost in the mix while you’re performing live with other musicians. That’s okay. The feel they bring to the grooves you play are of utmost importance here. But don’t take my word for it — find out for yourself: Suddenly leave all of the touches out and I’d be willing to bet you (and your bandmates) will notice a difference.
Once More, With Feeling
Let’s revisit some of our beats above, this time utilizing our new stroke. For now, we’ll play an uninterrupted series of alternating hands (RLRL), playing a touch on any eighth-note that isn’t a bass or slap. Remember, play the touch strokes softly.
In Ex. 9, the right hand moves around, playing all of the basses and slaps, while the left hand stays in one position to drop a touch between each.
The left hand begins to move around the playing surface in Ex. 10, now adding a bass stroke at one point in the pattern.
Exs. 11 and 12 find both hands moving to cover the sequence of sounds.
Box Full Of Funk
Still alternating our hands as we did in the previous examples, switching from an eighth-note feel to a sixteenth-note feel gives us additional rhythmic options. Bass and slap are straightforward on Ex. 13 but have a nonstop flow of sixteenth-note touches between them.
Exs. 14 and 15 feature bass strokes falling on some e and ah counts; the slap is played similarly in Exs. 16 and 17, and both of them get funky in Ex. 18 (a busy, sixteenth-note cajon version of Harvey Mason’s classic drum set groove on Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon”) and Ex. 19. These grooves are equally cool when given a hip-hop feel, by swinging or shuffling the sixteenth-notes.
Clave & Beyond
The clave rhythms that are integral to many Cuban styles have influenced music the world over. The Bo Diddley beat, popularized in the 1950s by a musician bearing the same name, is but one example. If we outline the 3:2 son clave phrase within a sixteenth-note pattern on the cajon (Ex. 20), we get one version of that Bo Diddley beat. Even today, decades after its introduction into American music, this is a pattern every drummer should always have at the ready.
Brazilian rhythms can also be transferred to the instrument. Ex. 21 is based on a traditional partido alto pattern and Ex. 22 is another samba variation. This last example features slaps playing what is sometimes called the “Brazilian clave” rhythm, with bass covering some of the notes that might be played by surdo drums in a samba ensemble.
Toys & Tools
Another form of the cajon’s evolution is how players use other objects to expand the palette of sounds. Playing on the front panel with brushes allows a percussionist to recreate a country “train” beat when needed (Ex. 23), as one might on a snare drum.
Or you could choose to use only one brush while playing some beats — the hand holding the brush playing hi-hat patterns, as the free (non-brush) hand maintains the bass and slap (bass drum and snare drum) rhythms (Exs. 24 and 25).
A benefit of this approach is the ability to play more interesting hi-hat-like patterns within your grooves (Ex. 26).
Other sonic possibilities include striking the playing surface with a small, handle-mounted cymbal to produce an electronic snare/hand-clap effect; tying assorted rattles around an ankle to get another sound while tapping your foot; Velcro-attaching small tambourine or clave-like accessories to the sides of the box (which your hands can strike while playing); using small shakers connected to the fingers with elastic bands; and attaching a cajon kick pedal (specially designed to allow a player to play bass drum rhythms with the foot, freeing up both hands).
One more stroke we want to be familiar with is the open stroke (Fig. 4). This sound, played much like the open stroke on a conga or djembe, creates a pitch that is higher than our low bass tone, but not as high and accented as our slap. It’s extremely useful for playing fills, often copying what we might play on a tom in our drum kit.
The starting position for the open stroke has the knuckles at the base of your fingers in line with the upper edge of the cajon, so that only the fingers (gently held together like a wide paddle) extend over the front panel of the instrument. Strike in that location and quickly pull away, just as we’ve done with our bass stroke. Practice the open stroke with each hand alone, and then combine the hands to play alternating strokes.
Fill It Up
Open strokes work well when used on their own (Ex. 27) and when combined with basses and slaps (Exs. 28 and 29).
Bending The Rules
What if we’re accustomed to playing fills across multiple toms? Many of us do have at least two or three toms on our sets. This is where your heel comes in (Fig. 5). Lift one foot off the ground and pull it back toward the cajon, pressing (and holding) your heel into the playing surface somewhere about halfway up the height of the instrument. Holding your foot in that position, play a series of open strokes with your hands and you should notice that the pitch you hear is somewhat higher than the unaltered open sound.
Try applying different amounts of heel pressure into the front panel, and also (while continuing to play open strokes) slide your foot vertically up and down the box. The pitch will change — in most instances getting lower as your heel moves toward the floor (Ex. 30), and getting higher as your heel gets nearer to the top (Ex. 31).
Bring It All Together
By no means limited to use only during fills, both the open stroke and this foot-slide pitch bend can also be used along with our other strokes to add color to grooves. A perfect application of this is on The Beatles’ classic, “Come Together” (Ex. 32). Is it exactly what Ringo played? No, but a convincing adaptation and one that many audiences find quite impressive when replicated on nothing but the box you’re sitting on.
The rhythmic possibilities of the cajon are truly endless, and are far from being fully explored. Spend some time constructing your own grooves and fills with these strokes (with and without pitch bends) and be a part of the continued evolution of this fascinating instrument!