Due to its incredible versatility and a growing popularity in acoustic music, the cajon is garnering quite a reputation. Considering its humble Peruvian origins, this centuries-old instrument has the ability to complement almost any musical genre.
It is also fairly easy to grasp the basic playing techniques, so anyone with a sense of rhythm should be able to create some rhythmic patterns reasonably quickly. Of course, as with any musical instrument, mastering it could take a little longer.
Gear4Music offers a wide selection of affordable cajones, available either in kit form or ready-made. The three new WHD models are of the later variety, available in Rosewood, Matte Ash, or Black Sandalwood. It is the finish of the front panel, or 'tapa', that denotes the colour description of the instrument.
Our review model features a large-grain sandalwood veneer which is applied to both the outer and inner surfaces of the thin plywood fascia. This is glued and screwed with Phillips-type screws onto a small internal wooden frame. The screws, which are visible on the outer front edges, appear to be more for decorative purposes than anything functional.
Each of the other sections of light-coloured plywood is glued together with the front panel to the inner edges, forming a rectangular-shaped box. A circular sound hole is cut dead-centre of the rear panel, through which the sandalwood veneer, sound post and effect wires are plainly visible. The sound post is slightly offset to accommodate the mechanism for the 'snare' effect.
These wires are made from a modified 22-strand strainer which has been cut into two pieces, with the 'free' ends designed to touch directly against the tapa. The end parts (which would normally be attached to a snare drum), are riveted into position onto the lever assembly. When the lever is in the 'on' position, the tops of the cut portions are held up against the wall of the tapa. Undoing the knurled nut allows the snare wires to spring away from the tapa, immediately turning the snare effect off.
To enable you to sit on the cajon, Gear4Music has thoughtfully included a small neoprene mat, but this is designed more as an anti-slip device than a possible cure for rear-end numbing. As well as the mat, there is also an excellent carry-case included. This has fully-adjustable shoulder straps and front zips, but if you don't fancy carrying the cajon over your shoulders, the whole box is light enough to carry by the single handle atop the carry case.
Apart from unzipping the instrument out of its soft carry case there is no real set-up time; all you have to do is perch on it and it's ready to play.
Strike around the centre of the tapa and you get a nice thudding bass drum-type sound. Dampening with a free hand or foot will give you a slightly boxier sound, not unlike a 70s-style kick. Slap across the very top face of the cajon (where there is little or no resonance) and you can coax out some bongo-ish sounds.
When struck slightly lower down the front, the cajon begins to resonate, or open up. Doing this gives you some nice conga-type sounds, and while you're there you can use a conga technique, too, striking and then rapidly dampening with your palms or the side of your hands.
Try lightly tapping with your fingers then slapping with varying degrees of intensity and you'll soon hear the range of drum sounds that can be played with a surprising degree of light and shade. When played with the bare hands or a pair of brushes, this cajon can easily hold its own against many acoustic instruments, among them the acoustic guitar or string bass.
To up the ante a bit more, add a set of rods into the equation and you can dramatically increase the volume and projection and this opens up yet another range of rhythms, beats and percussion-type sounds. The tapa responds well to brushes, but we suspect roughing up a section of the tapa would give the brushes a little extra bite and volume.
As the snare effect can be selected or adjusted during performance (just like a normal snare drum) this instantly transforms a conga sound into an acceptable snare drum sound in real time. With the snare 'on', a pair of rods and using your heel as a form of bass drum beater, it is possible to emulate the rhythm and sounds of a full-on kit. We played 'eighths' with our right hand up near the top of the cajon. Moving slightly downwards, our left hand produced a fairly convincing snare drum sound on the '2' and '4' beats, while the heel of our foot completed the rhythmic ensemble with a variety of basic kick beats. Great fun!