The future of music

How to Play Cajon: Everything You Need to Know

July 15, 2021
guy showing you how to play Cajon

With deep Peruvian and Cuban roots dating back centuries, the Cajon has risen to extreme popularity, even making random appearances in mainstream music.

And rightly so. It’s affordable, easy to play, extremely fun, and you can take it pretty much anywhere! What’s not to like?

Although it may just look like a simple drum box you sit on, learning how to play Cajon can be an extremely rewarding process for anyone…

Before we start, do you have a Cajon? Just like learning any instrument, regular practice is crucial and critical to you mastering the instrument. Having your personal Cajon is going to significantly speed up your learning process!

If you don’t have a Cajon and are looking to invest in one, I recently wrote a Best Cajon Buying Guide which will help you through the process of deciding which drum box is for you, as it’s not the easiest decision.

How To Play Cajon

1. Position & Posture – How To Sit On The Cajon?

The first and foremost step when learning to play the Cajon is also the most important, not necessarily for the drum box, but for your health and longevity.

One of the most common mistakes beginners make is sitting and stooping forward on the drum, usually so they can play the tapa (front face) more easily.

However, it doesn’t actually achieve anything. It doesn’t provide any added volume or bass, but actually prohibits your playing speed, resulting in mediocre sounds, and will also lead to long-term back problems.

Instead, you should sit on the Cajon with a straight back for most of the time. You may need to lean slightly forward when playing the sides of the drum to achieve those diverse tones, but apart from that, keeping your back straight is vital.

Depending on your height and the height of the drum box, your feet should be able to rest nicely on the floor, with a slight bend at the knees. You will also want a decent spread of your knees width-wise to make it easier to reach the front face of the drum and the sides.

You will want to sit on the drum box with your buttocks loosely in line with the rear face of the drum, sitting a little back from the front of the box.

Generally speaking, you won’t be striking the surface any further than 5-6 inches from the top of the drum, so there’s no need to sit or lean too far forward.

Last but not least, one of the most important pieces of advice I can give about body positioning and posture is to loosen up and RELAX!

Any tension in your body is ultimately going to reduce your playing speed, and negatively interfere with accuracy, timing, and overall decrease your stamina.

2. Cajon Playing Style – Tones, Strokes, and Notes

Just like all percussion instruments, there are different strokes for different folks. But here’s the main playing styles, strokes, tones, and slaps to get you started!

Bass Tone

The lowest tone on a Cajon, resembling the bass drum of a standard drum set, is the foundation of most musical styles.

There are lots of variations and ways you can play the bass stroke, but the most common method is to strike the front face using the greater part of your hand, about 5-6 inches below the top of the drum, or just so that your entire hand is over the front panel, none of it extending over the upper edge.

The majority of contact will want to be made with the area just above the ball of your hand to your fingertips. After striking, you will want to pull the hand quickly away from the surface, in a sort of bouncing off motion.

Rather than pressing the hand into the drum surface, you should be pulling away after striking the Cajon to conjure optimal low frequencies and resonance from the drum box.

Your hand should now return to the starting position, hovering a few inches away from the tapa face.

Variation #1: If you want to play a more reserved and intricate bass tone, by simply striking like above but moving the focus of the contact to the finger pads instead of the palms, you’ll achieve a more low-key bass tone.

Variation #2: If you want to play a more staccato (a note of shortened duration) but more substantial bass note, you can apply more rigidity to the hand and not let it bounce off the face of the drum.

Variation #3: A more profound and faint approach, perfect for those quieter locations or musical passages, is to simply rest the heel of your hand on the top of the drum box and hit the tapa face using the pads of your fingertips.

Paul Jennings showing you how to play Cajon bass tones.

High Tone & Slap Stroke

The high tone of a drum box contrasts perfectly with its deep bass tones, you can also emulate the higher-pitched crack of a snare drum.

Compared to the starting position for the bass stroke, your hand wants to be pulled up towards yourself a bit higher, the palm of your hand should now be in line with the upper edge of your drum.

Instead of keeping a bit of tension in the fingers, when playing a slap stroke, you want to relax your fingers.

After your palm hits the top edge of the drum, your fingers should catapult onto the drum face. You can play with your fingers close together or marginally apart, but they must stay relaxed.

Also, unlike the bass tone, you want to keep your hand on the drum surface momentarily instead of bouncing off right away.

Where you strike the drum will affect the tone and sound of the slap stroke. The corner areas will create a higher tone compared to the lower-middle which will create a more deep bass tone.

Just remember, the slap stroke is difficult to learn at first, but with practice, you’ll be creating high, crisp, snare drum backbeats in no time!

Ghost Notes

The final technique, but one of the most important when learning how to play Cajon, is the ghost note.

In general, the beats created by drums and percussion instruments are short-lived, leaving space in-between. Unless you are trying to achieve tension or a disruptive feel, it’s vital to fill those empty spaces to create rhythm and groove.

For the Cajon, ghost notes are perfect for this. They can be played as high tones or bass tones.

High ghost notes can be played by tapping your fingertips on the top corners of the drum, whereas bass ghost notes generally further down the middle of the drum. Also, don’t be afraid to experiment with the sides!

The video below shows how to play ghost notes on different areas of your cajon.

How to play ghost notes around your cajon. Variations in tone & texture.

Other Playing Areas

There’s more to the Cajon than the focal playing surface (front tapa). In fact, there are 5 potential playing surfaces, all of which you can incorporate into your music.

The sides of a Cajon are very easy to access when playing the tapa and can provide a diverse array of sounds!

The edges make a great tone perfect for accents and ghost notes, whereas the corners create a brighter tone. As you move down the face of the sides, the tones become noticeably deeper and resonant.

The top face where you sit on your Cajon can also be played. When seated on the drum box, the smaller sized playing surface will create a more piercing and higher-pitched tone.

If you’re not sitting on your Cajon and instead are playing the drum box more like a conga, slap tones on the top face create a beautiful rich tone.

Although much less accessible than the other faces, the back of your Cajon creates delightful and deep tones, especially great if your Cajon is mic’d up at the rear soundhole.

3. Timing & Practice Advice

Timing is a really important aspect to consider and practice when learning how to play Cajon.

Especially as the percussionist in a music group, it’s your job to lay the foundation or beat for the other musicians in the group to play around and hold them together as a unit.

One such way to work on your timing and tempo as a drummer is to listen and learn from various musical genres. While listening, try and follow along with the music’s rhythm. By playing along with different musical accompaniments, practicing your timing becomes both fun and simple.

My other piece of advice is to practice with a metronome. It will do absolute wonders on improving your accuracy in timing and playing speed!

The rhythmic capabilities of playing the Cajon are limitless, and you’ll be exploring different variations for years to come.

Once you have a basic understanding of how to play Cajon, don’t be afraid to experiment and compose your own grooves and fills.

Paul Jennings teaching you the basics of how to play Cajon.

How To Play Cajon Frequently Asked Questions

Oh, and a heads up! There may be some products which I recommend for which I may make a small commission at no extra cost to you should you make a purchase. All recommendations are genuine and/or verified by myself!

Is Cajon hard to play?

No, the Cajon is not hard to play. It’s one of the simplest instruments out there and great for beginners. Like most percussion instruments, they are usually quite easy to play and have a low barrier to entry, but mastering them will require years of practice and technique development.

What is the best Cajon for beginners?

The best Cajon for beginners is going to be the drum box that is the most affordable and accessible to them. For beginners, focus on Cajons that offer minimal features, but focus on the maximum playing experience which is achieved through high build quality and the sound it produces.

For more information on choosing the right Cajon for you, check out my comprehensive Best Cajon Buying Guide.

How to play Cajon without hurting hands?

When learning how to play Cajon, you want to gradually increase the amount of practicing and playing you do to allow your hands to toughen up. You also want to make sure you are using proper Cajon hand techniques. With correct technique and conditioning, your hands shouldn’t be hurting, except for some minor redness/swelling after a long session.

How to play Cajon with brushes?

Playing the Cajon with brushes is a great way to achieve unique sounds. You simply play them like regular drum brushes and are perfect for low-key acoustic sets.

I always recommend the Meinl Percussion Retractable Nylon Brushes for Cajon, they’re the only pair I’ve ever used and haven’t consider changing them any time soon!

Final Thoughts On Learning How To Play Cajon

After finding yourself the right Cajon, focusing on good posture, practicing proper hand striking and slapping techniques, and practicing your timing will get you on your way to mastering this amazing instrument!

Just remember, playing the Cajon is as easy and enjoyable as you make it. It’s a very simple instrument, so don’t rush the learning process and hurt your hands at the beginning.

Take it easy, appreciate the whole process, and make sure to listen to musical pieces that use the Cajon and play along. Most importantly, have fun!

Don’t actually have a Cajon yet? Here’s the only Cajon Drum Buying Guide you’ll need!

Happy drumming! – Will

Will Fenton

Will, the founder of MIDDER, is a multifaceted individual with a deep passion for music and personal finance. As a self-proclaimed music and personal finance geek, he has a keen eye for futuristic technologies, especially those that empower creators and the public.

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