Being a recovering musician I still get the urge to get together with friends and jam. There is a magic that happens when the mood is right, the personalities mesh, and the defenses are dropped. The music just flows. These days however, with kids and schedules, it’s not easy to find the time or place conducive to musical escapism. When it does happen, it inevitably ends up being a room full of guitars, endless tuning, plenty of strumming (lots of beer), and not much creating.
Recently, I was in just this scenario when something interesting happened. Like anyone with an acoustic guitar is wont to do, I began using it as a drum – tapping out a beat on the back and sides. Almost immediately the mushy “watch my hands” chord changes tightened up, and we all felt a rush of excitement as we found a groove and started making music.
Having had the luxury of being the reckless lead guitarist for most of my life I had forgotten how important it is to have reliable rhythm to keep everything on track. I’ve played the drums for 20 years, but I’m no drummer. Still, I can at least appreciate good rhythm.
Maybe what my lazy Sunday afternoon guitar jams need is one less guitar?
Hmmm. Time for a project!
Deciding that a small portable drum/percussion kit was what I needed, I began scouring the used-webs orphaned drum parts with a plan top build a mini franken-kit. My plan was to go with just the basics: bass drum, snare drum, and some combination of hi-hat or cymbal. After looking at some very cool Cocktail Drum sets for inspiration, I discovered the Cajon.
One of the most basic percussion instruments you can imagine, the Cajon (literally Spanish for box or crate) is capable of a surprising variety of sounds. A Cajon is a simple wooden box with a hard wooden playing surface (the tapa) on the front, and a sound hole on the back or side. The resonance of the box itself is augmented by the addition of guitar strings or snare wires resting against the inside surface of the tapa. Depending on where the playing surface is struck, a variety of bass drum and snare like sounds can be achieved.
There are several commercial percussion instrument builders who seem to offer all manner of Cajon models and exotic wood combinations. A quick look online and it’s not hard to find lots of tutorials detailing every aspect of DIY Cajon building. I’m not a wood working expert, but this seemed to be within my reach.
Like any artisan crafted instrument, care ought to be taken to select a combination of woods that offer excellent physical structure and a variety of natural tones. Well, at least that is what someone who knows what they are doing would do. I had some 1″ thick pine panels and thin, 1/4″ Finnish birch plywood. With a lot of glue, some 1″x1-1/2″ internal bracing, and a few screws I made a simple butt joined 4-piece box (top, bottom, and sides). To that I added a fixed flush mounted back panel from the birch plywood (by recessing the internal braces slightly). The front playing surface/tapa is attached along the bottom and lower sides by many brass screws, about 2″ apart. The top half of the tapa is mounted only at the top centre, allowing more movement and ‘slapping’ at the corners.
At first, the movement of the playing surface seemed restricted by having too much contact area around the perimeter. The combination of the 1″ thick pine body, and the 1″ braces seemed to mute the tapa. After routing away all of the brace and most of the side panel material, the playing surface seemed much more lively.
After some trial and error, I replaced the loose snares pictured above with a fixed 8″snare which bows outward slightly to contact the inside of the tapa. This setup seems to yield a nice mix of bass tones and snare snappiness.
More tinkering with the position and tension of the snares has paid off and has resulted in what I can honestly call a musical instrument. The variety of sounds that can be achieved with a combination of bare hands and jazz brushes is pretty satisfying.
If you are at all curious about trying this project, go for it. With minimal materials and some basic hand tools you can do it too. I have not included any specific dimensions as used for this Cajon because I’m sure you will find some more specific, knowledgeable advice with little difficulty.
Next up I think I will try to engineer a bass drum pedal that throws the beater backwards to make a Cajon-Kick Drum hybrid.