Posts Tagged ‘Music’

Box O’Drums – DIY Cajon

Cajon Complete

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.

Cajon with Loose Snares

Cajon - Front removed to show bracing and loose snares.

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.

Cajon Inside

Cajon - Front removed showing thinned front walls and fixed snare placement.

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.

Cajon with Fixed Snares

Cajon - Here the Cajon tech carefully adjusts the snare tension.

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.

Stay tuned.

Experience: A House Concert

David RossMac Donald

David Ross MacDonald - YouTube Video

This past weekend I was delighted to spend a few hours at bobcathouseconcerts chatting with, being entertained by, and ultimately admiring David Ross MacDonald (

If you have never been to a house concert, you should give it a try. It is an opportunity to see an artist perform in an intimate setting which inevitably produces an unforgettable experience for performer and audience alike. Add to that some exceptionally gracious hosts, delicious food and drink, facinating conversation with passionate new friends, and you have what amounts to Speed-Dating with a much happier ending.

Because I live nearby I could hear a bit of guitar and fiddle emanating from the house so took the liberty of heading over early. When I arrived I was surprised to hear our humble host Bob LeDrew and friend Heather were ‘rehearsing’ a couple of opening songs (by rehearsing I mean that Heather had arrived from Iqaluit an hour or so earlier and they almost played each song once).

For me, music has always been more than the physical act of creating sound. Whether playing alone or with a group in front of an audience I was (am) never too caught up in the mechanics of playing my instrument. Rather it’s the emotion that’s created and they way I’m touched by experience.

The same holds true when I am the audience. I can pretty much remember where I was and how I felt the first time I heard a particular song, or watched a particular performance. Because of this I am generally a pretty tough critic and expect to be moved by the experience. On this night I was not disappointed.

For the most part I rely on one measure of how much I like a particular performance: Does it get my fur up?

At the first note of  Bob’s warbling tremolo charged guitar and Heather’s haunting fiddle work I had goosebumps on the back of my neck, and they remained there until the end of their set. Their vocals were an uncannily perfect hybrid of styles. Either would have been suitable and distinct solo performance. Together they were utterly delightful.

The cozy environment and ‘homer’ crowd was perfect for Bob and Heather, and as I commented to a fellow audience member I thought it unfair for David to follow. How could he top that? He did.

David is a disarmingly charming guy. Hailing from Australia and having travelled the world (nearly every corner of Canada) he was able to converse with insight and humility with everyone on matters local, national, and beyond. In fact, as a result of living much of the time in Western Canada David demonstrated to me that he is more in touch with recent Canadian Politics and social issues that I am. And I’m not proud.

Throughout his performance David was able to seamlessly weave together stories of his childhood and travels with his intricate guitar playing (some of them he would confess, were even true). Between songs he would almost apologise for getting lost with his eyes closed as he relived the pictures in his mind. In the dimly candle-lit parlor I often peeked around the room to see nearly every one’s eyes shut as well, as we all made our own movies to the score.

His wit and effortless playing belied the complexity of his compositions and thoughtfulness of his storytelling. I listened in awe and his fingers danced on the guitar. I was humbled as I have long since surrendered the notion that I will ever command a guitar like that. Theirs was a display of symbiotic beauty, one I feel privileged to have witnessed.

I can’t say if you would have liked to spend an evening like this, but I am sure you should find out for yourself. House Concerts offer a kind of intimate setting and exposure that offers immeasurable benefits both audience and artist.

You can have a listen to David’s music on his website and decide for yourself if it’s your kind of thing.