Like the sounds they produce, bass cajons are big, fat versions of their more “standard” shaped counterparts. They produce ground-shaking sub-frequencies, often softened by warm snare tones and have a depth that gives the corners a sharp attack across a wider range of the frequency spectrum. This, coupled with the increased volume of the bigger box, allows bass cajons to stand out in practically any musical context and cut through almost any mix.
As discussed in our article about different types of cajons, any kind of cajon can have a bass version, simply by being bigger. Peruvian bass cajons have been around as long the cajon itself. Before the shape and size of Peruvian cajons became more standardised, instruments of all sorts of dimensions were built, each with their own different sounds and tonal characteristics. In Peru, bass cajons are large, often square-fronted instruments, sometimes even wider than they are tall, and considerably deeper than their taller but smaller counterparts. These instruments create a very low yet quite dry punch in the bass tones which, in a reflective acoustic environment, will send deep sub-frequencies reverberating around the room. The edges and corners of the front produce more of a crisp, dry slap with resonant overtones that give a well defined pitch.
Upright instruments like the Cuban cajon and the Brazilian Octacajon are, like the congas which preceded them, built in different sizes to give different pitches. The Tumba and Supertumba are the largest conga sizes and also occupy the bass end of the upright cajon spectrum. This is also true of the Bata – a double-headed drum played sideways across the lap – and of course for the Bata cajon. These kinds of instruments are very resonant compared to Peruvian cajons and the deep tones of the bass sounds give them a warmer pitch with noticeably longer sustain.
Flamenco bass cajons deliver the same sub-frequencies as the Peruvian bass cajon, but the snares add a different element which expands the range of the instrument's sound. The snares act to soften the bass slightly and also add to the effect of a more sustained sound. Perhaps not the most discreet of instruments, Flamenco bass cajons still have an extremely broad dynamic range and a responsiveness which lends them perfectly to expressive styles of playing. These big beasts are not for the faint-hearted and in a quiet and delicate musical context, the percussionist will need a gentle and well-controlled technique to avoid completely dominating the performance. But when given the right opportunity, these cajons are capable of unleashing a hugely powerful rhythmic weight, comparable only to a full drum kit, a massive djembe or a number of percussionists playing together.
At CajonRoot we are lucky enough to be in possession of a unique and wonderful bass cajon – a one-off, custom “Exclusivo” inspired by the Pepote Maxi. This cajon is shorter, wider and more slanted than the Maxi and has an internal sound diffuser fixed to the base and sides. The sound-hole is much lower and broader than the Maxi and allows the air to reverberate and escape in a similar way to a bass reflex speaker. The snares are strung horizontally across the top portion of the front which gives great snare response, a softened, warmer bass tone in the normal bass position and a separated “snare-free” bass sound below it. This cajon is dryer and louder than a standard Maxi which, in comparison, has a slightly more resonant sound overall. It is also extremely responsive and comfortable to play.
Percussionists immediately notice the power which this instrument projects. As with most bass cajons, the punch of the bass coupled with it's astonishing volume comes as a pleasant surprise to people playing it for the first time and usually brings out a cheeky laugh. As well as a deeper sounding alternative and a more dominant musical element in the context of a group, playing a bass cajon is also an experience in itself – and one not to be missed!