What Are The Differences Between Cajon & Snare Drum?

In the percussion world, you'll encounter many instruments with similar use cases but utilized in different venues. When assessing the cajon and snare drums, you may find that, while they share obvious similarities, there are also some striking visual and sonic differences that go beyond their mere aesthetics.

What are the differences between cajon and snare drums? Some of the most relevant differences are:

  • The cajon is largely rudimental, while the snare drum is more elaborate.
  • Snare drums are mostly played with tools, while cajons are generally played with bare hands.
  • The snare drum is used in most genres. The cajon is primarily reserved for folk music.

In this article, we'll take a deeper look at the differences described above. But, first, let's uncover the origins and development of both percussion instruments.

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The Background Of Cajon And Snare Drums

Drums, understood in a general sense, are some of the oldest musical instruments, dating back to prehistoric times. They started as rudimentary objects. However, with time, they acquired more developed forms and intricate designs.

Background Of The Snare Drum

Some of the earliest models of modern snare drums were made in China and date back to around 5,000 B.C. These antique drums used alligator skin for the drumhead membrane.

Much later, a portable snare drum was devised in medieval Europe, called the tabor. It was used as an accompaniment for pipe and small flutes. This instrument was believed to be the direct ancestor to the modern snare drum found in most popular drum kits.

Background Of The Cajon

The cajon (the Spanish word for box), although sharing the same general concept of the snare drum, had an entirely different lineage. Surprisingly, despite its more basic construction, the cajon's history is of more recent date. The cajon's origins are also heavily political in nature.

Back when African drums were banned in colonial Peru, slaves would use fruit crates or empty drawers to create rhythms for their ceremonies. With time, these boxes would be devised specifically for use in folk music and were incorporated into Peruvian waltz ensembles.

During the early 1960s, Cubans also produced their own version of the cajon, strikingly similar to the Peruvian cajon. During Fidel Castro's ascent into power, street music became forbidden, for it was seen as a form of protest against the new regime. In response, underprivileged Cubans would use fruit crates and other street objects to elude police action.

Meanwhile, in the 1970s, Paco de Lucia showed admiration for the acute staccatos delivered by the cajon. She thought it would be a good idea to bring the instrument back to Spain and integrate it into his flamenco format, setting a new trend for the genre.

Cajon Vs. Snare Drums: What Are The Differences?

Now that we've established each instrument's background, let's discuss their main differences, focusing primarily on the distinctions already disclosed at the beginning:

Difference 1: Structure

From the onset, it's very clear that the snare drum is endowed with a much more complex build than the cajon, at least when studying the most common variants of each instrument.

Structure Of The Snare Drum

Snare drums are made with pieces of reverberating wires installed beneath a lower membrane. The drumhead – the portion that is struck – is made of leather or plastic and is stretched tightly over a shell, which, in turn, is made of either metal or wood (each with a different tonal quality).

Apart from the drumhead and shell, snare drums are equipped with hardware that keeps the drum in place, such as lugs or tension rods. The rim connects the drumhead to its frame and can also be struck for a particular percussive effect.

Structure Of The Cajon

By contrast, the cajon (also called the “beatbox drum”) is an overly simple crate consisting of wood boards (normally made of plywood) assembled together and, for the most part, bound together via nails. In other words, It's an acoustically-adapted hollow wooden box with a sound hole at the rear.

However, some modern adaptations of the cajon have added several features to enhance the sound. For example, some models include piano or guitar strings for a more snare-like sound and tambourine cymbals.

Also, some cajons will actually incorporate a whole kit, consisting of cymbals and snares, as well as a kick pedal, to emulate the feel of a regular drum kit while profiting from the cajon's special percussive properties.

Difference 2: Playing Style

The snare and cajon are played differently. Let's consider how.

Playing The Snare Drum

Snare drums are generally positioned in front of the player, with the drumhead facing upwards.

To play the snare drum, you would normally utilize percussion tools or beaters of different kinds. These tools can be regular drumsticks, brushes, rutes, and mallets, each capable of rendering different percussive effects.

Drumsticks, the most common tools, come in different designs and materials. Round-tipped drumsticks are generally suitable for beginners who lack a steady stroke. Diamond-tipped sticks are designed for professionals who aim for nuances tones and are especially sought after in acoustic jazz settings.

Brushes are largely utilized in jazz and ballads due to the broad range of expressions they're able to convey. They come in plastic and metal, with the former providing more powerful strokes and the added benefit of not being prone to rust.

Rods (also named rutes, from the German word “ruthe”) are composed of a series of thin sticks that comprise a bigger stick. They were initially designed for orchestral music, but their usage extended to popular drum sets. These offer a balanced tone that's not as soft as the brush yet not as hard as drumsticks.

Finally, mallets are made with a large ball at the head made of different materials such as cloth, cloth, rubber, plastic, or yarn. While mostly used for marimbas and xylophones, they're also occasionally used on large snare drums and cymbals for a more powerful delivery.

Playing The Cajon

Cajons are played in a sitting position, with the instrument placed between the legs and the playable side facing the direction opposite to the player.

The cajon could, in theory, be played with sticks and brushes of any kind. Examples abound of professional cajon players showcasing creative ways of playing the instrument using brushes. Nevertheless, traditionally, the cajon is played bare-handed.

Performers would use different parts of the hands and fingers to attain different sound effects. For this purpose, they would also explore different spots across the playable surface (the “face”) for variable resonance and tone.

The cajon provides much more versatility and dynamic range than the snare drum (when taken apart from the set). In a way, it could be said that the cajon moderately fulfills the role of an entire drum set.

Difference 3: Musical Genres

This last distinction is not based on a subjective criterion but rather on how the instruments were developed and employed historically.

Notwithstanding its longstanding association with marching bands and orchestral arrangements, the snare drum became an essential part of a larger drum set that would become popular in the 1920s, filling the lower part of its treble range. This would mean that the snare drum would be used in a wide variety of contexts and settings, including rock, jazz, pop, blues, and other similar genres.

The cajon, on the other hand, remained mostly a local phenomenon, particularly in South America and Spain. However, its popularity has been increasing in a wide variety of musical scenes owing to its ability to serve as a bass drum and a “snare” at the same time.

Part of what makes the instrument attractive is its playability. On many accounts, it's much easier to learn than regular drum sets, providing a great entry for music aficionados intimidated by the drums' steep learning curve.

Another welcomed trait found in cajons is their portability. Snare drums, if considered in the context of a larger set, are very cumbersome to carry around and install. Cajons are much easier to carry around, though, as more elements are added, they may become just another drum kit.

Regardless, recent modifications to the cajon and the increasing number of accessories designed and marketed for it have progressively made it palatable for a wide array of ensembles and bands, particularly in jazz and world music.

Nonetheless, cajons are still in their early stages of adoption and remain niche instruments mostly reserved for folk/Latin music or bands that crave experimentation.

There is no widespread usage of this instrument in louder genres such as rock or metal, and even the ones mentioned earlier only include it sparingly in the repertoire. However, as more developments unfold, it should not be surprising to see cajons more prominently utilized in the future.

Read How Cajons Compare To Other Instruments

This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.


Arthur is the owner of Fox Media Tech and author of My New Microphone. He's an audio engineer by trade and works on contract in his home country of Canada. When not blogging on MNM, he's likely hiking outdoors and blogging at Hikers' Movement (hikersmovement.com) or composing music for media. Check out his Pond5 and AudioJungle accounts.

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