Guide to Percussion

Can't tell your djembe from your cajon? Unsure of where a cowbell or jam block fits into your current drum kit configuration? Our guide aims to cut through the noise - revealing all about percussion both traditional and modern!


What is Percussion?

As an umbrella term, a percussion instrument is one that produces sound by being either hit, scraped or shaken. They can either be tuned - producing defined notes - or they can be untuned, without a definite pitch present. From the orchestra, (with its timpani, xylophone, marimba etc), to traditional world music (featuring djembes, cajons, congas, bongos etc) and any number of modern day genres, percussion has found a place. It can even be boiled down to the humble cowbell, a jam block or a set of chimes - augmenting your drum kit with a whole new sonic signature.  


Sometimes, you'll find yourself playing a gig where a drum kit isn't a viable option though; this may be due to space, or it might just not be appropriate for the band/ensemble you're playing in. This is where a good piece of percussion comes in. Many drummers will keep a cajon or other form of percussion handy to use when the situation calls for it. Down below, we've outlined all of the popular types available to you. Now you'll be ready for any drum-related scenario!

What is a Cajon?

First and foremost, no, it's not just a wooden box - even if the name suggests that. The name cajon is derived from the Spanish words caja (box) and cajon (drawer). Historians suggest that the instruments origins can be traced back to African slaves in 18th century Peru, who are attributed with creating the very first. They crafted them from packaging, boxes and any other materials that they could source. The result was an instrument that contained all of the same design ingenuity, tradition and drum heritage of their respective home nations.


The design itself consists of a six-sided box shape with several striking zones on the front. Usually, a cajon will be around 18 inches tall and 12 inches wide. Hardwood forms each side, with an additional layer of plywood which is attached to the front playing side. This playing surface is referred to as the tapa or face. A hole at the back then ensures that the sound you create is projected effectively. Some cajon's will also include a set of wires on the inside of the box. This can be pressed against the front panels inner side, opening up a whole new avenue of tonal possibilities. It can also be switched off if you prefer a woodier and more traditional sound.  


Fast forward to the current day, and the cajon has become extremely popular with percussionists across the world. They're especially common with buskers, as well as bands playing a multitude of different sized venues and genres. This is because of their portable nature and earthy sound which makes them perfect for acoustic performances. You don't need to plug them in (although some modern models do give you that option), making them the ideal accompanying tone to singers and guitarists.

How Do You Play a Cajon?

Playing a cajon is easy, but there's a surprising amount of depth to them too. You play them using your fingertips, hands and palms from a sitting position; you'll be sat on the top of the cajon, with your legs placed on either side of the front striking surface. This striking surface will emit different tones depending on how and where you hit it. The centre of the cajon will deliver a much lower tone (mirroring a kick drum, or floor tom), while the edge nearer the top is sharp, with a higher overall pitch. This can be used in the same way a snare would be on a drum kit.


The pitch of any strike can even be altered. This is dependent on which section of your hand you use to strike the cajon with. It can also be done by adding pressure to the front with one of your hands (or feet) and then playing the head with your other hand.

How Do You Mic up a Cajon?

The simplest way of capturing your cajon - be it live or in the studio - is with two microphones. Two microphones are recommended as you want to capture the contrasting snare and bass drum-like tones in equal measure. In the sound hole at the back, we recommend positioning a mic like the AKG D112, or the highly versatile Shure SM57. This should be placed within the sound hole itself slightly and then angled towards the centre. Having the mic placed right at the opening can sometimes create an unwanted booming tone and is detrimental to your sound.


On the front of the cajon, you'll want to use a pencil condenser with a smaller diaphragm. This should be placed above the edge of your cajon. It can then be angled downward, facing the centre of the front panel. This combination of mics should help to capture both unique aspects of the cajons sound.  

Can You Play a Cajon with Drumsticks?

You could, but it's not recommended. You should play a cajon with your hands. Playing one with drumsticks will likely cause damage to your instrument.  

What was the Djembe Drum used for?

The Djembe is a traditional drum that originated in West Africa. Within African culture, music is an integral facet of culture and society, and is especially important with regards to storytelling. The drum goes hand-in-hand with the countries rich oral history and tradition, with songs and drum patterns being used to represent tales from the past. These are then recounted and passed down to future generations. Put simply, it's not just an instrument.  


A djembe usually consists of a hollow wooden body with either a rawhide animal skin, or a synthetic one (which is now far more common) positioned across the top. This is stretched tightly over the drums shell using a combination of rope and metal rings. A djembe will usually be between 22 and 25 inches in height, and boast a diameter of around 12 to 14 inches. When the drum skin is struck, it then reverberates. The shape and hollow design of the djembe then works as a kind of amplifier, projecting the sound through the bottom part of the drums shell.

How do you Play a Djembe?

A djembe is played by hitting the skin with your fingers, palms and hands. It's commonly played in groups or drum circles alongside a number of other djembes and accompanying percussion. They can either be played sat down (with the djembe positioned between your legs), or played standing up using a sling that sits over your shoulder.  

What Does a Djembe Sound Like?

There are three main sounds you'll be able to create using one. These are the slap, bass and tone. The slap is the drums highest pitch and is made by striking the edge; the bass is the lowest pitch and is found in the drums centre; the tone sits in the middle pitch-wise between the two. The pitch can be altered further by placing one hand flat on the skin while you play with your other hand. A djembe can also have the skin tightened to raise the pitch, or loosened to lower it.


Djembes are also sometimes referred to as 'Talking Drums' thanks to the multiple voices they produce and the noticeable sustained overtones.  

What Kinds of Djembe are There?

The two main kinds of djembe on the market are either your more traditional variant, or a contemporary model. Traditional djembe's consist of one piece of solid carved out hardwood that's moulded into a shell. This shell is then chiselled and sanded (to make it smooth). A rawhide skin - usually either cow or goat - is then stretched over the drums head with rope and metal rings. This is then tightened by hand to suit the users personal pitch preferences.


Modern djembes on the other hand are quite different. Respected brands like Meinl and Toca have created their own current-day ranges. These mass produced offerings are a great alternative to hand made, authentic djembes. Shells are built using either fibreglass, wood, or a wood composite material. When compared with wood, fibreglass is a sensible option as it's sturdy and durable, but remains extremely lightweight. The synthetic skin is then secured and tightened using tuning lugs - as opposed to rope and metal rings. This system actually makes tuning a djembe much simpler and faster.    

What are Bongos used for?

Bongos have become synonymous with Afro-Cuban tracks, adding rhythmic flavour to those global grooves. They're usually used as part of a larger percussion setup. They consist of a few main sections: the drum head; the hardware; and the shell/centre block material. The smaller drum of the two is known in Spanish as the macho (male), while the bigger drummer is called the hembra (female).

What are Bongos Made of?

Shells will be made out of either fibreglass or wood. Wood is regarded as more authentic, with a deeper, warm sound. However, as wood is sensitive to humidity and the weather, it's likely to shift structurally during intense bouts of either hot or cold weather. Fibreglass offers a brighter and more resonant sound - making it the better choice if you like to play live in bands with amplified instruments. They're also far more durable and are a lot lighter, making an already portable instrument even easier to transport!


When it comes to hardware, the main two types are 'single rim' bongos and 'dual rim' bongos. Single rim models are not completely tuneable (even though on first impressions it looks like they are). The lugs found here are small and can't withstand as much tension as the ones on their dual rim counterparts. Dual rim bongos are connected with tuning lugs which are fully tuneable. The edges on the top of the drum are also flat, as the tuning keys are located on the lower rim.


Heads are crafted from a rawhide or a synthetic material (in the same way as djembes). Rawhide is regarded as being far warmer, with a broader and more layered tone. However, it offers less stable tuning as rawhide will react to changes in temperature. Synthetic heads are more durable, aren't effected by the weather, don't need much maintenance, and create a different, unique sound when the bongos rim is struck.

What is a Conga?

A conga is a barrel shaped drum with a single head. They usually come in pairs. They've been an integral part of Afro-Cuban music for hundreds of years now - finding a place in salsa and other Latin music, to more mainstream pop. They were originally developed in Cuba during the late 19th century.

What are Congas Made From?

A conga will either be made from fibreglass or wood. On average, they're between 28 and 30 inches tall. It'll either feature a traditional rim, or a more comfortable modern kind. Traditional rims are built from basic flat steel which is moulded into a circle and fitted onto the drum head. Modern variants are even more rounded, promoting comfort and reducing playing fatigue.


The head itself (just like djembes and bongos) is going to be made from synthetic material or animal skin. Real skins aren't as stable tuning-wise as they'll react to sudden changes in temperature. They're usually warmer sounding too. Synthetic conga heads don't suffer from humidity and changes in your environment, but are brighter in sound.  

How do you Play the Conga?

Congas are playing using your hands. You can slap the heads with your fingertips, palm and the heel of your hand. There are also a selection of other techniques for you to make use of, included the mute tone, touch, bass tone, toe stroke and heel stroke. These will all create different sounds, allowing you to mix up your playing style.

What Does a Conga Sound Like?

There are two main tones that you'll encounter while playing a conga. These are the open tone and the closed tone. The open tone is resonant, rich and warm. This sound can be produced by hitting the heads flat surface nearer to the edge of the drum with the part of your hand directly below your knuckles. The result should be an instantly smooth attack. Your hand should then be raised between each strike.  


The closed tone offers a contrasting sound. Your fingers are meant to remain on the drum head after you've hit it. This removes the resonance of any given strike. Muffling your sound like this provides you with a welcome alternative when it comes to both dynamics and tonality. Both the open and closed tones can be applied to the techniques outlined in the playing section above.  

About Shakers & Tambourines

Why not harness your inner Liam Gallagher with a shaker or tambourine? These simple bits of kit have found their way onto just about every record out there. They're useful for applying another bright tonal layer to your percussion track, adding flavour and movement, while simultaneously filling in those rhythmic gaps.


Many tambourines can even be added to your drum kit. You can simply attach them to the top of your hi-hat stand. This creates a whole new sound when they're hit, or when you stamp and release your hi-hat pedal. Or if you prefer, you can just grab yourself an egg-shaped shaker and cook up a sonic storm.  

About Cowbells

A cowbell just makes everything instantly better; I mean, would Blue Oyster Cult's 'Don't Fear the Reaper' be anywhere near as good as it is without the humble cowbell driving the song onto new heights? Just like its name suggests, it was initially used by livestock owners to keep track of their cows from a distance. Somewhere along the way, somebody decided it'd be a great instrument, and we're glad they did!


Using a clamp, cowbells are usually mounted on the bass drum and then played as an addition to the rest of your drum kit. They come in different sizes and shapes, with each kind offering a different tone. This ranges from more harmonic sounds with extra sustain, to ones with a much shorter attack and a higher pitch. Some of the biggest brands in the industry like Pearl, LP and Meinl now offer a wide variety for you to choose from. So why not supplement your existing sound with a classic cowbell?  

About Woodblocks, Jam Blocks & Claves

Woodblocks, claves and jam blocks/blast blocks each bring something new to the table. Claves are regarded as some of the simplest bits of percussion on the market. Made from two pieces of hardwood of the same size, they are played by hitting the 'striker' piece against the clave. This produces a woody, cutting sound.


A woodblock is a common fixture of a lot of Latin music. They're crafted from a few pieces of wood, ranging in size, wood type and pitch. Pearl like to craft theirs from solid ash, which benefits projection and helps the block to cut through any kind of mix, maintaining excellent clarity at all times.


Jam Blocks/blast blocks are pretty much an updated modern version of your classic wood block. They're made from a special kind of plastic (in LP's case, Jenigoru). This creates a sound that is similar to a wood block, but with an additional current-day twist. It also results in enhanced durability and strength, meaning it can easily withstand the heaviest players. These blocks come in a host of different colours and different pitches - covering low, medium and high. These mount on your drum kit in the same a cowbell would, using a clamp that can be attached to your bass drum.

About Chimes

No, these aren't like your neighbours wind chimes that keep you up at night. Chimes can add a whole new element to your sound. Many percussionists and drummers have incorporated a set into their setups. They are played by running a drumstick (or your hands) from either top to bottom, or bottom to top, changing in pitch as you progress up or down the set.