Out of the Box

Marketing prowess meets musicianship for this drummer’s innovative take on a classic Cajon drum

By definition, bringing a bit of innovation to a cajon drum requires — wait for it — thinking outside the box.

A cajon is a six-sided drum. Quite literally, a box. Four sides plus a top and bottom that a drummer slaps and taps to create a surprisingly rich percussion sound. Played right, a cajon has the fullness of an entire drum set, complete with the sound of a snare drum’s “pop” when the drum is struck in just the right place.

Woman playing the cajon

As of just a few years ago, founder of Chavez Cajon and now professional cajon player Todd Chavez, a life-long percussionist, knew little about the instrument.

“I was sort of tangentially aware of what a cajon was,” Todd explains. “I’d run across them as a drummer, but I never paid much attention to the details of them.”

That all changed when local Boise guitar legend Ned Evett, who Todd played drums with on various tours since 2007, suggested the idea of an intimate UK tour that would massively strip down the band, the equipment, and therefore the overhead.

The idea was simple: they’d base themselves in London, then use trains and cars to scope out to various European cities. Gigs would consist of a duo or trio. Ned and his guitar, Todd and his drums, with the occasional bass player to round things out.

The problem was, a traditional drum kit was big, bulky, and didn’t travel well.

“Ned suggested the cajon,” Todd remembers. “I had seen them a couple times, but I had never played one. In January of 2012, I bought a cajon and started playing it. I loved it.”

While the cajon is commonly used to play Peruvian-Afro music, flamenco or jazz music, Todd experimented with more rock n’ roll rhythms. “The cajon is a drumset in a box.”

A few months later, Todd was in London buying a new cajon (it made financial sense to buy local instead of shipping internationally) and banging away on it during 90-minute sets at pubs and festivals across Western Europe.

It was fun. But painful.

Todd Chavez playing the cajon

Todd playing the cajon

“I was playing hard, really digging into the cajon, to blend with Ned’s guitar playing. As you’re playing, your hand is coming down on the square edges of the box,” Todd explains, jumping over to sit atop one of his cajons to demonstrate the motion with an exaggerated slap of the box. “If I hit it wrong, it would bruise the bones in my hand.”

Like so many innovators before him, Todd figured there had to be a better way.

“I started to play the gigs with fingerless biking gloves,” he says. “It helped, but didn’t solve it. So when we got back to the States, I figured there had to be a better way to build this box to make it more comfortable for the player.”

A market research and marketing consultant by trade, Todd went to work, innovating the cajon. He took his ideas to a woodworker friend that he once worked with at Micron and tried to explain what he had in mind.

“I wanted to show him visually the curves I imagined,” Todd says.

“I went and bought one of those foam yoga blocks and carved the top how I wanted it. He got the idea.”

Using a small amount of seed money from his savings, he spent the following months testing different features and innovations.

“We went through the prototyping process for about six months and got to the point where we had the box that we had envisioned.”

This new take on the traditional drum would eventually become the Chavez “CurveTop” Cajon. It included the option for an opening top (instead of the traditional fixed top), which allows the performer to store accessories inside the cajon when not in use, a contoured seat to make sitting more comfortable, a removable snare module, and perhaps most notably, rounded and contoured edges that significantly reduce the wear and tear (and bruising) of the player’s hands and fingers.

Chavez Cajon logo

Todd also experimented with different sizes, including smaller alto and soprano versions of the drum.

“We did a little order of about 20 in different configurations. I began learning what was selling and what wasn’t,” Todd says. “The alto and soprano didn’t sell. The fixed top sold fine, but when you put it side by side against the PopTop [the hinged-top version], it was a no brainer. I thought nobody innovated the top because it would change the tone, but it didn’t!”

Todd began selling. First online, then through Dorsey Music on State Street and Guitar Center on Fairview. When he sold out he would place another order, incorporating some of what he learned along the way. For example, his latest batch of cajons come with the option of custom-designed graphic wraps.

“We can literally cover your cajon in any design you want,” he says.

Just as importantly, Todd continues to introduce rock drummers to the cajon and cajon players to a rock-style of playing.

“I’m pushing this rock n’ roll style on a cajon,” he says. “It’s something many people haven’t heard before.”

Well, they’re paying attention now.

His instruments have also become favorites of some very serious players, including Ben Karon of Minneapolis-based Gypsy Lumberjacks, and Luis De La Tota, a notable flamenco player and founder of the Northwest Flamenco Collective, who just happened to marry a dancer living in Boise.

“Luis is an incredible flamenco player, performing with his wife, Estefanía Sanchez, an incredible flamenco singer and dancer in her own right. It’s great that he has one of my cajons when they perform,” Todd says. “They like the things I’m doing.”

He grins and pauses, hinting at the satisfaction his internal craftsman gets when someone both appreciates and elevates his instrument, even when its innovations stray from the traditional.

“The thing they like most is the sound.” Pause. “That’s good, because if it doesn’t sound very great, everything else is just a gimmick.”

Try a Chavez CurveTop Cajon at Guitar Center or Dorsey Music, or learn more at chavezcajon.com.