A Brief & Subjective History of the Drum Machine

The first commercially available Drum Machine was the Wurlitzer Sideman built in 1958 and it looked more like a piece of furniture than a contemporary drum machine. The Sideman was a great looking unit with a speaker and dial-a- rhythm knob that resembles a washing machine, and instead of setting the wash temperature you could select a Cha-Cha-Cha or a Tango. The box did not have a snare sound or individual hits but 6 basic rhythms. Little did the good folk at Wurlitzer know that were on to something.

Organs became popular home entertainment units in the 60’s and early 70’s. There were even dedicated stores in malls that just sold organs for the home. All these types of organs had rhythm boxes included with grooves like the Fox Trot, the Beguine, a Waltz. My point? well I don’t really have one other than rhythm boxes had a place in the home, in skating rinks and baseball parks, so thanks to organists. And if you really don’t believe me about Organ stores in malls, check this:

Another interesting element in the Drum Machine story is Japan. Japanese companies began manufacturing organs, so developing rhythm boxes became essential  components or add-ons. 

One interesting addition to the early, separate unit drum machines is a built-in music stand on top of it. This is so accordion players, who were big in Japan’s Lounge and club scene in the 60’s and 70’s read the hits of the day and groove.  The drum box I am talking about is the incomparable TR-77, the granddaddy of the Roland drum machine family, we are talking 1973.

The TR-77 lead me to another discovery, the Elka rhythm. I prided myself in knowing all the beats and rhythms on any drum machine. Tons of Latin and pop rhythms but all these era drum machines had a beat called Elka and no one I knew had ever heard of it before. Eventually I learned that Elka was popular torch-y, pop Japanese lounge music of the day. So now it makes sense giving those Accordion players the beat they need.

The earliest pop album I ever heard with a drum machine was Sly Stone’s In Time released in 1972 using the Maestro Rhythm King with songs like In Time and If You Want Me to Stay, with Andy Newmark playing killer drums over the Rhythm King. Sly used it on earlier recordings like Family Affair but I heard that later. This made sense because after all Sly played organ and he probably got used to hearing those rhythms while playing or practicing.


The CR-78 was the next influential drum machine released in.1978, followed by the TR-808 and CR-8000. The 808 would not yet make much of impact when it was initially released.

The Linn Drum was released in 1982 really became the drum machine that changed the game.

DMX, the alternative to the Linn Drum. 

Not totally unrelated – but when I lived in New York the most unique street music act I ever saw was Saxophonist Charles Brackeen playing with some toy Monkey Drummers.  I think Charles was on to something like the Wurlitzer Sideman guys were……

This is the Trinidadian beat that was a modern take on the original english speaking Carribean pop beat, the Calypso. The name is a combination of Soul and Calypso. Modern Soca electronica is a happy, bounce-y beat that is played anywhere between 115-135bpms.