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Gearhead: The Roland TR-808 at 40

A beatbox that made history, plus five new products

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Roland TR-808
Roland’s original TR-808 (photo: Brandon Daniel)

The Roland corporation of Japan only manufactured its TR-808 Rhythm Composer drum machine for three years, from 1980 to 1983, but that short time was long enough to alter the course of music. Although it was originally intended as a basic tool for songwriters, the 808 was soon adopted by the producers of a rising new style: hip-hop. In 1982, rapper Afrika Bambaataa used it to generate the futuristic rhythm of his hugely influential single “Planet Rock,” setting in motion a wave that has yet to break. More hit songs have been recorded with a TR-808 than with any other drum machine. You can hear its distinctive beats in the work of everyone from Marvin Gaye and Talking Heads to Beyoncé and Kanye West (who titled one of his albums 808s and Heartbreak in tribute to the machine).

Considering how widespread the 808’s impact has been, it’s interesting to note that this beatbox doesn’t sound anything like a live drum kit; its cymbals are staticky, and its snare and bass drums are oddly hollow. The machine’s sounds were created using analog synthesis, and in some senses it would be more accurate to call the 808 a drum synthesizer rather than a drum machine. (Its very model name alludes to this—“TR” stands for “Transistor Rhythm.”) That lack of sonic authenticity probably has something to do with why it wasn’t a commercial success during its original run. Only about 12,000 were built before Roland discontinued the line.

But for artists trying to create a fresh sound, the weirdness of the 808 was itself appealing. More importantly, it was the first drum machine that allowed users to program a complete song from start to finish, with unique fills and breaks. The programming interface was simple and encouraged creativity. And perhaps most important of all, the 808 cost a lot less than more “real”-sounding drum machines that used the then-new technology of sampling.

These days, seeing an actual TR-808 in action is rare; it’s far more common for musicians and producers to use software that imitates how the old machines sound and operate. The 808’s “fakeness” is now treasured, and players of all genres employ it not to supplant real drums but as a separate instrument in and of itself. There’s even a documentary devoted to the machine: 808, directed by Alexander Dunn and released in 2015. What was once thought to be a manufacturer’s minor folly has become, 40 years later, a classic game-changer.

Check out five products below that, much like a modern 808-channeling app, put new spins on long-esteemed designs.

Play Us a Solid

Play Us a Solid
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Epiphone’s first solid-body electric guitar was the Crestwood Custom (originally just the Crestwood), from 1958. The company’s now revisiting its past with a new, spruced-up take on that same model. Its double-cutaway mahogany body is certainly reminiscent of the original, as are the two mini-humbucker pickups. But the oval fretboard inlays and the Tune-O-Matic bridge with Tremtone vibrato tailpiece, though they seem to add vintage cool, are actually decided improvements over the initial ’50s design. MSRP $549 | epiphone.com

Mac Randall

Mac Randall

Mac Randall has been the editor of JazzTimes since May 2018. Prior to that, he wrote regularly for the magazine. He has written about numerous genres of music for a wide variety of publications over the past 30 years, including Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Vanity Fair, The New York Observer, Mojo, and Guitar Aficionado, and he has worked on the editorial staffs of Musician, LAUNCH (now Yahoo! Music), Guitar One, Teaching Music, Music Alive!, and In Tune Monthly. He is the author of two books, Exit Music: The Radiohead Story and 101 Great Playlists. He lives in New York City.