The History of Electronic Drum Sets – 1960s to the 2020s

electronic-drums

Electronic drums have come a long way from their early versions in the 1960s. They have quickly developed into the fantastic rhythm machines we currently have.

We’re going to take a trip back to where it all started. We’ll discuss the development of electronic drums and their most prominent early players. We will also talk about some cool new models that will inspire electronic drummers wherever they are.

The Roots of Electronic Drumming

When digging into the roots of electronic drumming, you’ll always find a man and a machine. The man was Felix Visser, a Dutch drummer who was into sound engineering. The machine was the Ace Tone electronic rhythm box. This was an early rhythm machine that enabled its users to play live gigs with a few rhythms presets.

Visser added a longboard with a dozen circuit boards attached to the Ace Tone box. Those 12 smaller boards were enriched with copper traces. This combination of copper as the conductor and the boards as touchpads were connected to the Ace Tone box.

He added computer relays to each of the touchpads to conduct an electronic circuit to them. Those Siemens-made relays were connected to the sounds produced by the Ace Tone rhythm box.

Naturally, the sound Visser got wasn’t as perfect as it is today, but it was a revolutionary move towards modern electronic drumming.

Interestingly enough, Ace Tone would later develop into Roland – one of the most popular manufacturers of synth and rhythm machines in the world.

The founder of both companies, as well as the Ace Tone rhythm box, was Ikutaro Kakehashi, a great musical innovator who paved the way to numerous music genres from the 1970s to the present day.

The Rise of the Electronic Drum Kit

After Visser and Kakehashi had come up with their findings in electronic drumming, it was time for commercial manufacturers to take the lead. Pollard Industries released the first commercial electronic drum in 1976. This was the Pollard Syndrum, invented by Mark Barton and Joe Pollard. Despite its originality and authenticity, the product didn’t take off as successfully as its creators thought it would, so the business failed.

The Simmons Company came up with their commercial electronic drums in 1978. This time the market reacted in a more positive way, which helped this business rise to prominence at the beginning of the 1980s.

Their best-selling electronic drum kit was Simmons SDS-5. It was released in 1981 and became a part of many studios in the 1980s. Also, you can hear its characteristic ‘metal-can’ drum sound on many songs from the 1980s, from Spandau Ballet and Rush to Duran Duran.

The 1990s saw the arrival of electronic drums from two large manufacturers of electronic instruments, Yamaha and Roland. The latter made an exquisite contribution to the development of electronic drums, starting with the TD-7 model in 1992, introducing rubber pads.

Next, they made an even bigger step with their TD-10 model from 1997, this is where the famous mesh-head was brought into the picture. This model was based on modern mathematical features, which created synthesizer-based sounds, rather than classical acoustic sounds.

In 2012, the Rolland TD-30 was introduced, featuring over 1000 onboard sounds that raised the electronic drum to new heights.

Yamaha, on the other hand, started in 1986 with the PMC-1. This was a type of MIDI converter and was able to assign 5 separate sounds to a pad, which was mind-boggling at the time. In 1996, they introduced the Yamaha DTX line, which included onboard recording functions and a variety of custom choices for sound-shaping.

In 2010, Yamaha hit the jackpot with the DTX900. That was a major turning point for Yamaha, bringing with it more features, greater options, and customizable elements.

Electronic Drummers in the Spotlight

Four years after Visser put together his homemade kit of electronic drums, Graeme Edge, the drummer of Moody Blues, made the first modern electronic drum.

He played that kit on the Moody Blues song ‘Procession’, released in 1971. Since Moody Blues covered a wide scope of music experiments, the use of his electronic drums expanded their range of sounds.

Bill Bruford is another prominent drummer who supported the use of electronic drums and became its promoter in the 1970s. Having left the band ‘Yes’ in 1972, he joined King Crimson. Their progressive attitude to rock music and hunger for original sounds were a perfect chance for Bruford.

He used the Simmons SDX kit during his stint in King Crimson. You can read more details about his experiences with electronic drums in the 2009 interview on his official website.

Also, here you can hear him playing an electronic drum kit in Japan, in 1986.

Although heavy metal drummers often do not approve of electronic kits, Def Leppard’s Rick Allen played them for a long time. He had to learn how to play drums without his left arm since he lost it in an accident in 1984. This is where electronic pedals and pads were extremely helpful.

Roger Taylor, the drummer of Duran Duran, played electronic drums on some of their songs. Since they were one of the major representatives of synth-pop, it was a must for them to use electronic drums. Here you can listen to him playing the Roland TD-30KV kit.

Apart from these drummers, many other drum players and music producers from the 1980s and 1990s used electronic drums in a wide range of genres – from disco and synth/romantic pop to funk, dance, hip-hop, and R’n’B.

Modern Electronic Drum Sets

Electronic drum sets have come a long way from Visser’s amateur electronic kit to the powerful sound machines that we admire today.

Take the Roland TD-50 for example, which feels so like playing behind a regular drum kit. Of course, it offers many features that are not available on acoustic kits, for example, custom sampling, and even gives you playing instructions to improve your technique. Here you can see (and hear) Kai Hahto from Nightwish playing the Roland TD-50.

Apart from the entire electronic drum kits, there are now modern lines of amazing sampling and percussion pads. The Roland Octapad SPD-30 and the Roland SPD-SX are both stellar models.

Another popular brand worth mentioning, which is one of the leaders in today’s world of E-drums is Alesis. Alesis also had their fair share in the development of E-drums, starting with the HR-16 back in 1987, up until today, where they are known for their affordable but quality E-drums that are known worldwide.

Interested in getting your hands on an electronic drum kit? Check out our electronic drum set reviews and guide.

Conclusion

Electronic drums have come a long way since they were first introduced to the music industry. They are now an essential part of any drummer’s setup, regardless of genre or style.

A lot went into the development of electronic drums – from Visser’s primitive kit to the powerful sound machines we have today. Drummers like Graeme Edge, Bill Bruford, and Rick Allen were some of the early adopters and helped promote their use in mainstream music.

Today, electronic drums are used by drummers in a wide range of genres and styles. They provide a wealth of features that are not available on acoustic drums, and they feel just like playing behind a regular kit.

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Mike O'Connor

Drumming has been my passion for over 18 years. I play quite a few different genres and I really enjoy experimenting with hybrid kits that blend acoustic and electronic drums. I love all things drumming!

1 thought on “The History of Electronic Drum Sets – 1960s to the 2020s”

  1. I’m 70 year’s old. I love my electric drums. Greatest investment I have made.i had regular drums but there to hard to set up.

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