Eight drum technologies that shaped modern rock

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Eight drum technologies that shaped modern rock

Roland TR-808 Drum
Words by Christie Eliezer

Drum technology has evolved over time with players and engineers taking steps forward in materials, design, and manufacturing techniques. 

The funny thing is that much of this drum technology was far ahead of its time, and took a long to be adopted. Various drums and cymbals were performed by different people, whether in military bands or orchestras.

But in the early 20th century jazzmen popularised the move to pull all the drum pieces into one kit. It was partly for more control over the sound, and partly because of the small stages in jazz clubs.

Bass And Snare

The bass and snare drums were set up next to each other, and played simultaneously with sticks only.

The rock era introduced the power backbeat, double bass drumming and kits that literally overflowed with toms, cymbals, gongs and percussion.

It was a time for extended drum solos. Longest one on record is John Bonham’s 17-minute solo on the 19:20 minute “Moby Dick” on Led Zeppelin’s triple live CD How The West Was Won.

Technology adapted as drummers emphasised rhythm and syncopation in funk, hip hop relied on breakbeats and samples courtesy electronic drum pads, and synths and electronic drum kits provided the relentless beat in EDM clubs.


The invention of the kick drum pedal allowed drummers to play it with their feet and freeing their hands free for astonishing inventive things.

The William F. Ludwig Drum Co. in Chicago is generally credited with inventing them. 

But drummers and drum firms were already making some that hung from a bass drum hoop and connected by rope or cord to a foot pedal or the player’s shoe.

But they were primitive and slow to respond.


Brothers William and Theobald Ludwig made the first commercially successful bass drum pedals, in 1909 patenting a Drum and Cymbal Playing Apparatus. 

“It was an overnight success,” said Steve Zemanek, author of The Ludwig Line – Bass Drum Pedals. “After a few months, everyone in the Chicago area heard about it.”

Drum pedals were now small, light but unbreakable, collapsible, and easy to store.

“Small enough to fit in your pocket when folded up,” Ludwig marketed them. Drummers slipped them in overcoats while travelling to gigs by bus or street trolleys.

They were now clamped to the bottom hoop, not slung from the top.

Solid Heel

In 1924, Ludwig changed to a solid heel plate, making it more stationary and stable to play. 

It kept up variations that made them faster and more reliable, like the WFL Speed King, Universal Speed Master, the Ghost, the Junior and the Midget.

There was even a side pedal for drummers playing on (small) theatre stages where the bass drum had to be moved to the side, and the pedal played at an angle.

Double Pedal

The DUBL-PEDL from the DUBL-PEDL Company based in Madison, Wisconsin, emerged in the 1940s with the ambitious double pedal.

“Easily 20 years ahead of its time, the DUBL-PEDL was the first double pedal/single bass drum design,” reported DRUM! magazine. 

“It included a hi-hat with a built-in slave bass drum pedal that attached to a double-beater bass drum pedal. 

“Maybe because double bass drums were not yet popular – (jazz drummer) Louie Bellson had just convinced the Gretsch Drum Company to design a twin bass drum set) –  the DUBL-PEDL did not catch on.”


In Australia the Sleishman Drum Company in 1971, patented and mass produced the Twin Pedal.

It used chain-driven twin pedal for one bass drum, gaining international recognition for allowing fast and powerful movement.

“It’s all due to perfectly balanced angles… Total symmetry across the entire pedal,” the company said.


Drumheads were made from animal hide. That changed after World War II. 

During the war, the English invented polyester film to use in reconnaissance aircraft over enemy territory, after the earlier cellulose film kept breaking.

The DuPont Chemical Company bought the rights to make it in America.

Their product, called Mylar, became popular as a packaging material, for recording tape, nail polish, spacesuits and as insulation for electric motors.

Flesh Hoop

Through the ‘50s, individuals and companies tested tacking plastic to a flesh hoop. But it could not withstand tensioning and stress of sticks hits.

Marion I. “Chick” Evans completed a Mylar head with a drilled outer hoop that tacked it to a smaller, inner hoop

In the mid-50s jazz drummer Remo Belli and chemist Sam Muchnick developed an aluminium channel design filled with resin to anchor the Mylar.

It has a shaped, crowned edge and little holes punched out around the perimeter. This approach is still used today.

They went quickly to market with it via the Weather King head. 

Chemical Coating

A new chemical coating (the Coated Ambassador) produced a sound better than any other synthetic head, especially the crispness achieved with brushes.

The word got around, and their new company Remo launched with orders of up to 10,000.

Remo said: “We developed the first successful Mylar head, and we were the first ones that had the ability, and the strategy for marketing it.  

“We accommodated or led the market in what they needed, every single step of the way.” 


The first snare drum is traced back to 1650. From the gutwire-rattle of the tabor drum accompanying the flute, it extended to the military drum slung over the shoulder of the player, to the late 1800s when they would “double drum” on the snare and bass.

The modern set up started when metal began to replace wood, giving it a better tone and strength.

Ludwig led the way from the 1920s with the DeLuxe line, and later the superior Super Ludwig in the 1940s, with players drawn to its precision form, chrome over brass shell, nickel hardware and smooth round perfection of the bearing edge.

With rock bands, the hard snap of the snare allowed it to cut through other instruments to provide the beat.

Free Floating

The “free floating” drum, introduced to the US market by independent distributor CB in the late ‘70s and popularised by Pearl in the 1980s, saw no parts attached to the shell but via an aluminium hoop. 

This gave it a clearer and higher vibration beloved by metal and punk skinsmen.


By the 1960s and 1970s, as drum kits got bigger courtesy John Bonham and Keith Moon, there was a move towards deeper toms to get more tone choices.

The deeper the drum, the longer the sustained note. But power toms only came into the spotlight in the 1980s.

That’s when Genesis, TAMA, Sonar, Ludwig and Pearl caught on that drummers had to compete as guitar amps became capable of greater attack.

It was the time of “power hair” and “power metal”, and power toms were named as a marketing tool. 

Adding More

Power toms were never just about adding more drums to your kit although rock and metal drums certainly went for the visual look.

Sonar made the heaviest toms, reaching up to 20 x 18 deep kicks in its Phonic Plus and Signature ranges. In the mid-80s it came up with a tom 50% lighter. 

Ludwig’s Aerial offered 16 x 15 racks tom, as did Slingerland.

Taking it to extremes, the Turbo line of France’s Jaques Capelle with 9 ply mahogany shells anchored by 24x 32 bass drum with 12×12 & 13×12 toms and 16×16 floor tom.

Power toms were a nightmare to take on the road, and took up a lot of stage space.

Mounting Tech

The important thing was, as Adam Hansen pointed out in his 2021 book A History of the Drum Set: Toms, Snares, and Kicks, “Advancements in drum mounting technology—like the Gauger RIMS system and Tama’s Starcast mount—helped solve the sustain issues inherent in larger toms with heavy mounts by suspending the drum from its own hardware instead of penetrating the shell.”

In the way grunge sent ‘hair metal’ bands to the trash can of history virtually overnight, it had the same impact on the multiple power tom. 

Dave Grohl needed four toms instead of nine, to get that great sound.

However in recent times, power toms are making a return, with a deep bass drum with smaller diameters high in demand. 

TAMA’s Starclassic and Mapex’s Saturn V feature 18″ or 20″ bass drum depths, others go up to 22”.


History records electronic drums as being invented in the 1980s. But early versions were being made in Italy 20 years before featuring a trigger/mic system.

In 1968 the Hollywood Meazzi company released the Tronicdrum, with the module mounted over or in the bass drum, and each drum hosting a passive pickup.

It cost US $1300 then, or $9,700 today or over $13,000 in Australian dollars!

In The Moody

In the early ‘70s Moody Blues drummer Graeme Edge teamed with Sussex University professor, Brian Groves to create the first fully electronic drum.

Edge, who died in 2021, recalled,  “There were pieces of rubber with silver paper on the back with a silver coil that moved up and down inside a magnet that produced a signal, so it was touch sensitive. 

“I had five snares across the top and then ten tom-toms and then a whole octave of bass drums underneath my feet and then four lots of 16 sequencers, two on each side. 

“This was pre-chip days, back then you did it all with transistors. So it had something like 500 transistors. 

“The electronic drums inside looked something like spaghetti. When it worked it was superb, but it was before its day because it was so sensitive.”

It was used on the track “Procession” from the MBs’ 1971 album Every Good Boy Deserves Favour.


But electronic drums came into their own in the late ‘70s with the Syndrum, developed by session drummer Joe Pollard (of LA’s famous Wrecking Crew) and synth builder Mark Barton.

This was the first commercially available electronic drum, and despite its high price (about A$13,000 in today’s money) it was used by Prince, The Cars, Joy Division, Kraftwerk and Yellow Magic Orchestra .

The Model 477 – four drum pads with Kevlar drum heads – had a module where each channel had a full range of tone, sustain, pitch bend, and noise controls. In 1977, its price tag was $2,000, or $9,150 today.

Battery Power

The first battery-powered electronic drums. the Synare, came in 1979 from Star Instruments. It was  easily moved and needed two 9-volt batteries.

Their sound was not considered authentic enough by drummers, and only used as a percussive effect.

Dave Simmons’ Simmons brand was released in 1978, the world’s first fully electronic drum set, the SDS-V featuring the famous hexagonal pads.

Originally, Simmons used solid polycarbonate heads on the pads, chosen for their durability. But early trials showed that the heads’ lack of bounce led to complaints of wrist discomfort. 

Once replaced by softer rubber surfaces, they were adopted by some of the biggest artists of the 1980s.

They included Spandau Ballet, Tangerine Dream, A Flock of Seagulls, Duran Duran, Def Leppard, Phil Collins, Rush, Jean-Michel Jarre, Donna Summer and Depeche Mode.

Trigger Samples

In 1985, Roland was using the first MIDI controller to trigger samples from its drum machines, giving users a tremendous amount of sounds.

The V-Drums (1997) came with slim trigger pads or wood shells and conventional cymbal stands. Their use of mesh drum heads made them more sensitive and sounding authentic.

“We had been on a quest for a comfortable, acoustic drum-like playing surface that was quiet enough to practice with at home,” Roland designer Kiyoshi Yoshino recalled.

A chance visit to a hardware store changed the story. He spotted a child’s trampoline for sale, and realised it gave him the answer. It was quiet, had good tension, and was durable. 

He and his team removed the film from the head of an acoustic drum and replaced it with a thin layer of polyester used in industrial filters. 

When he hit it, “It was quiet, and my hands didn’t hurt,” Yoshino said. “I did it!” 

Mesh Pad

By using two layers of a small mesh yarn, with the layers set apart by 45 degrees, Roland invented the mesh pad to add tension and replicate the feel of a skin stretched over a drum.

The kits that came from Yamaha and Alesis were more affordable and had a wider range of sounds.

The popularity of electronic drums was due to the vast amount of sounds allowing a player to switch from genre to genre, an adjustable volum, and the ability to record the performance.


Drum machines were around since the 1950s. In the 1970s they made it on chart toppers as Sly & The Family Stone’s “Family Affair” and Robin Gibb’s “Saved By The Bell”.

They used patterns stored on punch cards. PAiA in 1975 released the Programmable Drum Set

Alas, they didn’t sound like real drums. “There were some drum machines around at the time, but they sounded like crickets, had preset beats and only tempo and volume controls — they were very limiting.”

So said American guitarist, songwriter and electronics enthusiast Roger Linn.

Linn Drum

Linn solved the problem with the Linn Electronics LM1 Drum Computer which was released in 1979.

He programmed real drums played by real drummers and stored in removable sound tips. 

High quality digital samples were 8-bit and 28–35 kHz, with 98 slots for beats and could be chained together for full songs. 

The storage memory allowed 56 user patterns, 42 preset drum patterns and 49 songs.

It had its own mixer automatic correction and individual tuning knobs which allowed the player to put the accent on certain beats.

Game Changing

They were totally game-changing, and quickly adopted as essential gear in studios.

But in the early 1980 they were selling for $5,000 (close to $17,000 today) which meant only wealthy individuals could afford them.

The first to buy them was Michael Jackson, followed by Peter Gabriel, Fleetwood Mac, Trevor Horn, Stevie Wonder and Stock Aitken Waterman. 

Only 5000 were ever built between 1982 and 1985. Linn’s company Linn Electronics closed in 1986. 


Roland popularised the idea of users programming rhythms instead of using preset patterns with its TR-808 Rhythm Composer aka the 808.

It was made between 1980 and 1983 using analogue synthesis rather than by playing samples. Tonal adjustments were possible, giving less sizzle in the hi-hats and extra snappiness in the snare.

Most important was more punch in the kick drum built from a sine oscillator, low-pass filter and voltage-controlled amp.

The 808’s simplicity, interesting sounds and relative cheapness ($1,200) saw it picked up by the underground hip hop and EDM scenes.

Early Uses

Early uses were on cult hits  Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock”. 808 State’s “Flow Coma” and Rick Rubin’s work with LL Cool J and Run DMC.

Later it went mainstream on Whitney Houston, Marvin Gaye and Kanye West records. 

Its tremendous impact on drummers was similar to that of the Fender Strat on guitar slingers.

The 909 (made from 1983 to 1985) was Roland’s first to use samples for some sounds, and its introduction of MIDI functionality allowed it to be synchronized with other devices. 

Although not a big seller, it had a massive impact on the development of techno, house and acid house.


After the collapse of his Linn Electronics firm, Roger Linn began working with Japanese company Akai, a father-and-son concern which had been there during the growth of the 33-and-one-third album, 45 single, cassette and the compact disc.

Now they wanted to get into the electronics space, and they knew Linn had a lot of time on his hands.

The first of the Akai MPC drum machine & sampler with editing features came in 1988. The MPC initially stood for MIDI Production Center,  then Music Production Center.

Dislike Manual

Linn told Vox: “I dislike reading manuals, and I dislike having my creative process interrupted by an unintuitive operating system or reading a manual written by an engineer. 

“With the MPC60 and MPC3000, you could take them out of the box, plug in a disk and turn them on, then immediately hear a variety of good beats with good human feel.”

The MPC was a drummer’s dream, so easy to use, pressure-sensitive rubber pads played like a keyboard, connected to a sound system, extensive sampling abilities and MIDI sequencing, the lack of need for a studio or traditional instruments, and all features in a one-stop device.

The MPC was lovingly adopted by EDM and hip hop creators. Other brands adopted its pad interface and it came the standard for DJ technology.

Akai went out of business in 2006.