An Unlikely Legacy: A brief History of Roland’s TB-303

In Roland Company’s labs in the early part of the 1980’s Mr. Tadao Kikumoto was toiling away under the instruction of the synthesiser manufacturer to find the perfect accompaniment for their new TR-606 drum module —  an electronic drum machine intended as a guitarists practise tool. Needless to say with a drum machine already in the works, Mr. Kikumato’s mind (possibly influenced by the traditional composition of a band during that time) immediately went to bass and with that set about creating the Transistor Bass 303, or TB-303, much to the eventual detriment to guitarists everywhere, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

When the TB-303 was launched alongside the TR-606 it was an immediate flop. Hard to program, and with an incredibly tacky synthetic sound, no respectable guitarist could justify the crude concession over a real bassist. Hell, even a complete bass novice and his untuned instrument would suffice over the plastic module. With that and the short production run between 1981 – 84 that followed, the machine would eventually be resigned to bargain bins the world over, laying dormant until a new type of musician would lay their hands on the inconspicuous, obsolete device….

As Disco turned to all manner of electronic aids to extend their breaks and eventually drop the rest of the track completely, a new type of music would be born. In Chicago, Detroit, and New York in the early 1980’s, drum machines went from being a DJ tool to an instrument, and where they were firming up the beat over Disco records before, they became the quintessential rhythm composer for a new kind of music that would soon be coined, House music. The machines that were previously intended for instructional/rehearsal purposes would be repurposed as compositional tools for the music of the future.

For the first time musical laymen all over America, who before the advent of the drum machine, could only aspire to the career of a DJ, were now composers and producers, thanks to the advent of accessible drum machines, almost exclusively Roland’s TR-808. Although artists like Prince and Kraftwerk had been using drum machines in their records for a while, it wasn’t until Roland’s TR-808 that it had it been so widely accepted as an instrument. Accessible to musical novices and unique for its alien, adjustable sounds, the Roland’s TR-808 changed the musical landscape and with that the whole range of Roland’s x0x machines would follow suit, including the TR-606. But, like every bassist in every band ever, the TB-303 however would not be appreciated at the same rate its time-keeping cousin rose to fame, and even in the electronic music sphere the machine would have to remain content in  bargain bins, biding its time for a new kind of band to realise its true potential. It would take three young Chicago DJs, individually known as Spanky, DJ Pierre and Herb J, and collectively known as Phuture to see that potential, and true to their namesake they called in the future of music with the TB-303 harking their destinty.

In 1985 DJ Pierre had seen the TB-303 being used in its intended purpose, chugging away at a bass-line of some unknown proto-House record, and he admired it for its texture more than anything else. He encouraged his bandmates to purchase the machine and it wasn’t long till DJ Spanky (Earl Smith Jr) eventually picked one up in a second hand shop for less than $100 and invited Pierre over for a session. DJ Pierre takes the story on from here in RBMA’s mag: “I started just tweaking knobs and turning stuff, and Spanky was like, ‘Woah woah woah. Keep doing that, keep doing that.’ So, I kept twisting knobs, and the next thing you know, we were there for like an hour or two, just twisting knobs and programming things. The funny thing is, that first day, we made ‘Acid Tracks’”.

In a single afternoon the group had gone from improvising on a new instrument, to defining a genre, but again not quite, because it would take another year for the track to be released and although Phuture and the TB-303 were instrumental to defining the sound of Acid House, Ron Hardy and Marshall Jefferson still had instrumental roles to play in establishing the genre, and without them we can only but wonder if the track would have garnered the same success in establishing a genre.

Ron Hardy had broken a much faster version, recorded straight from the jam session DJ Pierre had handed to him a week after its creation, way before it had even been picked up a label, and it was he Ron Hardy that coined the name of the track. Before it was even called anything, the Phuture unedited, pre-production original was commonly referred to as Ron Hardy’s Acid track, because it was Ron Hardy that would play the track 3-4 times a night, getting his audiences accustomed to this new unusual sound that before the end of the night would have them all squirming on the dance floor to the gestures of Phuture and the TB-303. House legend, Marshall Jefferson took the track from the dance floor to the studio and his production credit on Acid Tracks is also no mere courtesy. What had been little more than a jam session had been moulded into a realised track through the producer’s midas touch when he slowed it down and gave it its ultimate form.

At the same time a special mention should also go to one Charanjit Singh, an indian musician who in the 1982, actually preceded Acid House by five years when he released ten ragas to a disco beat, incorporating the TB-303 in much the same way Phuture did some years later, but in a wholly different stylistic approach.

In 1987, when it was eventually released, Acid Tracks had completely changed the face of House music and in an instant the TB-303 became the go-to tool for electronic music all over the world. The improvised manner of using the machine, brought a psychedelic nature to the dance floor and added that much needed human dimension to the oft quantised and stoic nature of machine music before. It envisioned a bio-mechanical future and ushered in a new era for music that would install electronic dance music in the popular zeitgeist like never before, and in Europe, especially the UK, it would change the landscape forever. In the UK they adopted the Acid House nomenclature as an all-encompassing signifier of the music that was soundtracking rave culture with a smiley face constituting its countenance and the TB-303 defining its voice.  

Going from sharp, squelching stabs to sludgy bass riffs, the TB-303’s appeal lied in its theretofore unusual sounds. Nothing that came before it nor after has come close to sounding like a TB-303 and the machine became to House music what the Marshall stack was to rock or the Stratovarius was to classical music, a musical icon for for an electronic age. It’s unique circuitry gave its distinct sound and although Mr. Kikumato’s intentions might have been quite different, he had inadvertently created one of the most creatively versatile instruments for the layman, by adding those simple adjustable parameters to his machine.

Things like cut-off frequency, resonance, accent and portamento controls, meant that non-musicians with little knowledge of musical theory could impose his/her own creative impulses through uncomplicated gestures like turning a knob or flicking a switch, gestures that come naturally to anybody, unlike playing an ostinato on a keyboard. As a piece of technology based on little musical prowess, non-musicians had found an even playing field, and with no academic premise swaying their creative impulses, a new kind of ingenuity and innovation swept across popular music. Established forms, harmonic- and melodic practises played a small role in the TB-303’s make-up and ushered in one of the most inventive and fertile moments in music history.

The TB-303 in some vengeful irony had laid absolute waste to the dominance of the lead guitar in popular music and charged on to become one of the most unique and domineering instruments in electronic music and beyond for the last thirty years.

Ubiquitous today in House music, but with few working examples still around due to it’s short and meagre production run, the TB-303’s garnered a mythical status, and continues to encourage, inspire and motivate electronic dance music across the sub-genres. Necessity has given rise to demand and several hardware clones today exist of the machine, with dedicated music enthusiasts dismantling the machine to create accurate, and affordable hardware copies of the original as well as countless software emulations. You can even play a 303 online today if the mood strikes, which is very much consistent with the TB-303’s original appeal.

At any given day in any record store you can pick 5 -10 records featuring the machine and they will all be quite different. From House to Techno to Electro and even Nu-Disco, the TB-303 continues to be re-purposed in innovative new ways. Roland recently has launched a new physical, digital version of the machine and it seems to already be inspiring a new generation of artists as a very affordable option for the next burgeoning musician. More than that the original TB-303 still manages to indulge the curiosities of artists like Andreas Tilliander and KiNK who keep the machine close in their extensive arsenal of equipment.

It’s curious how a guitarist’s tool came to define an entire genre of music  and how it continues to inspire and indulge the creative melé of electronic music. There’s no way Mr.Tadao Kikumoto could have envisioned its success in this repurposed way, and especially not after it’s dismal performance on the market, but never before nor even after has one musical instrument been so integral to the advent of a musical style or genre.