In the 1950s Leo Fender created the first mass produced electric bass guitar, and revolutionized the way musicians would incorporate low-end bass sounds into their music. Soon after his invention, rock and roll, jazz, and blues artists began creating records with a heavier low end and punchy basslines that would have otherwise not been possible without the electronic instrument.
Then in the early 1980s a man named Tadao Kikumoto had the idea to create a synthesizer that could emulate the electric bass sound. Kikumoto was an employee of the Roland Corporation, a small company based in Japan that made electronic equipment and software. His idea was to make an instrument that anybody could use, and play along with when an actual bass guitarist was not available. After almost two years of development, his final product was called the Roland TB-303 (the “TB” stands for Transistorized Bass). Roland produced 20,000 units before eventually halting production due to lack of market interest. Unfortunately, the TB-303 seemed complicated to the average home musician, and didn’t really sound like an electric bass guitar.
Although the TB-303 originally sold for $400, its value plummeted in the mid 1980′s and it was common to find them for sale in secondhand stores and pawnshops. Because of their affordability, low-income musicians in urban areas such as Detroit and Chicago bought them and began experimenting. Musicians such as Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, DJ Pierre, and Herb J used the TB-303 in ways that it had never been intended. By abandoning the idea that the TB-303 was to be used only for basslines, and instead using it as a lead synth sound, they created a whole new genre of music: Acid House.
The new Acid House sound spread like wildfire across the UK and the rest of Europe, and soon everyone was trying to incorporate the TB-303 into their records. It was only a matter of time before the machine was being used in all sorts of genres of music. From drum and bass to trance, the 303 could be heard in the background providing acidic soundscapes. Artists like Oribtal, The Orb, Aphex Twin, Goldie, Fatboy Slim, and The Prodigy all used the TB-303 in their tracks, and in doing so exposed a wide audience to the acid sound.
In the late 1990s the popularity of the TB-303 exploded, and soon they were extremely hard to come by. Since only 20,000 of them were originally produced, and an estimated 10% had been damaged or destroyed, they became a valuable commodity in the music marketplace. It is not uncommon to see an original TB-303 selling upwards of $900 dollars today.
Modified TB-303 units have also become very popular over the last 10 years. Fans of the TB-303 have begun to find innovative ways of tweaking the classic machine so that new sounds can be achieved. On such modification, the Devil Fish 303 mod, adds a new dimension to the instrument by adding new inputs, outputs, controls, and functionalities.
Today, it is not uncommon to hear the TB-303 sound in many different forms of music. Pop artists like Lady Gaga and Madonna have used the TB-303 in their songs in recent years. Likewise, electronic artists continue to use the TB-303 to add an extra dimension to their tracks. For more information about the Roland TB-303, you can watch this 20 minute documentary made by Nate Harrison: