Celebrating 65 Years of The Wurlitzer Side Man

The Wurlitzer Side Man, introduced in 1959 by the Rudolph Wurlitzer Company, stands as a pivotal invention in the history of music technology. Touted as the world’s first drum machine, the Side Man was a revolutionary device that predated the digital age of music by several decades. It offered musicians and bands an automated rhythm section, dramatically influencing the landscape of live and recorded music.

Origins and Development

In the mid-20th century, the idea of automated musical accompaniment was largely unexplored. However, the need for consistent and reliable rhythm support in both live performances and recordings spurred innovation. Wurlitzer, already well-known for its jukeboxes and electric pianos, seized this opportunity with the development of the Side Man.

The design of the Side Man was a marvel of electromechanical engineering. It utilized a rotating disc with a series of contacts to generate percussive sounds. This mechanical approach, while bulky and somewhat primitive by today’s standards, allowed for a range of rhythm patterns that could be easily adjusted by the user. Musicians could select from a variety of pre-set rhythms, including waltz, fox-trot, and mambo, providing versatile accompaniment for different musical styles.

Features and Functionality

The Side Man was housed in a substantial cabinet, featuring a control panel with an array of buttons and dials. Users could select different rhythm patterns, adjust the tempo, and even control the volume of the drum sounds. The device produced its sounds through a combination of vacuum tubes and mechanical components, resulting in a distinctive timbre that was both warm and organic.

One of the most notable features of the Side Man was its programmability. Musicians could create custom rhythms by manually adjusting the contacts on the rotating disc. This level of control was unprecedented at the time and allowed for a significant degree of creativity and flexibility in performance settings.

Impact on Music

The introduction of the Wurlitzer Side Man marked a significant shift in the music industry. For the first time, bands and solo artists had access to a reliable, automated rhythm section that could be used in live performances and recordings. This innovation reduced the dependency on human drummers, particularly in situations where a full band was not feasible.

In jazz, rock, and early electronic music, the Side Man found a niche audience. Its unique sound and rhythm capabilities added a new dimension to these genres, paving the way for further experimentation with automated and electronic music. Notably, the Side Man’s influence extended beyond its immediate era, as it laid the groundwork for the development of more advanced drum machines and rhythm units in the following decades.


While the Wurlitzer Side Man eventually became obsolete with the advent of more compact and sophisticated drum machines in the 1970s and 1980s, its legacy is undeniable. It was a forerunner in the field of music automation, demonstrating the potential of electromechanical devices in creating complex and varied rhythmic patterns.

Collectors and vintage music technology enthusiasts continue to celebrate the Side Man for its historical significance and unique sound. Original units are now prized items, often featured in museums and private collections dedicated to the history of electronic music.

In conclusion, the Wurlitzer Side Man was more than just a drum machine; it was a visionary leap forward in music technology. By automating rhythm production, it opened new possibilities for musicians and set the stage for the future of electronic and automated music. Its innovative spirit continues to resonate in the music industry today, reminding us of the boundless potential of technological ingenuity in the arts

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