The drum machine market is positively teeming with excellent options nowadays, with quality machines at every range of the price scale. From cheap and cheerful beatboxes to higher-end models that are essentially production studios in a box, there is definitely no shortage of worthy drum machines in today’s market.
If you’ve been wondering what the best drum machines for guitarists are, check out this rundown and take your pick!
The Best Drum Machine is…
After comparing feature sets and workflows, we settled on three drum machines that guitarists will find useful for live and studio applications: the Alesis SR18, the Boss DR-880, and the Roland TR-8S.
The Alesis SR18 is a revamped version of the venerable SR16, which was one of the first great PCM drum machines. The SR18 proudly carries on the Alesis tradition, combining the trademark high-quality sounds with a “Dynamic Articulation” feature and a versatile effects engine.
On board are more than 500 drum and percussion sounds along with 50 bass sounds, comprising 32MB in all. The sounds lean towards the acoustic end of the spectrum, as opposed to the electronic tones commonly found in other modern drum machines. As with the SR16, many of these have a healthy slathering of studio effects, so they are pretty much ready to go right out of the box.
The Dynamic Articulation feature is what guitarists will probably appreciate the most. It adds some much-needed human feel to drum patterns, letting you come up with more realistic parts than you would normally hear from a drum machine.
The Boss “DR” line of drum machines is at least as revered as the Alesis SRs, casting a long shadow over the PCM-based drum machine lineage. The Boss DR-880 is the latest in the series, packing almost every feature that has made the series so popular, along with a few choice additions.
Guitarists that struggle to come up with convincing patterns will dig the “EZ Compose” feature, which makes drum programming quick, easy, and hassle-free. There are nearly as many sounds as the SR18 on board, with 440 drums and percs, and 40 bass patches.
The DR-880 also has a very impressive effects section, with loads of quality effects and guitar and bass amp models based on Boss’ excellent COSM technology. With so much processing power on board, you could pretty much roll up to a gig with just your guitar and the DR-880.
The Roland TR-8S Rhythm Performer might seem like an odd choice for guitarists, but don’t sell it short. Although designed for and marketed primarily to the electronic music crowd, it has several features that make it ideally-suited for guitarists of all persuasions.
The TR-8S is the second iteration of Roland’s celebrated Aria drum machine, the TR-8. The first version was a huge success, although many guitarists would probably find the dance-centric sound set a bit limiting. Although the classic Roland beat boxes are still present in the TR-8S, the addition of sampling memory makes it possible to add on drum samples that are better suited to non-dance forms.
The TR-8S also has an “auto-fill” feature that keeps you from getting locked into static grooves. And with multi-channel audio and MIDI interfacing capabilities, this is one drum machine that even the most dance-phobic guitarist should consider.
If you need to take a look at our full list of selections, you can jump down to the “Best 10” below.
How to Choose the Best Drum Machine
Guitarists in the market for a drum machine will likely have different needs and priorities than, say, a hip-hop or EDM producer. In a live setting, guitarists will obviously have both hands occupied, which means that tweaking sounds and triggering patterns are pretty much out of the question.
Stylistically, most guitarists tend to prefer natural acoustic drums, as opposed to the synthesized electronic drums that characterize hip-hop and dance music productions.
If you are a guitarist, all these factors should be taken into consideration when you shop for a drum machine. With that in mind, here are a few things you should look for when comparison shopping.
Sound quality and versatility should be high on your list of priorities if you need your drum machine to take the place of a real drummer. The best drum machines have high-resolution drum samples on board or extensive synthesis capabilities that let you craft your own sounds.
If you want to load up your own custom drum sounds, look into drum machines that have sampling capabilities or that let you import audio files. This feature enables you to crank out fresh beats with an ever-changing assortment of custom sounds.
Extensive editing capability is always welcome. Having the ability to change the pitch and amplitude envelopes will let you tailor your drums to fit your song. This is especially important for creating drum beats that groove nicely with the tempo and complement the other instruments.
Some degree of playability will help keep your beats interesting and prevent your performances from bogging down into drum machine monotony. As a guitarist, you will probably be too busy to switch patterns by hand, so look into drum machines that let you change patterns and trigger fills via a footswitch.
Finally, consider how well your chosen machine interfaces with other equipment. Features such as midi I/O, USB connectivity, and media card support will let you backup songs and patterns, import samples, and control other devices. The more connectivity features a drum machine has, the less likely you will be locked into a closed system.
The Top 10 Best Drum Machine for Guitarists
Alesis SR18 Electronic Drum Machine
The Alesis SR18 is a souped-up version of the SR16, which is one of the biggest-selling drum machines ever made. Like its predecessor, the SR18 is a proudly digital machine, with hundreds of high-definition multi-samples of drums, percussions, and even basses.
Like most PCM-based machines, the SR18 doesn’t provide a lot of ways to shape the sounds or roll your own from scratch. You basically have to take the onboard sounds as they are, although you do have control over the pitch, the attack and decay, and a few other essential attributes.
On the other hand, having a ready-made sound set means you can just get to work without having to slave every minute detail of sound creation. Most guitarists lean towards natural acoustic sounds anyway, and the SR18 definitely has plenty of those on tap.
Apart from the extensive collection of sounds, the biggest selling point of the SR18 is probably the “Dynamic Articulation” feature. With this feature, it is a lot easier to put together natural-sounding drum parts that sound as if a live human drummer played them.
The SR18 comes with 12 Dynamic Articulation settings, which allow for various degrees of randomness that give your patterns a more ‘human’ feel. Used in conjunction with the velocity-sensitive pads, this feature lets you come up with some pretty realistic drum parts.
The SR18 also comes with a decent selection of effects such as EQ, compression, and reverb. They’re probably not going to replace your dedicated outboard effects, but they do a great job of polishing up your drums.
Boss DR-880 Dr. Rhythm Drum Machine
The Boss DR-880 is the latest in a long line of Dr. Rhythm drum machines, which are at least as popular as the Alesis’ SR boxes. Like the Alesis drum machines, the DR-880 is also PCM-based, with nearly 500 drum, percussion, and bass samples burned into ROM.
Onboard you will find a varied set of acoustic and electronic sounds. Among these are several iconic drum sounds from Roland’s classic beat boxes, which is hardly surprising considering that Roland is Boss’ parent company. Guitarists will likely gravitate toward the acoustic sounds, of which there are plenty. As you would expect from a modern digital drum machine, all of the sounds are perfectly recorded and have enough punch to cut through even the densest mixes.
The DR-880 has another feature that should ease the struggle of coming up with realistic-sounding drum parts. Called “EZ Compose”, this feature promises quick and hassle-free programming of drum patterns and even chord sequences. The DR-880 does allow you to meticulously craft your own beats and chord progressions if you wish. But if you want to quickly lay down some drum and bass backing parts so you can focus on your guitar playing, this feature is a godsend.
Boss has also seen fit to endow the DR-880 with its famous COSM amp modeling technology. Plug your guitar or bass into the dedicated input jack, and you have access to some pretty convincing amp models. With this feature, all you really need to put together full tracks is the DR-880 and your guitar.
Roland TR-8S Rhythm Performer
Fans of Roland’s legendary electronic drum machines–the TR-808 and TR-909 in particular–have been hounding the company to come up with updated versions of their classic beatboxes for ages. Roland replied with the Aria line, which brought to the market the TR-8 drum machine. Packed to the brim with Roland’s most revered electronic drum sounds, the TR-8 satisfied all but the most devoted analog purists.
The TR-8 quickly became a staple in dance music productions and live stages all over the world. But its dance-centric sounds gave guitarists little to be excited about… until now. With the release of the TR-8S, it is now possible to augment the classic drum machine sounds with user-loaded samples.
The addition of the sample-loading feature makes the TR-8S a much better choice for guitarists than its predecessor. Unless you are one of those forward-thinking guitarists that don’t mind a bit of electronic rhythm in your tracks, you probably lean more towards natural-sounding acoustic drums. With the TR-8S, you could have any sounds you want on board, including acoustic drums. You, therefore, aren’t limited to machine beats that get dancefloors in a frenzy but tend to leave rock audiences cold.
The ability to load your own samples isn’t the only reason to consider the TR-8S. Like most classic Roland drum machines, the TR-8S is programmed via a step grid that clearly shows where every drum hit falls within a measure. It’s a quick and intuitive way to program beats that you could then spice up with the auto-fill feature and a boatload of effects.
Digitech SDRUM Strummable Drums Pedal
Digitech’s SDRUM is billed as the first strummable drum machine – which should make guitarists sit up and take notice. If you are looking for convincing drum parts from a box that fits neatly on your pedal board without taking up too much space, the SDRUM definitely has your name on it.
The SDRUM caters to guitarists that need backing track capabilities without having to lug around a truckload of gear. Better still, it actually cranks out drum parts in response to your strumming.
Let’s face it: not all guitarists have the physical skills to come up with consistent, grooving drum patterns. So a drum machine pedal that lets them create drum patterns via a familiar interface–the guitar–makes perfect sense.
So how does it work? Simply plug your guitar into the SDRUM and play rhythmically in time with your song. You don’t even have to play actual notes or chords–the SDRUM cranks out drum parts in response to the incoming rhythm rather than the melody, so even a “chicka-chicka” scratch rhythm part will do.
The lower strings on your guitar control the kick drum, while the higher strings control the snare. Some creative riffing will, therefore, allow you to come up with pretty convincing drum parts even if you’ve never sat behind a drum kit before. The SDRUM even adds tasteful embellishments to your playing, resulting in drum parts that will impress even the most skeptical drummers.
The SDRUM comes with five drum kits and lets you store up to 36 songs. With this pedal, you and your bass player could easily power through an entire gig if your drummer is too hung-over to make it to the venue!
BOSS DR-01S Rhythm Partner Organic Grooves Generator
The Boss DR-01S isn’t quite like the other drum machines in Boss’ hugely-popular “DR” line. Instead of the typical rectangular metal-and-plastic box, you get a button-festooned device that looks something like the control panel of a spaceship in a cheesy sci-fi flick.
Goofy looks aside, the DR-01S is a surprisingly capable drum machine that might actually be a better fit for most guitarists than the aforementioned rectangular boxes. On the left-hand side of the unit is a speaker that cranks out beats at a surprisingly loud volume. To the right is a slightly smaller panel, where you can control the DR-01S’s various features.
The DR-01S is billed as a “Rhythm Partner Organic Grooves Generator”, which should give you a hint as to its sounds and capabilities. Unlike other drum machines that seem to have a hard time shedding off its more machine-like qualities, the DR-01S seems steeped in the natural grooves that most guitarists lust after.
No rapid-fire double kicks or frenzied drill ’n’ bass beats to be found here–the DR-01S is more about the groovy organic rhythms that make for perfect accompaniments to solo guitarists and singer-songwriters.
Onboard is a wealth of drums and percussion sounds, ranging from shakers, tambourines, and congas to world music instruments. There is even a full drum kit available, so you could conceivably use the DR-01S for even raucous live rock music performances.
Speaking of live performances, you can even plug the DR-01S into an amp or a PA system when playing larger venues. And with the ability to switch up patterns, drop parts in and out, and play different time signatures, there’s no reason why you should have to put up with static machine beats.
Korg KR-55 Pro Korg Rhythm
Korg is no stranger to the drum machine arena, having churned out an assortment of beat boxes over the years, including some pretty respectable ones. Although the company is now better-known for its electronic grooveboxes (the Electribes and Volcas come to mind), the release of the KR-55 Pro shows that Korg hasn’t entirely abandoned its more traditional-minded clientele.
The KR-55 Pro is actually descended from the KR-55, which was released in 1979. The earlier version was a bulky device that bore a startling resemblance to the electric typewriters of the day. The original KR-55 Professional was pretty much a preset rhythm box, with the typical “Waltz”, “Samba”, “Rhumba”, “Tango” beats and the like.
The KR-55 Pro still only plays back preset rhythms rather than let you program your own. Nevertheless, it is quite a step up from its predecessor, with more realistic and “organic” sounding patterns, fills and variations, and pattern chaining. It even has features that make it transcend the traditional definition of “drum machine”, such as an onboard EQ and reverb, and even multitrack recording capabilities.
The limitations of ‘canned’ beats aside, the KR-55 Pro actually sounds pretty damned good. The reason for this is that the drum parts are actual recordings of live human drummers. All of the 24 grooves onboard were recorded in high-quality in a professional studio, so it’s pretty much like having an A-list drummer sitting in on your session. There are also tasteful fills and ending sequences that help you keep things from sounding too static.
Dave Smith Instruments Tempest Analog Drum Machine
The names “Dave Smith” and “Roger Linn” should be immediately recognizable to anyone familiar with the history of electronic musical instruments. Responsible for some of the most iconic synthesizers and drum machines in history, the two have joined forces in creating what is possibly one of the most capable drum machines currently in production.
The Tempest prides itself on being the “Ultimate Analog Drum Machine”, but even that lofty title is selling it a bit short. What it is is nothing short of an all-in-one beat production machine. Like the best drum machines for guitarists, it gives you a host of pattern creation and sequencing options, but it also allows you to synthesize drum sounds from scratch.
For those looking for “real” drum sounds, the Tempest might not be the ideal choice. Even with the extensive options for synthesizing drums on board, acoustic sounds aren’t exactly right up its wheelhouse. If you know what you’re doing, you can come close to crafting fairly realistic drums and percussions. But be aware that you probably won’t be able to build a convincing acoustic drum kit with this box.
That being said, the Tempest is just so much fun to use and sounds so good that even guitarists will get a lot of mileage out of it. The analog and digital oscillators cover a varied range, and you can edit, modulate, and filter them in numerous rewarding ways. The pads are amazingly responsive too, so crafting dynamic patterns is a breeze.
Akai Professional XR20 Drum Machine
Akai is better known for the MPC line of sequencers-samplers than creating the best drum machines for guitarists, but the Akai Professional XR20 might just change that. The only dedicated drum machine under the Akai banner, the XR20 is packed full of the features that have made the MPCs so sought after among musicians and producers all over the world.
The XR20 is a portable beat production machine that lets you craft beats anywhere. On board are more than 700 sounds, consisting of drums and percussions, of course, but also synths, sound effects, instrument hits, and even vocal phrases. You can’t load your own samples as you could with the MPCs, but there is such a huge variety of sounds available that you could easily put together complete productions with the XR20 alone.
One thing that we immediately noticed is that pretty much all the sounds in the XR20 slam hard. Bold, loud, bodacious, and meaty, they have a weight and punch that can carry entire tracks and punch through dense mixes. If you have a taste for drum tracks that kick, the Akai XR20 will satisfy your cravings.
For added sweetening and even more punch, you can process the sounds through the very respectable effects engine, which has an EQ, a compressor, and a reverb. It even has a mic input, so you don’t have to pack a dedicated preamp when busking or going on trips.
As you would expect from the company that produced the MPC, the pads of the XR20 are an absolute joy to use. Responsive and durable, they have just the right feel that invites hours of rewarding beat making.
Arturia DrumBrute Drum Machine
If you are looking for a drum machine that has loads of natural-sounding acoustic drums on board, the Arturia DrumBrute probably isn’t for you. On the other hand, if you like driving your guitar-based productions with hard-hitting, punchy analog drum sounds, the DrumBrute is a worthy option.
The DrumBrute comes with a good selection of drum and percussion sounds, all of which are reminiscent of classic analog drum machine sounds. But like the best analog drum machines, you get a wide range of options for editing and twisting these sounds into your own unique creations. If you have never worked with an analog drum machine that has extensive synthesis controls before, you will find the DrumBrute to be absolutely inspiring.
The pattern sequencer consists of 64 steps, which automatically puts the DrumBrute way ahead of most drum machines, which are generally limited to 16 steps. With this many steps, you can program in minute variations that will help you avoid repetitious drum machine patterns. You can even sequence the patterns themselves, so there really is no reason to put up with two- or four-bar drum patterns unless you want to.
Also worth mentioning is the “Polyrhythm” mode that lets you specify different sequence lengths for each sound. This is yet another feature that spares you from having to crank out robotic, fixed-length drum sequences. By mixing up the bar lengths of the different sounds, you can come up with exotic polyrhythms and unusual beats that sound like the patterns are falling all over each other.
Arturia DrumBrute Impact
The Arturia DrumBrute Impact is smaller and cheaper than the DrumBrute, but it is by no means a lesser machine. Sure there are fewer sounds on board: 10 on the Impact versus 17 on the DrumBrute. But almost all the features that make the DrumBrute such an excellent machine are present on the Impact, along with a couple of choice additions.
Like the DrumBrute, the Impact is focused primarily on hard-hitting analog drum sounds. They hit hard, punch hard, and have a weight to them that can hold down the foundation of any dance track or more forward-looking rock productions.
Like the DrumBrute, the Impact also boasts of a 64-step sequencer, which is the key to creating more intricate patterns that don’t sound overly-repetitive. It also has polyrhythmic capabilities, so you can create interesting grooves that break free from the constraints of traditional drum machine programming.
New to the Impact is a “Color” function, which adds a hefty bit of saturation and distortion to your drum sounds. Both versions of the DrumBrute can get plenty gritty and characterful, but the Color feature combined with the output distortion stage on the Impact lets you get downright filthy.
To keep things lively, the Impact has performance features such as a Pattern Looper that lets you do beat repeats and stutters, a Step Repeat feature that lets you fire off glitch effects, and a Roller mode that lets you trigger drum rolls. Make sure to check out the “Random” knob as well, which imparts a more organic feel to your beats.