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1980 - 2010: Celebrating 30 Years of Innovation

You never know where inspiration will come from. When lightning strikes it can bring on the hook of a hit song, or it can introduce an entirely new way of making music.

In 2010, percussion innovator Rhythm Tech (www.rhythmtech.com) is celebrating its 30th Anniversary. From its unexpected start in a simple overdub recording session, on the way to bringing essential tools to the stage and studio, Rhythm Tech continues to blaze a trail for musicians the world over.

“Once you do something new and you break a rule, you realize that rules are made to be broken,” says Richard Taninbaum, President/Founder of Rhythm Tech. “If what you did is successful, then all bets are off after that, and you keep looking for ways to shake things up.”

It’s hard to believe that the elegantly ergonomic, infinitely playable shape of Rhythm Tech’s famous crescent-shaped tambourine hasn’t always been with us. The fact is that before the company introduced it in 1980, tambourines were always round and could be about as pleasant to jangle as a dumbbell. The bane of many a drummer’s existence when it came time to track percussion, something about this essential sound source had to change. Fortunately, something did.

Leading up to his invention of an instrument that would someday be on exhibit in the Museum of Modern Art, Taninbaum was among dozens of NYC session drummers playing their way through a fast-moving 1970’s studio scene. Side-by-side with the likes of Steve Gadd, Rick Marotta, Allan Schwartzberg Jimmy Young and Chris Parker, Taninbaum (who can be forever heard pulsing the Musique disco classic “In the Bush”) and his colleagues could be on call for up to three sessions a day.

Records and jingles were being cut all over New York City at studios like The Power Station, Media Sound and The Hit Factory by a collegial community of professional musicians, producers and engineers, at an almost breakneck pace. “There were a lot of indie labels, a lot of entrepreneurs, and a lot of product coming out,” Taninbaum recalls. “More than once we would finish cutting tracks at one of the studios in midtown, and then walk out and hear a single blasting from Studio 54 that we had recorded just a week before!

“An independent session musician could have a busy week or a quiet week, but there were two things you had to have. You needed a card from Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, and you had to be on the Radio Registry, which was like the online virtual community today. Every musician subscribed to it, and before there were cell phones that was how you got your gigs: You called in and got your messages, or if they knew where you were going to be they called you. The system worked, and it was essential to the tremendous amount of recording activity going on.”

After sharpening his chops under the tutelage of master percussionist Rubens Bassini, Taninbaum got calls to do percussion overdubs in addition to drumming. It was during one fateful session with producer Bob Clearmountain at the Power Station when a 15-minute tambourine take made Taninbaum’s arm gave out – and a light bulb come on. “I couldn’t keep playing that heavy tambourine any longer. Bob told me that my problem wasn’t unusual, but after that I became intent on making a great-sounding tambourine that would be a lot easier to play.”

Realizing that conventional tambourines were a round shape to accommodate a head that was no longer used, Taninbaum reasoned that this design – which placed all the weight in the front and made them difficult to play for long – could be improved on. Instead, holding it in the middle would provide better balance and drastically increase their long-term playability. The crescent-shaped tambourine was born.

Taninbaum built a few prototypes, and knew immediately that he had a hit on his hands – literally. “This was a realistic approach to the instrument,” he notes. “It got an immediate reaction in the studio. People responded right away. I heard a lot of, ‘Where did you get that?’ ‘What’s it like?’ and ‘Wow! I want one.’ There was something about the shape that got into the collective unconscious and grabbed on.”

From there, it was a short leap from rhythm section journeyman to Rhythm Tech founder. The crescent tambourine was an overnight sensation, evolving into the de facto standard tambourine not just for percussionists, but for millions of singers, keyboardists, horn players, and anyone else whose live or recording situation requires them to make something jingle.

Now as the company arrives at the 30-year mark, Rhythm Tech has established deep roots in the music performance and production community, while still staying true to its groundbreaking habits. Rhythm Tech has introduced a number of classics over the years, turning heads with the likes of the Trigger Triangle, EGGZ, and Canz. The just-released Stickball drumstick shaker builds on the tradition yet again, opening up an entirely new sound dimension for performing drummers.

“The Stickball is a perfect example of how Rhythm Tech is constantly responding to changes in music and the playing situation,” says Taninbaum. “It’s a live instrument, for drummers who want to be able to do more things at the same time.”

Rhythm Tech is celebrating its 30th Anniversary by looking ahead, keeping players connected doing what they do best — making beautiful music together. “Playing music is an interaction, and we want people to keep having these incredible conversations. Rhythm Tech started on the lookout for ways to make that happen, for as many musicians as possible, and that’s how we’ll always continue: with our eyes and ears wide open.”

David Weiss