What is a Keytar?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

There are certain vintage musical instruments which inspire nostalgic memories of a bygone era, and then there are those which painfully remind us that parachute pants and leg warmers were once considered fashionable. An instrument known as the keytar may just fall somewhere between those two trains of thought. A keytar is an electronic keyboard or synthesizer configured into roughly the same dimensions as an electric guitar. A keytar performer would strap the instrument around his or her body and play a miniaturized keyboard with the right hand while manipulating pitch bend, vibrato and other controls with the left.

Keyboard guitars are made to be played through an amplifier.
Keyboard guitars are made to be played through an amplifier.

The idea of a portable synthesizer suitable for live performances was not particularly new, but keyboardists during the 1970s generally improvised with smaller keyboards and standard guitar straps. By the early 1980s, however, several prominent keyboard manufacturers, including Korg, Moog and Roland, introduced the first generation keytar to the general public. These keytars featured a three octave keyboard, along with a guitar-style neck and several electronic components which controlled pitch, vibrato and voice.

The keytar player could program the instrument to switch between several different voices, such as strings, brass and distinctive electronic leads. He or she could also use the keytar to trip other events, such as electronic drums or other keyboards connected by a MIDI interface. The guitar strap allowed keyboardists to step out with the rest of the band or perform solos in front of an audience. The keytar allowed keyboardists to step out from behind banks of keyboards and actually interact with others.

Because the sounds produced by the keytar tended to have an eclectic synthesized edge, many of the first users were New Wave, dance pop or early electronica bands, notably the avant garde groups DEVO and Blondie. Keyboardists in these bands often duplicated or reinvented riffs which would have originally been created by lead guitarists. From a performer's point of view, the introduction of the keytar did give bands a wider array of sounds to choose from when looking for a song's distinctive hook or solo section.

By the end of the 1980s, however, many of the New Wave and electronica bands had fallen out of popularity and the keytar itself became more of a relic than a respected vintage instrument. Groups which embraced the keytar during the 1990s or early 2000s was often derided as retro-80s bands with little originality. Several bands have recently embraced the keytar, however, and it continues to be a popular collectible among serious musical instrument collectors.

Korg and Moog keytars from the 1980s are difficult to find, and both companies have long since gotten out of the keyboard guitar market. A keytar known as the Roland AX-7 remained in production until the mid-2000s, but it is considered to be the last of its kind.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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