A Keytar is a synthesizer instrument that is worn like a guitar. Traditional keyboards sit on stationary stands or as part of heavy, floor-mounted systems. In comparison, Keytars allow players to move freely on stage. Manufacturers refer to this kind of keyboard as a “MIDI-Controller,” “Remote Keyboard,” “Strap-on Keyboard,” or other variants.
The Orphica, a small portable four-octave piano invented in Vienna in 1795, is likely the first forerunner to the instrument. Similarly, in 1963, German maker Weltmeister produced the Basset, an electric bass piano. Neither of these designs was particularly popular until the Joh Mustad AB made a tubular-shaped electric organ. It accommodated half a keyboard and controls on the neck.
It wasn’t until the dawn of synthesizers, in the latter half of the 20th century that the Keytar as we know it began to take shape. Jan Hammer, the composer best known for music and sound work on “Miami Vice” used a variety of Keytars. These included the Royalex PROBE, which he helped develop. He even used it in the music video for the “Miami Vice Theme”.
The earliest commercially released Keytars appeared in the 1980s. Some of the most popular ones were the Hillwood RockeyBoard RB-1, PMS Syntar, Davis Clavitar, and the Moog Liberation mono synth. Well-known musicians and Keytar players include Imogen Heap, Jean Michel Jarre, Howard Jones, Keith Emmerson, Peter Gabriel, Prince, Todd Rundgren, Weird Al Yankovic, John Tesh, and Devo. After its rise to fame during the 1980s, the Keytar’s popularity gradually started to decrease. A revival of the instrument occurred in the late 2000s with bands and artists such as Steely Dan, Snoop Dog, No Doubt, The Black Eyed Peas, and Flight of the Conchords.
Common uses of the Keytar
The instrument accommodates a musical keyboard that can play musical notes and sounds. Pitch bends, vibrato, portamento, and sustain are all adjustable by controls on the instrument’s neck. Keytars may either have their own synthesizer engines or act as MIDI controllers. In the case of the latter, Keytars trigger notes and other MIDI data on an external MIDI-capable synthesizer, sound module, or computer with synthesizer software. Although Keytars are typically used to make musical sounds, they can also be used to engage MIDI-enabled lighting controls, effects units, and audio consoles, much like any other MIDI controller.