Well, let’s get this out of the way first: Edgar Winter’s keyboard strapped around his shoulders out of bad-ass necessity in the Seventies does not count. He’s already a Confirmed Rockstar and The Coolest Albino Since Raistlin Majere; I am sure he will get over the heartache of not also being the inventor of the keytar.
Generally keytars are considered synth-only instruments, so the mid-Sixties portable bass pianos don’t count, either, being reed instruments. That puts the super-clunky PMS Syntar, invented in 1979, as the earliest keytar entry. It also predates the diet-supplement candy, “Ayds”, in the Don’t They Know What That Stands For? product category.
Well, if you mean the PMS Syntar, it was invented by George Mattson, who worked for Performance Music Systems(too bad he no longer worked for Digital Integrated Light Duty Organs). If you mean the keytar… no one manufacturer has ever called it a “keytar”. Early keytars came in two formats that are natural enemies in the feral keyboard wild: actual synthesizers and MIDI controllers. The earliest widely-adopted true synth was the Moog Liberation(if you’re thinking DEVO). The Davis Clavitar was the champion of the early MIDI controller keytars(if you’re thinking George Duke). Unlike VHS and Beta, even if the place in time is correct, MIDI controller keytars and synthesizer keytars were both used and manufactured equally; to the ear there is no practical difference to the sound, and if the vigor of both formats waned the fiercely nerdy MIDI users and MIDI haters would have nothing else to do but make sweet love to each other.
What and How?
Although going into the particulars of what a synthesizer or a MIDI controller is may give Johnny 5 a boner, we won’t go into it here; that’s not why I picked this instrument. Other than position held, a keytar is no different fundamentally or sonically from a keyboard on a stand.
Why, indeed. Why, why, why.
I looked real hard through every interview I could for some sort of smoking gun in regard to the keytar’s form serving a true aural function. Something about already playing one-handed on monotonic early synths making the form factor natural. Something about the position being better for emoting the tremolo-type sound with the pitch bend wheel. Something about the need for portability, for convenience, or for even choreographed dance moves. Nothing. There is no smoking gun.
The reason “why” is so that keyboardists could play with their dicks just like guitarists. Why? Blowjobs, that’s why.
There is, for some, a reason that is more aesthetic than psycho-sexual. The Moog Liberation looked perfect with the fashion sense of DEVO. Silly synth revival bands like Cobra Starship need it for the style as well. Also, let us not forget this rad business here:
For everyone else? I mean…
… these aren’t even the pros, who look just as bad. Watch Jan Hammer videos at your own risk. The keytar was made for posturing, plain and simple. The real “why” question is “why did the keyboardist become so uncool?” It might be my proclivity towards prog rock, but I think plain old keyboards and synths are pretty awesome.
Since you are reading a music blog, it is a safe bet that you’ve seen the Beat Club performance of “Highway Star”, by Deep Purple. Do you think Jon Lord needed a keytar to get chicks? No way. Keith Emerson got plenty, too. The difference between those bands and keytar-toting bands is that the organ and keyboard were the mainstays of more progressive music, but not every rock band had to have one; in the Eighties, the keyboard became ubiquitous. Every garage band and college start up had a keyboard player, because of the sudden prominence of the synth sound. Keyboards became cheap and light. Keyboards even became more prominent of a feature than the guitar in synth-led and New Age bands. These were rarely serious musicians, and rarer still were the classically trained.
So when the opportunity came for those musicians to pantomime a huge cock to the girls in the front hot for some backstage saw wave? Strapped.
Celebrate the keytar today by doing something ridiculous and Eighties. Like New Coke! Or coke!
Nope. No, no, no.