The Inevitable Rise of the Keytar

If there is one thing that will give a band an unchallengeable advantage over their peers and win them the instant respect of the audience it’s a synth dude (or dudette) who has risen to the occasion and strapped on a keytar. You wear the ‘tar: you win. It’s that simple.

Zali Krishna

The invention and rationale behind the keytar is well documented, but to summarise: since the rise of the electric axe slinger, with his increasingly low, hip-mounted Freudian action, the rock’n’roll keyboardist has be afflicted by envy. There have been many attempts to cure this malaise: some keyboardists have built great edifices of mammoth instruments around themselves, the legendary Wakeman V; others have manhandled their instruments and attacked them with knives in such a display of aggression as to make the performance seem like a life and death struggle with a wild beast, aka the Keith Emerson technique.

It was not until Edgar Winter, at the behest of his wily chiropractor, strapped on his ARP 2600 that the keyboardist/guitarist mojo imbalance was restored. The ability to strut stuff is what raises the rock’n’roll musician above their often more technically gifted brethren in the classical realm. Through the 70s and 80s many more purpose-built keytars were manufactured. They became slimmer, more streamlined, normally boasting a pitch/modulation bend handle at the top end to ape the guitarist’s howling onanism. And so the keyboardist achieved final ascendency over the axeman.

Except they didn’t.

Roland AX-1 Keytar - The Penelopes

For many years the keytar achieved pariah status. Musical instruments, as much as footwear or hairstyles, are carried on the winds of prevailing fashions. Which is why The Moog Cookbook dressed in spacesuits performing Black Hole Sun was comical at the time. That their whole look was borrowed from French synth-disco legends Space and that it is generally recognised that Space are far cooler than Soundgarden ever were is now plainly obvious. Similarly we look back at a mulletted Jean Michel Jarre giving it some keytar love at the legendary Docklands spectacle and we cannot help but wonder whether Charlotte Rampling may have had a point in marrying the old rogue.

Essentially the anti-keytar lobby is a form of Francophobia. Fact.

Here knee-deep in the new millennium, in an age where the combination of socks & sandals are a legitimate lifestyle option for the sophisticated city-dweller, we have reached a point where the whole history of popular and unpopular music is fair game for the gigging musician. Choose your weapon. If you pick up a Les Paul or a Stratocaster out of some better-the-devil-you-know sense of practicality and hope to win over an audience, do not be so sure that the next act will not eschew the blue-jeans option and pull out a secret weapon. You may scoff at their gimmicky arsenal of circuit-bent Speak’n’Spells, double-necked basses, Stylophones and balalaikas but the audience will be on their side and not yours.

Ninki V at Cargo, London Cathedrow

The lone hero in the spotlight with a keytar has made a very canny set of choices:

  • Retro-chic - full marks.
  • Practicality - full marks.
  • Classic yet stylish - full marks.
  • Strutability - full marks.
  • Savoir faire - mais oui!

The knowingness of the pose may make you want to slap them hard with a Big Muff but their confidence, eccentricity and fully-midi-compatible stance tell you one thing: the future belongs to the keytar. Strap on! Engage!

  • Zali Krishna is a multi-instrumentalist improviser/songwriter/bricoleur/multimedia artist with fingers in many pies and his head firmly in the clouds. He plays electric sitar with drone duo Raagnagrok, and digressive guitar with psych-prog landscapists Durga, as well as recording and performing solo under many noms de guerres: Entropy Circus, Krishna, The Benelux, Royal Free Electric, &c. In 2012 he has completed two download-only solo albums: Kingfisher Blue and Bremsstrahlung Sommerwind.