Today, a slight keytar resurgence seems to be underway, partially because of the Gaga Effect but also because technology has granted the keytar a second chance at vitality.
Just as millennials enjoy a blend of the earnest and the ironic, newer keytar models from Yamaha and Roland are mixing MIDI control functionality with actual onboard synthesizers. (It's worth mentioning that Roland's AX-Synth also features prominently in Jem and the Holograms, the much-maligned live-action reboot of the '80s cult cartoon Jem, though "prominently" might be the wrong word there.) Meanwhile, Alesis' Vortex takes advantage of Wi-Fi to give keytarists full, audience-roaming mobility. (Please don't.) Hammer himself recalls "rigging up something borderline illegal" to attempt a wireless signal for his customized Lync at a show in 1991.
And of course, there remain the devotees and enthusiasts for whom the keytar still represents a way to become one with one's sound, like Hiro Iida, a NYC-based synthesist who does sound design for various Broadway productions.
"Once you get a sample-based instrument, it's too easy just to pick out a sound, have a stompbox, connect a MIDI controller, and go," he says. "Your consideration and exploration just stop there, it doesn't go any farther. I've spent years and years just to fine tune this one sound, my lead instrument, my voice. A cello player has one cello sound, but they can spend their whole lifetime in search of the ultimate sound. The same idea should apply to even the keytar."
Hard as we may try, the future (which is primarily populated by DJs) may have no real accommodations for the keytar, even if the impulse behind it has been with us for centuries (see: the orphica, a small piano with a strap, first patented by glass harmonica player, composer, and proto-synthesist Carl Leopold Röllig in 1795). But while it is dismissed as a shallow prop, the keytar is capable of establishing a deep and meaningful connection between player and music -- the physical and intangible worlds, maaaan.
How else could the great George Duke make stomping around to a feral Seinfeld theme look so effortlessly dope? Do you expect Herbie Hancock to sit down when "Chameleon" is smoking this hard? (Caution: things gets really serious around 7:16.) Even if you can't bring yourself to get over the keytar's tangle of big-haired associations, this remains objectively cool. So does this. And this.
You can call it a tacky compromise, an ornamental hybrid of guitar, keyboard, and cock. But to me, and to an exclusive pantheon of heroic dorks, the keytar lives on as an enduring emblem of American ingenuity, a pitch-bent cry for freedom. And you can call it a "keytar," but really, that might be part of the problem.
"I don't even remember hearing that word until I stopped using the keytar," says Hammer. "And I'm proud of that. It sort of fits, but it's still kind of lame. There's no good word for it."
Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.
Michael Andor Brodeur is an Austin-based writer, editor, eater, trainer, and maker who will never be as cool as this guy. Follow him: @mbrodeur.