Keytars Rule: Defending Music's Most Ridiculed Instrument

Jennifer Bui/Thrillist
Jennifer Bui/Thrillist

It doesn't take much to get yourself punched in the face in Boston. But to have it happen three times in the span of a single year, you've really got to be doing something special.

You've got to be on the level of Keytar Bear.

With little more than a mangy bear costume, a candy-red Roland AX-1 keytar, and a clav-heavy repertoire of soul-funk and pop classics, the anonymous Boston busker has risen from the obscurity of subway platforms and public plazas to a position of prominence as the city's unofficial musical mascot. (Sorry, Steven Tyler.)

When you think about it, the popularity potential baked into the notion of a keytar-playing teddy bear seems so obvious and so foolproof, that it's shocking the idea hasn't been ganked and franchised nationally across buskerdom, like human statues or that one elderly dude in every city scratching at an ehru. But Keytar Bear is actually pretty sick at keytar.

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He imparts a singularly sticky spin to songs like "Beat It" and "One More Time," but it's just as satisfying to watch him noodle around aimlessly with his pitch wheel. He delivers through rain and snow, rips through day and night, and claws a new path through each jam every time. By the end of each performance, he's not the only one casting off a dumb, vacant smile at a weird angle.

Boston being Boston, of course this unchecked outbreak of joy clearly had to be corrected by the universe. As such, Keytar Bear found himself on the business end of a string of random attacks in 2014: over three occasions he was pushed, threatened, punched (breaking the human nose inside his bear head), and robbed. In response, his fans rallied online to raise funds for his medical bills, a replacement keytar, and (I'm hoping) the dry cleaner.

All this love for Keytar Bear is easy to understand, but it's a little harder to explain away the animosity.

"They believe I am weak," Keytar Bear explains in a punctuation-challenged Facebook message. "So every now and then a couple will think they can steal money from my bucket or try to carry it away. Lolol. Ya no not happening I may be short but I can hold my own just saying."

Sure, it could just be the combination of greed and the presumed ease of mugging a fake bear. But it seems like something else is at work here, a larger force, one that most Bostonians know all too well: that familiar, reflexive lashing out against a harmless source of pleasure. We call it shame.

And shame, thy name is keytar.

Jem and the Holograms

It's hard to think of an instrument so universally loathed, so reliably maligned as the keytar, that staple prop of gawdy '80s new wave, glam metal, and lately, dipshitty ironists. Three decades of poseurs pretending to do something on stage have soured the masses toward the keytar, which now comes off, on every level, as disingenuous -- more implement than instrument, hollow-bodied in a non-acoustic sense, worthy of parody, lame, etc.

As a result, any voluntary adoption of the keytar by a musician is generally understood as a tongue-in-cheek attempt to "bring it back." So despite the seething rock textures of Muse's Matthew Bellamy, or the molten soul slap of Dam-Funk, or the wild complexity of Brandon Coleman (a standout among Kamasi Washington's excellent Next Step ensemble), rocking a keytar almost always means adding extra salt. You think you look like Herbie Hancock, but you're really John Tesh.

So fraught with wink-wink is the keytar that it truly only appears to fit in when it's out of place. Dean Sams of hair-gel country act Lonestar wields one to appropriately dweeby effect. It also features heavily into the Ned Flanders-themed metal of Okilly Dokilly. A keytar is brandished to battle aliens in the video for Perry Farrell's new EDM track. (Not linking to that, sorry.) So, yeah, things aren't looking so great for the keytar right now. "It's physically impossible to look like a badass while playing a keytar," declared a writer for the Austin Chronicle this past March, in a piece which then contorted itself to exempt "blonde, dark shades-sporting chanteuse" Aurélie Ferr of Cikatri$, along with her Yamaha SHS-10.

Back in 2010, NPR's typically docile Bob Boilen inexplicably threw as close as he can come to a shit fit over the thing, calling it "the single most obnoxious instrument in modern music." This, despite his post running with a photo of fucking Stevie Wonder playing one. "It combines the worst part of a keyboard (plastic and monophonic) and the even worse part of a guitar (no guitar strings, no body)," he wrote, possibly in the midst of a stroke, adding, "AutoTune has essentially been the Keytar [sic] of the '00s."

Ebet Roberts/Redferns/Getty Images

Much like Bob, I have no idea what he's on about. One, because English, and two, because his loathing of the instrument seems to be rooted in misunderstanding. "Keytar" here seems like a substitute for grander assumptions commonly leveled against electronic musicians in general: that programmed music is tantamount to AutoTune and that there's something inherently plastic -- i.e., not human -- about it.

The suspicion that the keytar is merely a symbol isn't completely off; after all, every keyboard deals in representations of other sounds. And most contemporary keytars are merely controllers, not actual synthesizers, which means they possess no inherent sound of their own. But reducing a keytar to a mere decoration obscures its place in the rich history of synthesizer development, and omits a long legacy of serious keytar legends (Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Jan Hammer among them) who have earned the instrument a far more dignified history than it's typically granted.

"It really became sort of a joke, a punchline," says Hammer, the iconic keytar innovator and composer best known for the searing pastels and tense undercover drug deals he limned with his themes for Miami Vice. "You would see Saturday morning cartoon girl bands [like] Josie and the Pussycats, and one of them would be running around with something that looked like a keyboard. That was probably the low point. When I saw that I thought, Oh my God, it's over."

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Hammer's connection to the keytar was admittedly personal, having had a hand in developing one of the most influential keytar prototypes to emerge from the late '70s, the Probe, with Todd Rundgren's keyboardist Roger Powell. But the true origin of the idea remains a contested issue. Lesley Symons claims to have invented the keytar in 1977, along with her brother Jeremy (a colleague of synthesist emeritus Robert "Bob" Moog, at London's Keynote Musical Instruments), only to have the idea "simply copied by the big boys" like Moog, which went on to release the charmingly clunky Liberation in 1980. But simultaneously, there were lesser-known models that factored into the primordial keytar mix, like the Hillwood RB-1 (more like a big strap-on keyboard), the PMS Syntar (1979), and Hammer's baby, the Probe, which employed a single snake cable to connect to six big, beautiful Oberheim analog synth modules, stashed in a case at the back of the stage.

Hammer says that developing a responsive, playable, remote controller like the Probe made the difference between "working a desk job and going out into the field." He and his technician had once yanked the keyboard from a Minimoog and fixed it to what he called a "Chiclet Box," running a thick cable back to the Minimoog itself. Soon after, he spotted Todd Rundgren's keyboardist Roger Powell rocking a Probe strap-on keyboard and commissioned one for himself, customized with a pitch wheel.

This pre-keytar keytar became something of an extension of Hammer's body. The Probe didn't just liberate him from behind the keyboard stand, it gave Hammer unprecedented control over a range of once-unreachable sounds and parameters -- suddenly he could switch sounds on the fly, wail out a lead on his pitch wheel, and finally, finally, let go, rock out, and focus his energy on making that badass Jan Hammer face.

"We had to create bespoke synthesizers and set-ups to be able to even do this," Hammer points out. And indeed, these were the analog-only days, when working with bulky, often delicate equipment demanded solutions just as crafty as the electronics themselves.

Rob Verhorst/Redferns/Getty Images

It's important to note that the keytar, as we have come to know it, did not emerge to fill some gaping hole in the marketplace. In the late '70s, synthesizers were boutique instruments, still prohibitively expensive for most people, and not available in every Sears music aisle. Early keytars were conceptualized and built by artists to address specific, individual, expressive needs. Players like Hammer and George Duke and Herbie Hancock used tools like thumb ribbons, pitch wheels, and modulation to make electronic music that felt more human, not less.

This formative period was all before 1983, when the rise of MIDI (Music Instrument Digital Interface) revolutionized how musicians and instruments relate. MIDI allowed instruments and computers to connect through a simple, easily tweakable protocol -- imagine a vast virtual piano roll that gives composers complete control of every aspect, every instrument, every note and nuance with the twist of a knob, or less.

The fast rise and spread of MIDI, paired with the increased presence of digital sampling in electronic music, exploded the possibilities available to composers. And when the Yamaha DX7 arrived in 1983, with its deep banks of hybrid sounds that mixed crystalline samples of real instruments with lush supplemental waves and rich polyphony, the whole industry flipped. Bo Tomlyn, a programmer and synthesist who helped develop some of the defining sounds of the DX7 in the early '80s, recalls it as a massive shift.

"Prior to the DX7... you didn't have anything other than bass, strings, lead sounds, fat brass, you had maybe six different sounds," he says. "Then all of a sudden, in came this device that had marimbas, it had block drums, it had harpsichords, it had acoustic guitars... hundreds of sounds that never existed before!"

Shit was getting real, and, in the process, it was getting far less real. With newly available presets a tap away, there was no pressing need to take the artisanal approach to hand-crafting each sound from raw waves. Electronic music was becoming easier to make, and being a band was even easier to fake. Artifice was having its moment.

Meanwhile, consumer-level keyboards and keytars were flooding the now-hungry music-gadget market, just in time for new wave to bloom, briefly not suck, and then suck really bad. Hair metal was on the horizon, and the keytar set its sights on the future, embarking on its long journey from hand-crafted axe wielded by the gods of music to perennially uncool fashion accessory for assholes who can't play real guitar. Fast-forward to Lady Gaga and... we're back.

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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."

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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.