The History of the Keytar

Let’s face the facts of keyboard players in 1979:

Fact #1: Piano or keyboard players in rock and roll bands never got as many groupies as the lead guitarist.

Fact #2: Expressing your tremendous talent at a piece of musical furniture just didn’t give you the stage presence and attention you needed to attract those groupies.

Fact #3: Those dance lessons would never pay off until you got out from behind that keyboard.

These facts became fiction in 1980 when the godfather of the synthesizer, the Moog Music company, released the Keytar.

Keyboard players everywhere rejoiced. Liberation from stands and stools! Liberation from immobility! Liberation from lead guitarist oppression! The Moog Liberation gave ivory ticklers everywhere a chance to grow out their hair, put on a pair of tight leather pants, and show the world that they, well…existed! AND SHOW US THEY DID!

As the synthpop sounds of the early 80s grew in popularity, so did the presence of keytarists in bands like Devo & Gary Numan. By 1983, keytarists had proven that they didn’t need a band, as solo artists like Howard Jones and Thomas Dolby emerged. MTV video airplay also helped to popularize the keytars as fans could see that the sounds weren’t coming from a traditional keyboard. But it wasn’t just pop music that was influenced by the keytar. Jazz artists like Herbie Hancock & Spyro Gyra used the instrument in their live shows. Plus, keytarists were hired by glam metal bands like Poison for their live shows in the early to mid 80s.

In 1985, the synthetic sounds of Harold Faltermeyer and Jan Hammer penetrated the airwaves through film and television. Wait, who? Yes, the #1 instrumental hits Axel F (Theme from Beverly Hills Cop) and the Miami Vice Theme gave us indisputable proof that the keytarist could go no higher. Cartoons like Jem and the Silverhawks even joined the wave by featuring characters clutching keytars. But the pinnacle was reached at the 1985 Grammys with the ulitmate 4-way keytar & synthesizer death match, the likes of which the world had ever seen:

After this, the keytar had nowhere else to go, but back to its horizontal and proper state.  The popularity of hard rock and metal grew in the late 80s as the lead guitarists retrieved the limelight from the balding, computer-using keytarists. By 1987, the keytar was nothing but a prop for Gwildor in the Masters of the Universe movie. In 1991, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles used one to defeat Shredder in one scene. But despite the downfall and mockery, the keytar has survived with the likes of Prince and more recently Alicia Keys, Muse, and Lady Gaga, using it to perform. But with these artists creating their own keytars to reflect their style, any lasting value of the keytar has really diminished and is now basically a glorified prop for these established artists.

It’s safe to say, that the Keytar is probably best left where it belongs…the 1980s. That is, unless there is a toy sale at Kohl’s and you are in need of a birthday present for a 5 year old boy.

Jason Gross: Child of the 80s, Former Radio Broadcaster, All-Around Music Lover, and Must-Have Teammate for the Pop Culture Edition of Trivial Pursuit. Follow Me on Twitter @SockOfFleagulls

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