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Keytar Appreciation 101

What is a keytar, anyway? Well, along with being (to me) the coolest electronic instrument ever, it’s a midi controller-sometimes-synthesizer that you can wear over your shoulder like a guitar. The Grove Music Online article on electronic instruments says that “Lightweight portable keyboard controllers, worn like a guitar, became popular with rock and jazz-rock keyboard performers around 1980, since they enabled the player to walk round the stage.”

While some use it to simulate the sound of a guitar, as in this laudable “Little Wing” cover:

Others embrace its synthesizer side, as in this lovely Michael Jackson medley:

One can find photographic evidence of several prominent musicians playing the keytar, such as Herbie Hancock, Rick Wakeman (Yes), James Brown, Matthew Bellamy (Muse), and Lady Gaga, who seems to have a penchant for custom-designed keytars. And lest you think that keytars are largely a curiosity of the late twentieth century (why would you think that?), new models are still being introduced: Japanese synthesizer giant Korg released one this year.

Though it’s possible the initial makers of keytars were unaware of it, the instrument actually has an acoustic predecessor in the orphica. As you can read in the just-published second edition of the Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments, the orphica was a miniature piano that could be worn over the shoulder with a strap:

Orphica, by manufacturer Rollig, end 18th century, Museo Nazionale degli Strumenti Musicali di Roma. By LPLT. Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons.
Orphica, by manufacturer Rollig, end of the 18th century, Museo Nazionale degli Strumenti Musicali di Roma. Photo by LPLT. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Its name and shape was meant to recall the ancient Orphic lyre, and it was known in England as the “weekend piano.” Patented in 1795, nearly 200 years before the keytar came into existence, there are only about forty extant orphicas. The instrument’s greatest claim to fame is that, according to an 1827 letter written by a childhood friend, Beethoven may have composed a piece for it (possibly WoO 51). Which makes me wonder: had Beethoven been alive in the 1980s, what kind of keytar-led band would he have formed?

Headline image credit: Piano keys picture. Photo by Truls. CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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