The earliest reference I could find is the Orphica made by Carl Leopold Rollig in 1805 would you believe. From the image above the design similarities with contemporary examples today are fascinating. It belonged to a class of instruments broadly known as 'walking pianos' and even back then it attracted a fair amount of attention with Beethoven himself composing several pieces on it. Fast forwarding to a time a bit more contemporary we note the Weltmeister Basset from 1963 that was popular with East German dance bands apparently. Two Roger Powell instruments also feature in the form of the Powell Probe fitted with CV/Gate in 1977 and the Royalex in 1980.
Two notable machines that would round out the 1970's are the PMS Syntar which arguably was the first keytar with an onboard synthesizer and the Moog Liberation which represented the first of its kind from a well established and household name in the business, a sign of things to come. Once a name like Moog came on board, in the minds of many it led to greater legitimacy of this instrument type. It would be the 1980's however that saw the keytar come into it's own with all the manufacturers you maybe familiar with bringing out various noteworthy products. At this point I will caveat any instrument I highlight as being a legitimate keytar on the basis that it has strap pegs even though it may not have a neck, again you can decide on the validity of this definition.
No doubt electronic fans would immediately recognise the Roland SH-101 and in particular the neck grip accessory that also featured modulation control. The -101 is also notable for the fact that it is unique in having the neck grip being removable. Aside from 1986's Siel DK70 I'm not aware of any other instrument with this feature, if you are then let me know. 1982 would also see the introduction of two Yamaha examples in the form of the CS01, a strap peg type and the KX-1, a forerunner to it's probably more famous brother, the KX-5. Throughout the 1980's other notable strap peg examples included the Casio CZ-101, Korg Poly-800 and the Yamaha DX-100. I have owned all three at one point or another and while I can attest to their portability there is no doubt in my mind that fully fledged neck models win hands down in the performance stakes.
1982 also saw Sequential Circuits getting into the action with the Prophet Remote. Rather interestingly it featured a proprietary communications system called SCB, not CV/Gate, which severely limited the instruments usefulness. Given that MIDI was literally a year away at the time of it's release one wonders whether the Prophet Remote's fortunes would have been different with a later release date. As always hindsight is a wonderful thing. Lync are also worth mentioning with their LN-1 and LN-4 models, most notably used by Jan Hammer back in the day and were also remembered for introducing some measure of styling in terms of adding curves to the instrument in world of 'boxy' designs. Previous to this keytars were often accused of being a little 'utilitarian'.
Following Moog's lead, the 'big four' Japanese companies all released their own take on the keytar in the mid-80's. They all featured MIDI and not overly different price points so the purchasing decision really came down to aesthetics and personal taste. Which one would you have chosen out of the Casio AZ-1, Korg RK-100, Roland Axis or Yamaha KX-5? Yamaha would also release the SHS-10 in 1987 which was considered to be a toy by many people. Saying that, it had a basic 4-OP FM sound source with preset sounds and more importantly it had MIDI and was very cheap. For reasons I can't explain is that these days they can fetch upwards of 300 bucks on the second hand market, amazing.
There is no doubt that the 1980's were the keytars golden years and by comparison the following decade would be quite lean. Most notably we would see Roland introduce the first of many AX models whose stylings were reminiscent of earlier Lync instruments. Interestingly we would also see a couple of unique Russian examples in the form of the Formanta Mini and Unost' 21. Entering into the new millenium the next decade would be dominated by Roland with the AX-7, AX Synth and AX-09 Lucina models. However Behringer would also enter the fray with a very small strap peg type, the UMA25S. For something a little different we would also see the very medieval looking Stoneboard and the first Alesis Vortex in 2012.
Beyond the keytars basic principles it is a tremendous instrument for self expression and more than a few artists have taken it in very interesting directions as a performance tool, it is ripe for artistic customisation. In between endorsing everything from cables to Campbell's Soup (not sure about that last bit, he may or may not have) Dream Theater keyboardist Jordan Rudess has stamped his own artistic vision on the instrument with the Zen Riffer example above. Not to be outdone Lady gaga, bless her, has also expressed her own take on it as well. The keytar unashamedly encourages you to get out there and express yourself. If you are largely studio bound it's probably not the instrument for you. Given how long the concept has endured it is here to stay, it has stuck as a concept, it has gone the distance and will be around in more interesting and innovative forms for a long time yet.
Jason Durbin (aka Lagrange Audio) has been a synth and music tech enthusiast for 30 years since getting his hands on his first synth in 1983 at the tender age of 16. He hasn't earned a single Aussie dollar from music but the journey has been nothing short of incredible and he has met and interacted with some amazing people along the way. Jason is a true enthusiast doing it for nothing more than the pure love of it.
A 49 and 61 note version of the popular keyboard controller
Massive Attack live engineer talks design and more
Richard Nichol was on hand to show of the new pieces in the Lifeforms range