Not just any keytar: this one shoots fire. And you can make music by punching the dummy on the right in the crotch. No, really. Photo: Jeremy Mullis.

As a follow-up to my controversial defense of the keytar attempt to get people to stop complaining in comments that they can’t buy a keytar and excuse to needle Roland again.

This is CDM reader Billy Hunt. The bright spot in the upper right hand of the screen is fire — a fireball launched from his keytar. Billy modded his Roland AX-7 for wireless MIDI control (okay, logical, practical choice there) and added a “gun that shoots flash paper” (not so typical).

Billy writes:

It is the best instrument ever. Shooting flames out of your keytar while you use the infared beam to make it squeal like a pig makes the girls want you, and the men want to be you.

Billy is in the band Straight Punch to the Crotch with Buddy — the dummy you see on the right, which itself is MIDI-enabled. Billy describes Buddy as “a midi dummy with drum triggers in his head, shoulders, and (of course) crotch.” I’m hoping Billy will someday present an academic paper at the NIME conference on “Musical Applications of Tactile Sensitive Anatomy Sensing: Dummy Crotch Punching.”

CDM doesn’t very often print retractions, but I think it’s time for one. As a number of you pointed out in hilariously frank fashion, keytars are indeed not cool. So, here’s my Official Correction: flame-shooting keytars are cool — provided they’re in the right hands.

We’ve learned many things through this week’s Keytar Controversy:

1. Keytar aficionados don’t like the term “keytar,” preferring the more-dignified term “strap-on.” This is analogous to the Star Trek fan deciding neither “Trekkie” nor “Trekker” accurately describes their devotion, suggesting instead “penis.”

2. Normal, non-strappable keyboards and pianos actually are cool. Really. You can play keyboards just like that. (Who knew? I thought my piano teachers were trying to tell me something.)

3. In the Chinese and Japanese markets, keytars are preferred by girls. I will extrapolate from this that while I would look really dorky playing a keytar (I don’t own one, despite allegations from readers and bloggers), many girls look super cute with them.

4. Readers here are split between loving and hating the keyta– uh, strap-on. No one has neutral feelings about them. I think that tells you the real reason why they can’t be made any more.

The best part of the debate comes in the blog post Keytars Are Still Lame, with this visual aid:


There’s just one problem. Ray Charles is a great reason to learn the piano. But hand Ray Charles a keytar, and suddenly the keytar is cool. And that’s the point, isn’t it?

Instruments, isolated from any player, are often beautiful and very cool. Take the bandoneon. A well-made bandoneon is a beautiful, if archaic-looking object. (The same can be said about almost any instrument: beautiful, if archaic-looking.) Then you pick it up and try to operate it, and it looks like you’re trying to inflate some kind of personal Zeppelin, unsuccessfully. If you can’t really play, the instrument will do its best to make an absolute idiot of you. That’s what instruments are for.

But give that object to Astor Piazzolla, and it seems as though God Himself has popped in for a quick jam session.

Digital instruments are supposed to be some sort of automatic music makers that free us from these problems, but we know that’s not so. In fact, we know the real challenge is to imbue digital instruments with the same dork-producing — or genius-amplifying — qualities of their analog and acoustic predecessors.

So, we’ll leave it at this:

  • Keytars can help you play keyboards onstage mounted from your shoulder instead of a stand. The rest is up to you.
  • Roland doesn’t want you to have one for reasons we can’t fully explain.
  • If you bought a keytar and want to profit on it, you can now sell it for 2-3 times its purchase price. If you also bought Google stock in the 90s, you can sell that a buy a whole lot of keytars.

Imogen Heap can get away with keytars (and sometimes even she just attaches a strap to a conventional MIDI keyboard). I can’t, so you’ll still see me using stands and tables and such. And I’m okay with that.

Sorry, used the “k” word again. Gitboards rock.

Anyone want to suggest what slightly-anachronistic electronic instrument we should cover next? Nominations now open.

I am not Imogen Heap. This person is. Credit: zeejaydee.
  • sef

    Does this keytar argument include keyboards such as the casio cz-101, the korg poly 800s or the kawai spectra ( the most stupid 'stap on' keyboard imaginable– requires a wall wart) ? All of these forementioned keyboards have pegs for a guitar strap, but do not have a handle….

    I'm curious because you make the distinction between a keytar and a keyboard with added straps in your reference to Imogen Heap.

    So, what makes a keytar? Is that ridiculous octave changing handle for the left hand a requirement? If so, does that mean that something like, say, the poly800 is a strap-on?

    Is there a greater difference between the words 'keytar' and 'strap-on' ?

  • sef, I have no idea. But you can add a strap to anything with a little effort, of course. I think the "keytar" term suggests something with a neck. For all people are knocking that, it does have some practical purpose in terms of how you hold the instrument, keeping it stable, and providing a controller that makes sense for something strapped to your shoulder. Things like mod wheels are really designed for use with something on a stand.

  • sef

    Peter- you're right about the mod wheel, but let's not forget that the poly800 had a joystick that i have found quite awkward to use without it strapped to your body. Maybe we'll have to wait until some of those who protested the use of the word 'keytar' get involved in the argument again.

    I'd like to think there's a distinction between the words but I'm a hopeful person. Not sure that I fancy telling people that I have a couple 'strap-ons' though… :-

  • MonksDream

    My vote for anachronistic keyboard instrument isn't electronic. It's a Melodica, and it just radiates cool. If anyone knows of a MIDIed retrofit for one I'm SO there.

  • keytarz are cool.

  • Keytars own.

  • _object.session

    chinese and japanese girls with strap-ons. mmm . . .

    i second the melodica vote. i was thinking it until i saw the word "electronic". but since there's already a nomination . . there was a picture of a girl with a melodica in my school's newspaper, so my non-electronic-keyboard-envy has risen. (i also just heard a pretty neat accordion piece . . )

    strap-on envy . . .

  • I like the melodica.

    Hmmm… MIDI melodica? Digitally-enhanced melodica? Not sure exactly how that'd work (you do need the reeds) … but maybe a meloditronica performance with laptop is in order.

  • I don't know. It seems some people are interested in how they look at stage, rather than thinking about what they could do with a portable keyboard… Maybe when you get older you start to have another approach, i.e. you are not on stage in order to get chicks :-).

  • Well, in fairness, a keyboard can be portable without necessarily being strapped to you … but the melodica example is perfect. There are a ridiculous number of possible variations on the keyboard — historically, far more than are available today. So the whole point is that one design doesn't work for everyone. Ironically, all the technology we have now has tended toward mass production and less variety and innovation, not more. So the oddities and DIY solutions become all the more interesting.

  • I've never seen a MIDI melodica. You could probably make one out of a MIDI saxophone controller.

    Not too long ago I actually attached a homemade pickup to my own melodica. See the results here: Attaching a Pickup to a Melodica.

    It actually sounds pretty decent with the pickup. I have tried miking a melodica in the past, and it just doesn't work. There is not one single place where the sound emanates from a melodica, so microphones just aren't that useful. I used to have ambitions of playing melodica live, but now I just enjoy playing it whenever someone whips out their acoustic guitar.

  • Iain

    If you can find a clip of Borat playing the keytar on Conan O'Brien, it's worth a laugh. There was a video on Youtube, but it was removed for copyright violation.

  • sef
  • sef

    Suzuki released a midi melodica (they call them melodions). Here's a picture:

    I like research!

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  • Interesting!

    I don't know, I kind of prefer the melodica with pickup solution, though — so much of what makes the melodica interesting is its sound. If you're just using MIDI, there's something kinda odd about holding a MIDI keyboard to your face. Is it just me?

    Regardless, this definitely has the melodica squarely in line for the next installment. Now we just need a name, like Society for Creative Anachronism. Oh, wait. That's taken.

  • velocipede

    Peter, were you inspired to start this by the Keyboard article about Justin Timberlake that mentions a triple keytar performance? The article does not seem to be up yet. Almost makes me want to see the show. . . .

  • No, actually, someone just tipped me off on the Times piece — and it was something I'd been meaning to highlight.

  • MonksDream

    Thanks sef! Trust Joey Z to build one. I love jazz mutants.

    I think you're right about the oddness of a MIDI controller near one's face Peter. I have a long tube for mine and tend to hold it further away for playability.

    It IS just you Peter (laughs) I don't think it's mainly the sound that makes the Melodica interesting. I think it's the *breath* that makes it interesting. Kind of like the breath controller I still have from my old DX-7. Using one's breath makes an instrument wonderfully expressive. Just ask Joe.

    A small handheld keyboard with a mappable wind controller would be a thing of beauty.

  • Sef,

    like I said in the other post the 'k' word is used to describe something gaudy or silly. Or derisively. It also suggests that it has something to do with a guitar. It doesn't. I am not trying to be a guitarist when I use mine. Just like I'm not trying to play the piano when I'm at my big keyboard. It is just a great controller for the way that I like to play. I personally don't get Peter's fascination with the Monome or Tenori-on. Those seem like toys to me.

    I will be the first to agree there has been some really unfortunate usage of these keyboards. I will also agree the Strap-On is not a great name.

    So the distinction between words to me is more intent and context. A fiddle and a violin are the same thing. But Stradivarius didn't make no fiddles.

    But I don't exactly lose sleep over this whole thing đŸ˜‰

    Now to go sample the sound of the horse being beaten….

  • wuruwuru

    The biggest problem with using a contact mic on an acoustic melodica is the degree to which key clicks are amplified. When playing at quick clip, the key noise almost drowns out the reeds.

  • They will always be called keytars, no matter what the devotes insist they be called. Just as frisbees will always be frisbees not "discs", and, yes, Trek fans will always be Trekkies. People in whatever subculture may decide to take it upon themselves to try and devise a more noble sounding moniker for themselves, but in the common parlance we'll just go on calling it what everyone knows it by.

    But strap-on? From bad to worse, really.

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  • TJ

    I thought this was supposed to be a *music* site. What matters is what an instrument will do — or not — for your music.

    This whole keytar thread is boring, juvenile, unprofessional. If you can wow me with a thumb piano (that's possible) or an ocarino (still waiting), I don't give a damn what CDM or anyone else thinks about it.

    Circuit-bending, let me see, that seems to be cool here. OK, what's the number one circuit-bending tune? Little blinkenboxes seem to be big here: what's so hot about robotunage?

    No fookin wonder the airwaves are so bland and uninspired these days. No fookin wonder the whole scene is going down in flames, when so little of it is about *music*.

  • TJ: you can't ask for that from a scene, a culture, or a blogosphere. Talking about relatively superficial tech toys can be fun, amusing, and social, whereas something you have to work hard at is inherently lonelier, because you can't share that experience as easily or with as many people. To breathe inspiration into music, you have to make the treacherous trek up the mountain alone. It's been this way for much longer than we've had such a thing as electronics.

    Or, you can sit there being pissed off. Resenting the CDM community will not have a positive effect on music, though — yours or anyone's.

  • Ah Yes indeed !

    Here's a "Master of the Universe" on tour with Hawkwind , December 2007

    <img src=";

  • Evan the keytarist for believe is the best and he has got a really nice bear hat!!!!

    i was just at the believe confrence in St Charles and he was really good playing the chicken song!!!!!!!!!!!




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  • james

    I think its a bit stupid for people to be commenting on keytars, their popularity and stuff if you're not into keytars;

    Anyone who has been after one recently could tell you after a couple of hours of searching that they are very sought after by a lot of people, the prices are through the roof.

    People who say they're not popular wouldn't really know anyway because they haven't been looking on ebay or the net for a couple of hours for a keytar, because they "hate" keytars.

    Keytars are the sh*t

    I've been wanting to get a keytar for a couple of years, I went to buy one recently and found out how it's all gone to hell as far as availability goes.

    I'm not willing to spend 2000 dollars for a keytar that's a couple of years old.

    I'm gonna stick with my regular synth and ignore all the keytar bull crap for a year or so till I'm sure a couple of the other companies start producing some more.

    Mark my words too, there will be keytars and keytard glory in the near future.

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  • Thanks to the keytar, keyboard players now experience the same kind of freedom that guitar and bass players have been enjoying. It is for this primary reason that there is still a healthy interest in keytars. Choosing and buying a keytar requires a significant amount of research, identification of one’s needs and the available budget for purchasing one. Careful selection of a keytar spells the difference between an indispensable instrument or a worthless toy