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What is a Keyboard Guitar?

By Adam Hill
Updated May 23, 2024
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A keyboard guitar is a relatively lightweight keyboard that is supported by a strap around the neck and shoulders, similar to the way in which a guitar is held. The keyboard guitar, also called the keytar, was designed to combine the advantages offered by keyboards and guitars. It was made to be easier to play than a guitar, and to offer a greater range of movement than traditional keyboards do.

The keyboard guitar was first produced commercially in 1980, and was made popular by many 1980s musical groups. As bands began to move away from 1980s musical styles, the popularity of the keyboard guitar began to diminish. However, due in part to new software innovations and a revival of the musical style known as Synthpop, the popularity of this instrument began to renew in the late 2000s.

Only a small number of companies have produced keyboard guitars, but they have had many variations over their relatively short history. The first true keytar was the Moog Liberation&reg, released in 1980 by Moog Music&trade. Being the first, it was one of the simplest of its kind, but it did feature several controls located on the neck of the instrument for pitch, volume, and other parameters. A popular, later model keytar was the Roland&trade AX-7&reg, which was manufactured from 2001 to 2007. It had many more advanced features, including velocity-sensitive keys, an LED display, and proprietary sensors which use infrared light to detect the nearby movement of the player’s hands.

The popularity of the keyboard guitar has given rise to spinoff versions of this instrument. These include some types of children’s toys made in the shape of a keytar, but which have only limited capabilities and less-than-ideal sound quality. The instrument builder Vinson Williams has also developed two instruments based on the concept and look of the keyboard guitar. His Keytar&trade V-1&reg and Keytar&trade V-2&reg combine a guitar body with a piano keyboard and strummable metal strings like those on a guitar.

The strings on the V-1&reg and V-2&reg are fretted differently from guitar strings. Instead of the string being strummed with one hand and fretted with another, the instruments have rubber pads which, when pressed, fret the strings. This method is reminiscent of the method used to fret strings on a clavinet. These types of advances represent a further musical innovation which places Williams’ instruments in a different category altogether from the original keyboard guitar.

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Discussion Comments
By rowlandj — On Feb 12, 2013

I would contest the idea that it was intended to be easier to play than the guitar. The main reason for its invention was the added mobility which it allowed keyboard players. This worked well with the 'newer' way of playing that the synth had introduced, i.e., soloing with the right hand while adjusting modulation or pitch bending with the left was slightly more akin to guitar playing and it allowed the synth players to leap around like guitarist had been able to do for years!

By anon114832 — On Sep 30, 2010

Williams disassembled his old Clavinet and thought he invented something new. I told him it was lame and not new. He preceded to rebuild hundreds of clavinets. He thought he was going to make 25 million dollars from it. I thought he was retarded.

He divorced me because he thought he was going to make so much money and didn't want me to have any part of it. I called him the keytar-retard. I am so glad to see that he has been "so" successful, pfftttt! Greed gets you nowhere. Ex-wife #2.

By guitarhero32 — On Jul 14, 2010

@AstroTurf- I find the modulation joystick (which controls pitch bend on one axis and modulation on the other axis) on my Korg synthesizer to be much more comfortable than any of the keytars I've tried, and I've tried quite a few. I agree that there is a certain "coolness factor" that comes from playing a keytar on stage, but I disagree that they are any easier to play than a garden-variety synthesizer.

My recommendation for anyone that is considering buying a keytar would be to first check out synthesizers at a similar price range. Keytars are generally overpriced, and you should be able to find a higher-quality synthesizer for the same price as a decent keytar.

By AstroTurf — On Jul 14, 2010

@InvertedCube: Sort of, but not really. Not only does the keytar offer a greater range of movement (as is mentioned in the article), but it also provides much more accessible controls for doing solo work. If you take a good look at a modern keytar, you will find that the headstock is adorned with ergonomic MIDI controls which the keytar player can use to control the sound.

Typically you'll find a pitch bend ribbon and sometimes a modulation lever, both of which will be placed so that they can be operated by the same hand. You really have to play one to fully understand, but the placement of controls on a keytar feels much more natural than the placement of controls on a synthesizers. Although the freedom of movement and the sheer awesomeness of appearance are factors that make the keytar appeal to people, this is not the whole story.

By InvertedCube — On Jul 14, 2010

What's the point? Can't you just use a normal synthesizer to do everything that you could do with a keytar?

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