man with long blonde hair playing a keytar (a guitar keyboard)

Eurovision: Why we keep falling for the keytar

18 May 2023
Discover the world of synth-metal!
Dr Paul (Mac) McDermott from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music ponders the enduring love of the showy but impractical instrument, the keytar, after Perth band Voyager's captivating Eurovision journey.
five members of a band pose for a photo shoot in a studio

Voyager, Australia's entry in Eurovision, 2023. Photo: supplied

This year, Perth synth-metal band Voyager finally succeeded in their long-running dream of representing Australia at Eurovision. After multiple attempts, they were directly chosen by the post-Australia Decides “committious mysterious” and hopped on the long haul to Liverpool.

They did not disappoint, making it through to the final. Their song, Promise, was voted ninth by an adoring fanbase. Not bad indeed!

But what even is synth-metal?

Traditionally, synths in metal, particularly onstage, were generally frowned upon and seen as a sign of inauthenticity. In the 1990s, I swore allegiance to baggy clothes, instrumental techno and synthesisers. The black t-shirt-wearing grunge fans worshipped guitar riffs, screamo lyrics and mosh pits.

We kept in our lanes and followed the rules.

Voyager’s proud embrace of synthesisers reject this rather 1990s separation and return metal to the melodic pomp of Van Halen’s Jump or Europe’s The Final Countdown. The band can still rock hard, but like the taco ad says, “Why not both?”

If you were coming to the finals fresh, Promise followed the classic Eurovision three-act strategy to maximum effect.

Beginning with synthesised staccato pulses playing rich harmonic progressions, it feels like a classic Euro-trance anthem, not unlike the Swedish winner, Tattoo. We find lead singer Daniel Estrin onstage driving his 1980s convertible, hair half-shaved and half in luscious locks. His mysterious passenger, bathed in neon – a red keytar.

A what? I haven’t seen one of those in ages!

The word “keytar” is a portmanteau of keyboard and guitar. It looks like a keyboard but is hung around the neck and played like a guitar.

The first verse of Voyager’s song begins its ascent, “if you haven’t ever done anything like this before then you haven’t been alive”.

I suppose not – I really need to get out with my keytar more often, this looks like fun.

The keytar stays in its seat as the band rolls through stadium rock, synchronised guitar swings, hard drum hits and distorted guitar stabs. In the second act, Voyager are now death metal.

It’s deep growls, drop-tuned power riffs, and scattergun kick drums. The audience’s collective mind explodes. 

After one more melodic pre-chorus, it’s time for the third and final act. With one boot threatening to scratch the duco of the car, the lead guitar solo lifts us up to melodic rock heaven.

But wait. For the second half, Estrin grabs the red keytar and joins in. He throttles its neck and finishes with a lightning-fast arpeggiated flourish that ELO’s Jeff Lynne would be proud of.

The finale repeats and ascends until we all rise to metal nirvana. A quick, traditional pyro-pop ends it all. That was truly genius!

The power of the keytar is restored.

An instrument of mixed feelings

The keytar tends to be loved or loathed. Created in the late 1970s and popularised throughout the 1980s, it looks like a product of its time.

Made of shiny plastic, shaped like the future, it’s showy and rather impractical to play. 

If you want to play chords, it is easier to play them on a horizontal keyboard, like a traditional synthesiser.

The primary advantage of the keytar is portability and pose-striking. Like its distant ancestor, the piano accordion, a player is free to move around, finally free of the horizontal grip of gravity.

Most guitarists thought of it as a joke, whereas new-wave synth players saw it as a cool accessory to their modern sound and fashion-forward hair.

This was the future, as viewed from 1980.

One early adoptor was Edgar Winter. His instrumental track Frankenstein topped the Billboard chart in 1973. A multi-instrumentalist who played guitar, sax, percussion and keyboards, he took conventional synths and simply added shoulder straps to wear them like a guitar. 

While this is a cool look, it is not great for the spine.

The first manufactured keytars were released in the late 1970s, the PMS Syntar (see what they did there?) being exhibited at Atlanta’s 1979 NAMM show (National Association of Music Merchants).

It was a time of extremely contrasting genres that nevertheless all had synthesisers at the core of their sound. More traditional progressive rock acts such as Yes vied with the new vision of electropunk by Devo. Glam metal bands adopted its look, while synth-driven electrofunk artists could overturn conventional rock theatrics.

The fall and the rise

The new, standardised MIDI language created an ecosystem that allowed musos to access any synth from any manufacturer, rather than being beholden to one. This quickly resulted in cheaper, easier-to-use synthesisers becoming more widely accessible, leading to the home recording boom we all enjoy today.

This bastion of the future soon became as passe as the flat-tops, mohawks and mullets of the people who played them. As we moved into the 1990s, the joyous excesses of 1980s pop bands would soon be seen as daggy. Replaced by faceless DJs, flannel-wearing rockers and choreographed dancers, it was time to sell your keytar or put it into storage.

But after a couple of decades of respectful silence, the humble keytar slowly began to re-emerge. Lady Gaga led the charge on her Fame Ball Tour in 2009. The keytar does make sense for such a look-driven, 1980s-influenced artist.

So all hail the keytarists of the world. Thank you Thomas Dolby, A-Ha and Dave Stewart. Respect to Chick Korea, Herbie Hancock and Prince. To Muse, Arcade Fire, John Paul Jones and Lady Gaga, may you shred in space, without a hair in place. Thank you Voyager!

This story was authored by Dr Paul (Mac) McDermott, lecturerer in Contemporary Music at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. It first appeared in The Conversation as Showy, Impractical to Play, and Looks Like the 1980s: Why We Keep Falling for the Keytar. 

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