The Keytar is Back, Baby!

Roll with me on this one: what if the keytar was actually a good and useful instrument?

Yes, it sounds weird to me, too. I’ve always accepted that keytars are ridiculous. The name is a goofy portmanteau clumsily jamming together guitar and keyboard like someone trying to turn a phillips-head screw with a flat-head screwdriver. The keytar lets a keyboardist travel like a guitarist, something I’m not sure anyone was clamoring for. And it probably looked like cool futuristic technology straight out of Blade Runner for about five minutes in 1983. Today, it’s a visual joke in movies for children.

Beyond aesthetic quibbles, keytars present practical drawbacks. They have to be light enough to carry, which historically required manufacturers to strip the keyboard of its inner components and reduce its capabilities. And while a synthesizer has all its options for sounds and manipulation of sounds laid out in front of you, on a keytar the keys and knobs are harder to reach and see.

But looking at Roland’s AX-Edge Keytar, on display this week at the 2019 NAMM Show, I wonder if I’ve been looking at keytars wrong all this time. I’ve seen them as a compromised synth but I now see my thinking was too limited. Keytars are their own instrument, separate and unique from non-tar keys and non-key tars.

The AX-Edge Keytar isn’t a synth pretending to be a guitar. It’s unapologetically a keytar made by people who understand a keytar’s strengths.

Roland understands that a keytar is a novelty and a gimmick. It also understands that while novelties and gimmicks often get unfairly dismissed, they always get people’s attention. Upon seeing a keytar onstage, audiences will be surprised, amused and delighted. It’s already performed a difficult and valuable service of getting people interested in what’s happening onstage. But unless the instrument can deliver, the keytar’s novelty quickly melts into disengagement and disappointment. Luckily, the AX-Edge has an array of in-your-face sounds ready to blow people’s minds.

The edgy leads and fat bass can cut through even the loudest bands. Its lightweight but still offers a wealth of options for shaping sounds. Players can connect to the the AX-Edge editor app with Bluetooth MIDI to customize their sounds or use the keytar’s splits and layer functions to change up the sounds on the fly.

You’re not going to play Bach concertos on a keytar. It’s for blowing minds and melting faces. AX-Edges have 49 keys, enough to make a musical statement without worrying about getting lost on the keyboard. And when you want to punctuate your one-handed runs, the intuitive controls let you effortlessly incorporate synthy pitch bends and glides. Explosive techno freak-outs are at your fingertips with the modulation bar, pitch ribbon and easy-to-reach portamento. It also comes with a vocoder for moments when you want to sound like a funky robot overlord.

So upon consideration, I think keytars are that intersection of goofy and epic where greatness happens. And for the first time in my life, I want one.

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