It’s a guitar! It’s a keyboard! Wait, it’s a keytar! Well, actually, this hybrid hero is the Roland Axis, but it’s remembered as the instrument that broke the mold for synth and six-string players alike. But Roland’s entry into this gear netherworld was not an isolated attempt at innovation. By the mid 1980s, they had an expansive line of gear items that blurred the bounds of guitar and synth.
While there are some key items in Roland’s catalogue of throwbacks that attest to their sonic and ergonomic innovation of instruments in the 1980s, to appreciate any of these requires putting them in the context of a larger anthology of Roland relics.
Let’s start with the obvious one. The fabled keytar. The idea seems simple enough: everyone dreams of perching their foot atop a monitor and blazing into a solo, so why not open up this playing posture to everybody? As a keyboardist barricaded in behind an armoury of synths, it’s tough to break out and feed the frenzy of the crowd. Back in 1985, Roland sought to remedy this situation by reimagining the playing posture of keyboardists, first with the Axis AX-1 and then with the Axis AX-7.
The reality is, however, the Axis series was neither Roland’s nor the world’s first foray into the uncharted world between guitar and keys. In the dawn of the decade, other industry heavyweights went to market with strap-on synths. Notable mentions include the Moog Liberation (1981), which holds the place as the first mass-produced stand up synthesizer, as well as the Yamaha KX1 (1983).
So when Roland went to market, there was already a space in the consumer’s mind for what the instrument was. They didn’t have to explain the Axis, they just had to present it as the weapon of choice. But was Roland simply hopping on board with a craze? Not exactly. One of the advantages Roland had above all others was their existing profile in leading in synth-guitar technology. While the keytar concept was about bringing a guitar posture and design to keys, already in the 1970s they’d been asking guitarists to rethink their instrument as a synth.
In the long and ongoing history of Roland synthesizer guitar effects and onboard systems, the GR-100 is certainly the vintage ancestor of them all. Born the late 1970s, this bright yellow stompbox set guitarists off into analog synth territory with expressive parameters for filter mods, chorus, and vibrato. In the years that followed, Roland continued to innovate along these lines as they carved out a space for additional synth inspired effects systems like the better known GR-300.
Even here, however, Roland was not content to leave the potential of the synth on the floor for guitarists. In the age where pedals were still emerging and increasingly pitted against towers of rack effects, there was one piece of gear that remained untouched, sacred, and seemingly out of bounds for synth innovation. If the Axis made the keyboard feel like a guitar, why not instill synth-like qualities in a guitar?
Roland did just that with the advent of the G-505. Channeling a traditional Strat-like design and pickup configuration, the G-505 was not a foreign instrument…at least until you looked a little closer. Tucked in behind the bridge was a pickup for sounds that translated signals for processing by vintage 24-pin synthesizers. The idea here was to go all-in modern while keeping a vintage aesthetic and setup. Here too, the G-505 is arguably the most successful such hybrid available as early as 1982, yet Roland had already taken a few runs at this new market with lesser known models, such as the G-202, G-303, and the bass model, the G-33.Sometimes innovation sparks a single great idea and results in a single outcome. For Roland, however, imagining a new space between the established universes of guitar and synth took big and bold thinking across the spectrum of gear. While we might all remember the keytar as the most iconic, it was certainly not alone.