The Stylophone: An Enduring Legacy of One of the World's Smallest Pocket Synths

"One of the most remarkable applications in modern electronics." That’s the rather bold claim that Dubreq made about its curious pocket synth, aka the Stylophone, back when its now-disgraced chief exponent was regarded as a national treasure.

Aussie cartoonist/musician Rolf Harris had already put a far more primitive instrument on the map, the novelty form of percussion known as the wobble board, when he introduced the Stylophone to an unsuspecting public in the late 1960s. In fact, there was only one such thing in existence when his eponymous BBC light entertainment vehicle beat The David Frost Show to the punch to nab its first TV appearance. But within a few years, more than three million people had succumbed to its unusual charms.

This figure just happened to include a then-unknown bona fide legend in the process of reinventing himself for the first (but certainly not the last) time. Yes, although the Stylophone was heavily marketed toward kids—inventor Brian Jarvis only stumbled upon the idea while fixing his niece’s toy piano, after all—it also attracted the attention of three men who would shape the musical landscape of the early 1970s and beyond.

David Bowie - Space Oddity (Official Video)

The buzzing sound you can hear during the verses of David Bowie’s breakthrough hit "Space Oddity"? That’s the Stylophone given to the Thin White Duke by close friend Marc Bolan, who in turn was introduced to the instrument by their shared producer Tony Visconti. Unsurprisingly, makers Dubreq quickly capitalized on this unlikely boost in credibility, using Bowie’s image in a number of press ads declaring that "the craze has begun."

"The Craze Has Begun" Ad.

Bowie would later return to the Stylophone on 2002’s Heathen ("Slip Away"), telling British chat show host Jonathan Ross that same year, "It’s the only instrument I take on holiday with me to compose on." But how exactly does it work?

Well, the original 1967 model used a printed circuit board to form a metal keyboard, with each note—played by using the pen-like stylus—connected via a different-value resistor to a voltage-controlled oscillator.

Additional features were pretty thin on the ground. Users could attempt to control the vibrato of the distinctive buzz that occurred whenever a circuit closed, although any differences were barely audible. Oh, and there was a power switch, too. But if you wanted the luxury of bass, classic and treble sounds you essentially had to buy three different models.

Stylophonists had to wait until the mid-1970s to get their hands on something a little more advanced. Dwarfing the standard model at more than six times the size and needing twice as much battery power, the 350S might not have offered as much portability. However, it could boast a range of 44 notes and 3.5 octaves (compared to the original’s 20/1.5), a larger speaker which allowed users to pump up the volume and an additional array of features ranging from reiteration to decay. There was even an extra stylus and a photo option which enabled sound to be controlled by ambient light.

Dubreq 350S. Photo by Cloud Shadow Emporium.

Sadly, the 350S initially proved to be the Stylophone’s swansong as shortly after its release, Dubreq ceased all production. Nonetheless, this discontinuation only added to its cult appeal and over the next three decades a whole host of artists much cooler than Rolf Harris kept the instrument alive.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk were one of the first notable names to utilize its limited but intriguing sound. Whereas "Space Oddity" had kept the droning noise in the background, the quartet’s 1981 single "Pocket Calculator" planted it center stage—you can even see Karl Bartos armed with a stylus in its live performance video. Heavily inspired by the Germans, siblings Paul and Phil Hartnoll, aka techno legends Orbital, would later score a Top 20 hit at the turn of the century with the similarly Stylophone-heavy "Style."

Kraftwerk - Pocket Calculator

The Stylophone would also become a firm favorite with those U.K. guitar bands who were a little too idiosyncratic to fit into the straight-forward Britpop scene. Pulp paid perhaps the most obvious homage to the mini-synth on their 1992 B-side "Styloroc (Nites of Suburbia)," and four years on Scottish indie heroes Belle and Sebastian also joined in with all the stylus fun on If You’re Feeling Sinister’s "Mayfly."

Manic Street Preachers—longtime fans of possibly the first pop act to embrace the instrument, The Small Faces (1968 B-side "Donkey Rides, A Penny, A Glass")—even recorded a Stylophone solo for their 2001 comeback single "So Why So Sad."

But it took until 2007 for the Stylophone to experience a true renaissance, and touchingly, it was one spearheaded by its creator’s son. A full 40 years after his soundtrack dubber father first threw dismantled piano keys, circuit boards and metal pens into one slightly discordant mix, Ben Jarvis joined forces with toy manufacturer Re:creation for an unlikely product revival.

Dubreq Stylophone S2

The S-1 Stylophone might not have pleased the purists who didn’t appreciate its substitution of the original’s oscillator for a 555 chip. But it still proved popular enough to launch several further variations including the S2, Gen X-1 and the Beatbox, the latter a circular-shaped percussive take on the instrument which enabled users to create their own rhythms and bass loops.

And then in 2019, the Dubreq company released the GEN R-8, a significantly larger limited edition Stylophone whose three-octave touch keyboard (no styluses necessary here), 16-step sequencer and MIDI support truly brought the instrument into the modern age.

By this point, a whole new generation had discovered the joys of the Stylophone. YouTuber Brett Domino racked up nearly two million views with a medley of hip-hop classics performed on the mini-keyboard. Having already used a Stylophone on The White Stripes’ "Icky Thump," Jack White then launched a custom-made line for one of his other countless projects, The Raconteurs. And in 2017 it appeared on the big screen during Ansel Elgort’s music-making montage in car chase thriller Baby Driver.

This brush with Hollywood is just the latest sign that, despite its toy origins and early alignment with kids entertainers, the unexpectedly enduring Stylophone can no longer be dismissed as mere child’s play.

comments powered by Disqus