Nine stringed life


Keith Lykins’ musical travels at Taffy’s of Eaton

By Joey Ferber

Keith Lykins connects cultures of the world through his music. Often, you’ll find him strumming and tapping the self-invented, nine-string drum guitar—an instrument created to enhance his solo performances.

On the instrument’s inspiration, Lykins states, “I had a dream one night that I had drums on my guitar, and I thought, ‘There’s got to be a way I can do this.’”

Lykins’ act is no gimmick. He has dedicated much of his life to studying the guitar, and his sons have also passed the limits of genre with music that seems to embody more of a life mantra than a playing style. Lykins’ proficiency of many cultures’ music has helped him craft a style that resonates with his way of life.

Dayton City Paper had the chance to discuss the music, life, and philosophy of Keith Lykins—guitarist, author, and Ohio native.

“Music has always transcended normal experience,” he says. “Even when I was a kid, I realized it was a very spiritual aspect of my life. It has that ability to pull us out of our normal day-to-day existence. I always found that it more than inspires—it kind of makes us more than what we see ourselves as.”

While music is often described as a language, Lykins says, “I think that some things go beyond words, and that’s why we have instrumental music. That’s why we have art.”

When asked about his writing process and when he knows whether a song calls for a lyric, he says, “If I don’t write for a while, I start to get bad dreams. So it’s not something that I choose to do. It’s something that I really have to do. It’s something that I have to get out, or it spoils. I just start to write and the music takes it where it will. The music guides me more than I guide it.”

And that music has graced Ohio audiences for decades. His roots were cultivated here in Dayton. He graduated from University of Dayton with a bachelor’s degree in classical guitar performance and worked heavily with composition during his time there.

“I had an art teacher in college that said, ‘Learn the rules well, so you’ll learn how to break them.’ And I’ve always carried that with me,” he recalls. “I was very fortunate to have very good teachers, not just in music but in philosophy and art. And I was always encouraged to expose myself to as much musically and artistically to as much as I could: ‘Go out and see an opera. Go out and see a symphony. Go out and listen to Greek [bands] play music on the street. Listen to all this stuff.’ So I always have. I’ve never been satisfied with listening to one type of music. I’ve always tried to get different music in my head. Thank God for the internet because it becomes so accessible.”

Lykins’ studies have only gained momentum since formal schooling. He consistently becomes infatuated with the music and life of new places and people, which take his own music and life in new, unpredictable directions.

Recently, he’s shifted his focus to Middle Eastern and southern African music, writing Arabic and southern blues, which can become complex quickly when attempting to maintain the framework of a blues song.

“Sometimes it gets really weird, and I’ll map it out geographically—what I want the song to look like on the paper,” he says.
While Lykins gets deep into unfamiliar territory, he never loses his deft classical inclination for form and proper execution. Such can be said about his recordings and performances as well—both exemplify masterful precision.

“When I begin to look at music of different cultures, I begin to look at that culture historically, to look at where that music came from,” he says. “When I first fell in love with Arabic music, particularly southern Afghan music, I started to study about where that music came from, and that led me to learning about Afghanistan and the influence of Spain on Arabic culture and the Arabic culture on Spain. Not only do I hear the music, but I know the history. You learn a lot about philosophy and the culture when you engage musically.”

But Dayton City Paper had to know: what is it like living in Ohio while tapping into all these different places on Earth?

“If you’ve ever traveled and gone away from your hometown a while and come back, you see things from a different perspective,” he says. “That’s kind of what happens to me with living in the American Midwest at this time. I begin to see in a time frame. I begin to see things in perspective of a larger world. When you explore different ways of thinking and ideas—when you look at different realities—all of a sudden that reality that you thought was here is changed. And that changes me. It makes one a bit less rooted and stable, but, man, is it worth it.”

Keith Lykins performs Saturday, Feb. 18 at Taffy’s of Eaton, 123 E. Main St. in Eaton. Show starts at 8 p.m. For more information, please call 937.456.1381 or visit or


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Joey Ferber works out of St. Louis and Dayton as a musician and writer. You can hear him on electric guitar with St. Louis jazz-rap collective LOOPRAT at and on his original theme song for the Dayton-based podcast series Unwritten at, for which he also contributed to as a scriptwriter. Reach him at

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