Vintage 1979-1984 Casio VL-Tone keyboard, $5.

The little Casio VL-Tone is really an unusual little piece of musical history. Not only can you play some cool tunes on it, but you can also use it as a calculator!

Listening to the VL-Tone today, you may wonder why in the heck anyone would have bought one of these things back in the day, since it sounds pretty silly when played through its tiny little speaker. And what's up with that crazy calculator function? A calculator on a watch is one thing, and some of those old Casio calculator watches will currently bring you a nice chunk of cash on eBay. But a calculator on a miniature keyboard? Or better yet, why would a calculator manufacturer feel the need to make a funky little keyboard like this?

Apparently, an engineer at Casio had developed a chip that would work very nicely for musical applications, and Casio had decided to put it to use in a miniature synthesizer. But the Casio execs weren't all too sure that the little VL-Tone would have enough merit to stand on its own. Interestingly, when someone suggested that they increase the keyboard's value by adding a calculator function (Did I mention they're a calculator company?) the project got the go ahead. Freakin' weird history here.

I think the thing that really sparked the VL-Tone's popularity was the fact that it was cheap. So cheap, in fact, that Casio ended up selling over a million VL-Tones during its six-year run, a fact that must have had an immense influence on their decision to get more involved in the development of the electronic keyboards Casio is so well known for today.

Although the VL-Tone sounded pretty silly when played through its own small speaker, it really came into its own and sounded very cool when played through an amplifier and a larger speaker via its 'line out' function. The VL-Tone sounded so cool, in fact, that it was used by The Human League, Devo, The Cars and other popular bands of its era. A German band named Trio gave the VL-Tone its finest moment of fame in their record 'DaDaDa,' which was a huge hit in Europe, and which actually used one of the VL-Tone's preset rhythms as its foundation.

Now, what does all this mean for you? Well, the VL-Tone, like so many of Casio's electronic gadgets from the 1970's and 1980's, have become targets of collectors of these vintage electronics, and are therefore very hot sellers on eBay. And since over a million of these little VL-Tones were made, it's only a matter of time before you see one at a yard sale for a dollar or two. And when you do, buy it, list it and watch the fun. But wait a minute, before you do....

Although the 'collector factor' surrounding the VL-Tone means that you'll probably be able to sell one that doesn't even work, it's in your best interests to determine if one works before you sell it, as well as to inspect it for any physical defects. The VL-Tone originally came with an AC adapter, but so many of them have been lost that most of the examples you find today are likely to have been relegated to 'four-AA-battery' power only.

As you should always do with anything battery powered, remove the battery door to see if any ancient batteries have leaked acid inside and ruined the unit.

Try to power the unit up and play with every button and setting you can, to see if anything is obviously not working. This way, when you list your VL-Tone, you can honestly tell people that you've played with it as much as you could and couldn't find anything wrong. After all, that's about all you can really do.

This little Casio VL-Tone sold on eBay for $48.

Photo of Casio VL Tone synth keyboard