Made in: United States
Designed by: Harold Rhodes
Number produced: more than 100,000
System: hammer action, electric pickups
Price new: $500-$1,800
Today's prices:Like new$750Like, it's okay for its age$500Like hell$300
The Fender Rhodes electric piano possesses one of the most recognizable sounds in modern music. The Rhodes' popularity has waxed and waned over the decades since its introduction, but its sound is still in vogue today in Beck's rock, Brand New Heavies' funk, Chick Corea's jazz, and even in Emagic's EVP88 and EVP73 virtual electric-piano plug-ins.
The Rhodes piano was the brainchild of musician Harold Rhodes. While a flying instructor stationed in Greensboro, North Carolina, Rhodes designed his first portable acoustic piano for the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1942. Beginning with a pile of aluminum tubing salvaged from a B-17 bomber, Rhodes fashioned a sort of xylophone with a 29-note keyboard. Following World War II, Rhodes built a self-amplified, 38-note electric model called the Pre-Piano after taking apart a chiming clock that used spun-metal rods called tines.
At the 1959 NAMM convention, Rhodes introduced the Piano Bass, which was later enthusiastically embraced by Ray Manzarek of the Doors. Of all the models to emerge over the years, however, perhaps the best known and most desirable is the 73-key Fender Rhodes Stage Piano Mark I.
Introduced in 1970, the 132-pound Mark I is made of wood, covered in a fabric-reinforced vinyl called Tolex, and sized to fit into a box that measures 45.25 by 9.85 by 23.63 inches. A compartment in the top cover houses four telescoping tubular steel legs that screw into the instrument's underside at a splayed angle for sturdy setup. A long metal sustain pedal attaches to the keyboard mechanism through a small hole in the center of the piano's underside via interlocking rods. Unfortunately, the pedal arrangement has always been difficult to fit and invariably slackens or falls out in the middle of a gig.
The original Stage Piano's control panel is sparse, with a volume knob, a tone knob, and a stereo ¼-inch TRS output jack. The Mark I's Bass Boost is a passive tone control, though some of the later models offer active tone control. The curved, sloping lid makes it impossible to stand your beer, sheet music, or another instrument on top without the framelike contraption that was seen occasionally in the 1970s.
The Mark I was manufactured in 73- and 88-key models. On the early Mark Is, the hammers were made of felt-covered wood; they were replaced on later models by rubber-covered plastic. Sound is generated when the key action causes the hammers to strike the tines. Audible vibrations are picked up by a system of individual magnets positioned close to the tip of each tine.
With keys that are slightly shorter and narrower than standard piano keys, a typical Rhodes piano began life with a wrist-breakingly stiff action. The weighted keys usually took months to loosen up and settle down; most became knackered — a term commonly used among Rhodes players — in their first year or so. Accordingly, no two instruments feel or sound quite the same. Some are a pleasure to play, and others are simply murderous.
The classic Rhodes sound is highly expressive — part bell, part xylophone, and part piano. With its relatively soft, muted tones and brilliant dynamics, the Rhodes piano is especially well suited to the subtleties of jazz. Hitting a note really hard produces anything from a harmonic or a dull thwack to a clear, loud, crystalline tone.
Two hardware pieces that greatly influence the Rhodes sound are the amplifier and the effects processor through which the piano is played. Shortly after the Mark I's introduction, the Fender Twin Reverb established itself as the amplifier of choice, in part because of its appropriately moody tremolo. The Roland JC-120 Jazz Chorus is also an excellent choice for amplification, especially with its creamy built-in chorus effect. Before the JC-120, players had to rely on chorus and phaser pedals that were notoriously noisy and ate batteries for breakfast. Still, if you want the authentic feel of the '70s, you may opt to take the stompbox route.
Rhodes pianos were produced in large quantities, and they're still in plentiful supply. Bargains abound, and with a little patience and skill, you can perform most repairs yourself. If you want to hear, see, and feel how musical instruments were before digitization made everything virtual, a Rhodes presents the lesson perfectly.
Before you purchase a Rhodes, give it an aural and a physical examination. Keyboard action is a matter of personal taste, but an action that's too loose is probably on its way out. Don't be overly concerned with the evenness of the tone or the loudness of individual notes; both are easy to correct by adjusting the angle or distance between the tine and the pickup. You should be aware that during the late '70s, then-owner CBS substituted some of the original construction materials, resulting in an instrument with a tone that Harold Rhodes considered inferior to earlier and later models.
With the exception of the tines, which break frequently, the Rhodes is fairly maintenance free. Fitting and replacing tines is laborious rather than difficult and requires nothing more than a screwdriver, a pair of pliers, reasonably good eyes and ears, and a steady hand. Each tine is cut to an approximate length and then fine-tuned by scraping tuning springs along its length.
You can obtain replacement parts from a huge variety of sources, and third-party modifications have always been available. From the mid-'70s until the mid-'80s, the most popular mod was Chuck Monte's Dyno-My-Piano, which employed mechanical and electronic makeovers to make the Rhodes sound even brighter and more bell-like.
Plenty of resources are available on the Web, but nothing comes close to the Rhodes Super Site (www.fenderrhodes.org). There you'll find online versions of the original brochures, user guides, and service manuals for various models, as well as fascinating historical information, FAQs, classified ads, and a lengthy list of repair facilities.
Although the Fender Rhodes itself has gone in and out of fashion, digital emulations of its sound have remained popular since the age of the Yamaha DX7, which for many players provided a most effective substitute. During the late '80s, when the Rhodes piano reached the height of unfashionability, I abandoned mine beneath a friend's house.
Harold Rhodes died on December 17, 2000. He was much more than an idiosyncratic keyboard inventor, but he remained fiercely proud of his robust family of electric pianos, and with good reason. The Fender Rhodes piano is assured a place in musical history, and it remains a viable force in today's music. Go play one and you'll discover why.
Julian Colbeckhas toured everywhere from Tokyo to São Paulo with artists as varied as Yes, Steve Hackett, John Miles, and Charlie.
The quoted prices reflect typical street prices you must expect to pay in U.S. dollars. The buy-in on vintage instruments, as with vintage cars, is just the beginning, though. Most of the original manufacturers are long gone, so maintenance and repairs are expensive.