Weapon of Choice: Fender Rhodes
The Rhodes piano was invented in the 1940s by Harold Rhodes, and
its principles are derived from both the celesta and the electric
guitar. The action is similar to that of a conventional piano, but
whereas in a conventional piano each key causes felt-covered hammers
to strike sets of strings, in a Rhodes piano felt-tipped hammers
( after 1970 neoprene rubber tips on plastic hammers ) strike metal
dowels called "tines" to create a ping sound which also
resonate the tone bars over each tine ( the asymmetrical tuning
fork principle ), creating a mellow ring.
Sound producing mechanism
The tuning forks themselves are "unbalanced" or asymmetrical:
one arm consists of a short, stiff metal rod (essentially a stiff
wire) called a "tine" which is struck by the hammer, and
the other arm is a tuned resonator resembling a piece of metal bar
stock, sized to sound the appropriate note. The actual sounded note
is, just like on an electric guitar, produced to be picked up by
an electric-guitar-style magnetic pickup. The pickups' output is
fed to an amplifier which can be adjusted to produce the desired
Follow this link to see the mechanism in action:
-- click the key with your mouse
The sound produced has a bell-like character not unlike a celesta
or glockenspiel. Because the instrument produces sound electrically,
the signal can be processed to yield many different timbral colors.
Often the signal is processed through the stereo tremolo (which
was called Vibrato on the Rhodes front panel) effects unit, which
pans the signal back and forth between right to left; it is this
"rounded" or chiming sound that is most typically called
a classic Rhodes sound, which can be heard on, for example, many
of Stevie Wonder's songs. The pre amp with stereo panning is included
on the original Fender Rhodes Electric Pianos and after 1970 on
the "suitcase" models; the "stage" models lack
the pre amp and the amplified speaker cabinet.
In 1977 and during the 1980s a set of Rhodes modifications done
by a company called "Dyno My Piano" became popular: it
made the sound brighter, harder, and more bell-like. It can be heard
on many records from that time. The modifications brings out more
of the Rhodes characteristic sound, for instance : when notes are
played forcefully, the sound becomes less sweet, as nonlinear distortion
creates a characteristic "growling" or "snarling"
overload—skilled players can contrast the sweet and rough
sounds to create an extremely expressive performance.
Artists who played Rhodes
The Rhodes was particularly popular from the early 70's-mid 80's,
and many of its signature songs date from this period: The
Doors' "Riders on the Storm", "Just the
Way You Are" by Billy Joel, "Still Crazy After All These
Years" by Paul Simon, "You Are The Sunshine Of My Life"
by Stevie Wonder, "Peg" by Steely
Dan, "Gotta Serve Somebody" by Bob Dylan, and
the intro to "Sheep" by Pink Floyd.
Ray Charles played "Shake Your Tailfeather"
on a Rhodes in the music store scene in the Blues Brothers movie.
The Rhodes was also used much in jazz-fusion throughout the 1970s.
Chick Corea's album Light as a Feather and Miles
Davis's In a Silent Way featured the Rhodes throughout
the whole album. Joe Zawinul of Weather Report,
Jan Hammer of the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Herbie Hancock
also used the Rhodes. Steely Dan used the Dyno-My-Piano modified
Rhodes on many recordings such as "Hey Nineteen," "Kid
Charlemagne," "My Rival," with a phaser on "The
Fez," and on most of their newer recordings.
More recently, the Rhodes has seen a resurgence in popularity and
has been adopted by a number of bands, including Radiohead
(heard most prominently on OK Computer and Kid A), Zero
7, and Massive Attack. It has also seen
a large resurgence in the genre of "Jam Bands,"
being used regularly by Phish, The String Cheese
Incident, Leyline and The Special Purpose. Heavily filtered or processed
Rhodes piano samples have become canon for contemporary dance-oriented
electronic music genres.
In addition, the Rhodes has seen heavy usage in hip hop—especially
that of a more jazzy nature. This can be seen with artists such
as Justin Timberlake, Alicia Keys, The
Roots, Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star, Blackalicious,
Jurassic 5, A Tribe Called Quest, and others. It
is even more popular in the neo-soul genre such as Erykah Badu,
D'Angelo, Jill Scott, almost replacing
the traditional piano.
The Fender buyout
The Fender Guitar Company bought the Rhodes company in the 1950s,
and produced the instruments for many years, in conjunction with
Fender-designed amplifiers. The instrument is thus often termed
a "Fender Rhodes".
The first Fender-Rhodes (sic) product was the Piano Bass in 1960,
but no other models were produced until after the CBS takeover of
Fender. During January of 1965 CBS bought the company, and shortly
afterwards the 73-note Student Piano and Suitcase Piano went into
production. In 1970 the more portable Stage model Mk I Stage Piano
was added to the range, and in 1974 the brand name was changed from
"Fender Rhodes" to simply "Rhodes". Rhodes at
this point changed internally. The hammers were plastic, the pedestals
were bare, (the felt was on the underside of the hammer), the pickups
were a different shape, and the tine structure differed from pre-1975
tines. The resulting sound was described as "mellow",
but in actuality the sound was more "bell" like due to
the missing midrange. 1975-1979 Rhodes pianos are known for their
ease in regard to repairs and upgrades. The first Mark II was introduced
in late 1979.
Also made for a very brief period was the Rhodes Mark III EK-10
which had analogue oscillators and filters alongside the existing
electromechanical elements. The overall effect was that of a Rhodes
piano and an electronic piano being played simultaneously; compared
with the new polyphonic synthesizers being marketed at the same
time it was far too limited in scope. Very few units were sold.
The final Rhodes electric piano was the short-lived Mk V in 1984,
which is thought to be the perfect Rhodes due to portability, and
tweaked design that avoids key/hammer bouncing. The Mark V Stage
73 was the last piano to be manufactured before the Rhodes Works
shut down in 1985 never to reopen.
In 1987 the Rhodes trademark was acquired by Roland, but they only
applied the name to digital pianos; they did not manufacture real
In the early 2000s, the "Rhodes" name was bought back
from Roland by one of Harold Rhodes's erstwhile colleagues, and
new electromechanical Rhodes pianos may yet be produced.
The actual instruments are still quite common: they are sturdy,
a bit heavy, and fairly easy to adjust and tune. Consumer-grade
electronic keyboards usually include built-in "electric piano"
patches that approximate the Dyno Rhodes sound with considerably
more convenience but none of these is capable of the range of expression
of an actual Rhodes piano, and many people and keyboard companies
mistake the Dyno Rhodes for the unmodified original Rhodes sound.
More recently, both software and hardware manufacturers such as
Native Instruments and Clavia DMI have developed sample-based emulations
of the Rhodes piano. Because the emulation is based on samples of
individual notes played on an actual Rhodes the software is better
able to capture the idiosyncratic characteristics of the instrument
than pure synthesis.
Different models of the Rhodes pianos were manufactured, 73 and
88 note versions, the stage model, and the suitcase model which
included built in amplifier and speakers. For a short time, a 54-key
version was also produced. The first models to be produced was the
32-note PianoBass. This was followed by the Sparkletop or "Mark
0" (1965), Mark I (1970) and Mark II (1979) which was continuously
improved and developed, but housed in the very same construction.
In 1984, the last year of production, the Mark V came out. -- courtesy