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The Fender Rhodes Electric Piano


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 volume.

Follow this link to see the mechanism in action: keyboardmuseum -- 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 Rhodes pianos.
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 of wikipedia

The Rhodes in Action

Listen Further/Buy
Herbie Hancock "Actual Proof"
Check out live fottage of Herbie playing rhodes here.
Stevie Wonder "Living for the City"
Radiohead "Homesick Alien"
Jill Scott "A Long Walk"
The Roots "Proceed"

I currently own two Rhodes: a 73-stage model with a Dyno-My-Piano mod and a coveted 54 key stage model. I normally use the 54 for live because it is easier to carry around, and I use the 73 in my studio for recording. My current CD, The Satellite Orchestra, features my 73 as the lead instrument. You can hear a few tracks in the mp3 player.

Rhodes Software Emulations

Even though I am a purist at heart, I have to admit that the Rhodes software versions do come in handy when I am composing. In fact, there have been times when the software version does the trick and makes it to the final mix.

There are a ton of software emulations on the market now. This table contains a few of the most popular ones, and I have added comments about the ones I have played.
Software Name Manufacture Comments
EVP-88/EVP-73 Logic Audio These sound really amazing in a track, but I really don't care for them on their own. The phaser and tremolo are really nice, however. Nice for ballads and pads, but I really don't like soloing with them. Just not greasy enough.
Elektrik Piano Native Instruments haven't heard this yet
EP-3 Lounge Lizard haven't played this yet
Electro-Mechanical Reason Refill Propellerhead Sounds surprisingly good and greasy!! I use this one a lot when I am composing in Reason. This refill is available for free from the Propellerhead web site for all registered users of Reason

There is also a 'rhodes' patch in virtually every keyboard sold today, but my personal favorite is the "70's" patch in the Yamaha S90 and Motif-8. ( The S90 is basically a Motif 8 without the sequencer ) When I'm touring, unless the promoter can guarantee a really good/playable Rhodes, I always request a Yamaha S90 as the substitute. The feel of the keyboard is great, and the Rhodes sound doesn't wimp out in the high end like most patches.
Links to Rhodes Parts, Maintenance and more

Here are a few links to some great Rhodes Sites Mecca for all Rhodes disciples. Plenty of info and THE source for parts & repairs. great source for rhodes pre amps and parts as well rhodes parts and service
rhodes-tunes great Rhodes fan site with loads of samples and video footage of famous Rhodes players.

Current Releases

Rodney Lee -- The Satellite Orchestra

Innocent Bystander

Alien Chatter
Satnam Ramgotra &
Rodney Lee

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