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Fender Rhodes: The Piano That Changed the History of Music

To find the origin of the Rhodes piano, we must go back to WW II when Harold Rhodes got the idea for the instrument. And it wasn't really musical instruments he was into, but a different way to teach piano. The story of the Rhodes piano is very complicated, or rather, so totally unbelievable that we might not even have seen the end of it yet!!!

by Frederik "Freddan" Adlers

Harold Burroughs Rhodes, who was born 1910 in the San Fernando Valley, discovered early that none of the established music schools he tried were into opening up the ears of their pupils. You should teach piano, but with a relation to sound, Harold thought, and felt a mission to develop his own method. Barely 20 years old (1930), he was managing a whole chain of schools across the USA, the Harold Rhodes School of Popular Piano. It was based on the success of the Rhodes Method, which you still can choose as a student (i.e. if you can still find it).

"The Grand Old Man" himself insisted that people who want to learn the piano (and pay for it) should not only be trained mechanically, but also learn how music works. And a good way to do that is to build your own piano! Less than two years before his stroke in 1996, he was working with kids in LA, in the wood shop of Foshay Junior High, building instruments at the age of 86. Strange words like "harmony", "sound" and "touch" relate to physical sensations that are the keys to understanding music. But let's get back to history....

World War II

Everything starts during WW II when Rhodes dissolves his pedagogic enterprise to join the Army Air Corps. By circumstance he finds himself between classifications, has nothing to do and is asked to provide therapy for wounded soldiers. Piano students lying in bed!?!? The obvious solution must be a bed piano (obvious to Harold, that is)!

Hydraulic aluminum pipes from the wings of the B-17 bombers seemed to have a good tone when cut to xylophone length. Picture yourself a toy piano, sized like a small suitcase, with 2.5 octaves of regular-size keys. It is a big success, and thousands are made. Rhodes is even awarded the Medal of Honor for his therapeutic achievements after the war, and in Air Corps Manual No. 29 in the army archives, you find the Rhodes Method described.

The Post-War Years

After the war, Rhodes is game for the music industry. They want to mass-produce the mini-piano - superior as it is in size, weight and (most of all) price to regular pianos - but Rhodes, used to doing things his own way, wants to give it a try himself.

The Rhodes Piano Corporation is established and introduces the Pre-Piano (NAMM show 1946) featuring 3.5 octaves and strings from a doorbell manufacturer, Torrington. It sounds better in the lower register and inspires Rhodes to learn electronics, so he can build an amplified version. An electrostatic microphone, amplifier and 6" speaker give the final product a price tag of $99.50.

The following year or two keeps Rhodes busy servicing way too many Pre-Pianos, due to less serious associates assembling the pianos. He gives up after two years, and during a stint in Texas he finally invents the "asymmetric tuning fork" idea. US Patent No. 2,972,922 is a reality.

Encouraged, he now builds a 72-note instrument resembling a baby grand, goes on a demo tour, and the rumor of the instrument reaches Leo Fender.

Meanwhile, Wurlitzer is busy releasing a piano built from the Pre-Piano idea, patented by Ben Meissner, a significant electronics authority. Rhodes even receives a letter from Meissner, explaining the weird sounds and uncontrollability he is facing. The reply is a model showing that if you can make the fork vibrate freely from its attachment, it behaves just fine!

By now we're far into the 50's, a decade totally dominated by Leo Fender, who in the span of just 5 years creates the Telecaster, the Precision Bass and the Stratocaster, and a line of amps to become classics as well. Even Harold must have been impressed, and being approached by Fender must have been like winning the Lotto. But unfortunately, what their new partnership would mean, in spite of Fender's potential, was Major Disappointment No. 2.

The Fender Years

The years 1959-1965 are a dark era in Rhodes history. The only available instrument is the Fender Rhodes Piano Bass, a 32-note version consisting only of the low range of the piano. This is hard to believe, since Rhodes finally had made a real full-range instrument. It seems that Leo didn't like the upper-range sound, so he locked Harold in the workshop to experiment with various strange ideas based upon the guitar neck (like the Hohner Clavinet). This didn't prevent Rhodes from, in his spare time, realizing his next milestone: the Rhodes 88.

Suddenly one day in 1964, he is visited in his workshop by two guys, who leave after a few remarks about the piano. They were Goddard Lieberson and Don Randall from CBS, and a few months later they offer him a release from the Fender agreement, plus an option to either get out or stay with CBS as his own boss. Familiar with Harold's pioneer soul, we would now guess that he wanted his own company, but he actually stays with CBS.

CBS buys Leo Fender out for an unbelievable $13,000,000 on January 4th, 1965.

CBS 1965-1983

In 1965, the most important year, Harold Rhodes can finally start manufacturing his by now well thought-through and awaited model. It's time to present the Fender Rhodes Electric Piano. A Suitcase 73 in black tolex with silver top, mono tremolo, a 50W amp and built-in speakers. Rhodes even credits Leo Fender for a few improvements.

During the following 16 years that this piano is made, up to 50 per day are put out. The Suitcase 73 inspires a few new models, and the internal improvements and updates are numerous. Rhodes turns every screw inside-out to refine his baby.

In 1967 the Celeste is presented. It struggles to survive but is discontinued in '69 (collector's item).

The passionate pedagogue he is, Harold Rhodes realizes the Instructor and Student Piano, a complete system of pianos to be used in classrooms for various tasks and applications. Berklee School of Music in Boston buys 22 in '68 and orders another 24 in '69. Futuristic rounded plastic design in a variety of colors, two big steel legs, a mini-amp, a built-in metronome and a teacher's attention indicator make it a very desirable collectors item.

In 1969 the vibrato becomes stereo, and output is increased to 2 x 50W. At the same time, the Wurlitzer Electric Piano Model 200 replaces the Model 100 and straightens out a few tuning problems associated with the Wurlitzer.

In 1970 you can get the Fender Rhodes 88. Now you can also choose between the classic Suitcase or the new Stage model, which, stripped of the built-in amp and speakers, makes it half the weight and size, not to mention less costly than its big brother. This is a brilliant move, and probably accelerates the now increasing sales even more. Every fifth piano that is sold is an 88. CBS had their doubts, but Rhodes convinced them to do the 88, and they even get an order for a 92-key version from Michel Legrand!!!

The Rhodes Mark I is equipped with new tines with improved durability, and in the following year come the Neoprene Tips (1971). The old action with felt hammers, just like ordinary pianos, loses clarity and sustain when the tine wears a groove in the felt. Now you get a little rubber-like cushion at the top of the hammer (size 1 x 1 cm). Each change is preceded by long and endless experiments and comparisons. This time the key to evenness is to have five different hardnesses, so the bass tips are soft and the treble ones are the hardest.

In 1972 the tone bar is changed. The new one is a twisted, flat steel bar that is lighter and has better output. Harold Rhodes has been concerned about the old iron bars' overtones and wants the pianos to sound clean.

Next year (1973) the Suitcase is provided with an effects loop (using pedals required customizing before). Also introduced for Stage model owners is the optional active stereo tremolo preamp, which replaces the Stage model's passive one and comes with two Satellite speakers, each powered with a 100W amp.

In 1974 a guy at CBS, Bob Bull, decides that the name of the electric piano should be just Rhodes, not Fender Rhodes, since Leo Fender hadn't really "contributed" so to speak. No changes are made other than the one on the nameplate. A lot of people I talk to believe the "Fender Rhodes" to be worth more than the (just) "Rhodes", but the name is the only difference.

In 1976 the all-plastic hammers show up, due to a desire to improve the action. These hammers are lighter, and my second Rhodes, a '78, was wonderfully fast and even to play. According to spare parts lists I have, the hammer change coincided with making the 50,000th piano (at least, all pianos from after the switch have serial numbers from No. 50,000 and above). For several reasons, it's wise not to mix some of the spare parts from the two different editions.

In 1977 the Suitcase gets a bigger power amp and speakers, plus the look is changed: black speaker cloth and slider controls on the front panel. The Super Satellite speakers are replaced by the Janus I system, featuring bigger speakers in stereo with more power (2 x 50W each).

Around 1978, an outsider by the name of Chuck Monte shows up in Rhodes history. His company is called Dyno-My-Piano, and in ads he announces one gadget after the other: preamps, splits, shielding kits, etc. Top of the line is the Dyno-My-Pedal. You had to send your piano to Mr. Monte, and after some magic it came back with no wrinkles and bigger breasts...sorry, jokes aside, with the new pedal construction you could move the whole harp back and forth while playing, to change the timbre and color.

The most obvious change he makes, though, is cutting the lid so you can more easily stack other keyboards on top of your Rhodes. CBS was quick to pick that idea up: the Mark II's are recognized by their flat top.

In 1980 the Rhodes 54 provides a solution for keyboardists' increasing weight and space problem. The 54 is much smaller and lighter to fit in big keyboard rigs. The wonderfully strange Mark III (EK-10), also from this year, is a funny hybrid featuring built-in electronics with 7 waveforms and lots of mixing possibilities between the Rhodes sound and "synth" sounds.

The following year (1981), CBS buys ARP (a company in serious trouble) and moves the facilities to Fullerton, California. ARP's flagship, the Chroma, suddenly is called the "Rhodes Chroma" for some confusing reason. I mean a Rhodes is a Rhodes, and I have to guess that Harold Rhodes didn't really participate in developing the Chroma, but it's a guess, folks!

The last CBS year (1982) sees the advent of a favorite: the Rhodes Domestic 88 (GET ME ONE!). A wonderful piece of furniture with a built-in P.A. system for cozy family sing-along evenings.

Bill Schultz

In 1983 William Schultz (head of CBS) buys Rhodes, and the year after we get the Mark V, Steve Woodyard's baby. If you get rid of the heavy wooden case (Finnish birch wood I think), and use as light materials as possible, plus you manage to peak precision, among other things increasing the hammer travel distance by 23%, maybe there's still a market. The Rhodes Mark V was a very good instrument, maybe the ultimate Rhodes. An estimated 3-4,000 were made during two years. Three Mark V's were even made with MIDI: Steve Woodyard has one, Chick Corea and John Novello the other two. They are impossible to put a price on.


Enter Roland. The Kakehashi corporation realizes the market value of the Rhodes trademark and acquires it in 1987 from Bill Schultz. What intentions they had at the start, it is hard to tell, but Harold is now facing another unpleasant surprise. He is flown to Japan for "product development", hoping to finally get a real good piano made. Enthusiastic, with a whole bunch of new ideas to test - I mean, who cares about Prophet V's, DX7's, MIDI and other novelties - and soon to be 80, Harold Rhodes once again commits himself to the "Real Rhodes Piano", Roland version.

Nearly two years later (Fall '89), the Rhodes MK-80 is presented, a digital (what else?) spectacle with decent imitations of electric pianos. Ironically the patch called "Classic Rhodes" became popular. But Harold Rhodes was not impressed: "When I heard it, I just felt sick!" he explains in November 1994, when he's finally had it, and announces new plans. Feedback from enthusiasts all over the globe plus his escalating frustration has convinced him: Harold Rhodes must make a new electric piano! If Roland won't let him use his own name, big deal, you can spell it backwards: the Sedohr piano.

When I spoke to The Man Himself in June '96, he and his lovely wife, Margit (of Swedish origin) could proudly tell me that it was settled: they had just gotten the rights to the name back. Finally there's gonna be some real electric pianos made again!

Get It?

The problems with Pre-Piano in 1947 would have been enough for most of us to quit, and the 40 years since could easily have defeated Popeye. But not Harold Rhodes, the man who just wanted to share with us the sensation of sound that got him started on the piano, and who happened to invent an electric piano in the process.


Thanks to: Harold Rhodes, Joe Zawinul, Peter Forrest (Vemia), Mark Vail (Keyboard Magazine), Brad Townsend (Fender), Steve Woodyard (CBS), and a whole bunch of others

[Ed. Note: Since the writing of this article in 1996, no new pianos have been produced for sale, although the Rhodes Method was available for a brief time. Harold Rhodes died of complications from pneumonia in 2000, at the age of 89.]


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