A Rhodes piano is an electromechanical musical instrument, a brand of electric piano. Its distinctive sound has appeared in thousands of songs of all musical styles since it was first introduced in 1965. Since its comeback in the 1990s, it has again become very popular and widely used. It was replaced briefly during the 1980s by the distinctive emulation of the Rhodes piano produced by the Yamaha DX7 synthesiser, introduced in 1983. Notable Fender Rhodes players include Herbie Hancock, Bob James, Joe Sample, Keith Jarrett, Ray Manzarek, Max Middleton, Martin Dosh and Joe Zawinul.
The Army Air Corps piano was invented during World War II by Harold Rhodes in an effort to provide a piano that injured servicemen could build and play while in bed. The Rhodes piano evolved from its successor, the electrified post-war Rhodes Pre-piano over the 1946 to 1950s timeframe, to an initial design launched as the Rhodes PianoBass in 1959.
The Rhodes' action is quite different from that of a conventional piano. Whereas in a conventional piano each key causes the hammers to strike sets of strings, in a Rhodes piano the hammers strike the tines instead. The result is a unique, fat sound with a bellish attack and good sustain.
In 1965, when finally the full-size 73-note model was launched, there wasn't much commotion, but two years later, in 1967, Joe Zawinul and Miles Davis started using this new sound to revolutionize both jazz and rock and the fusion between the two styles.
The Rhodes piano's tone-generating principles are derived from the concept of an asymmetrical tuning fork - with a stiff wire (called a "tine"), struck by a felt-tipped (neoprene rubber-tipped after 1970) hammer, acting as one side of the tuning fork, and a counterbalancing resonating tone bar above the tine acting as the other side. This tone generator kit's vibrations are then picked up by an electromagnetic pickup (one for each tine), and amplified. The pickups' output is fed to an amplifier, which can be adjusted to produce the desired volume.
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 a stereo low-frequency pan oscillation (which was called Vibrato on the Rhodes front panel) effects unit, which pans the signal back and forth between right and 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 preamp with vibrato is included on the original Rhodes Electric Pianos and after 1970 (with stereo panning) on the "suitcase" models; the "stage" models lack the preamp and the amplified speaker cabinet.
Inspired by one particular and very famous rental piano in L.A., the E-Rhodes, used on hundreds of famous records by many big artists, 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 also be heard on many records from that time. The modifications brings out more of the Rhodes sound and makes it cut through like a grand piano; for instance: when notes are played forcefully, the sound becomes less sweet, as nonlinear distortion creates a characteristic "growling" or "snarling" called "bark" by pianists. Skilled players can contrast the sweet and rough sounds to create an extremely expressive performance.
Leo Fender of The Fender Musical Instruments Corporation, then called the Fender Electric Instrument Company, entered a joint venture with Harold Rhodes in 1959, and they produced the instruments for six years. As a result, Rhodes instruments were called Fender Rhodes for 15 years.
The first Fender Rhodes product was the Piano Bass in 1959, and no other models were mass-produced until after the CBS takeover of Fender. During January 1965 CBS bought the Fender company for 13 million dollars, and shortly afterwards the 73 and 61 key Fender Rhodes Electric Piano went into production. The '60s also saw the Fender Rhodes Celeste, the Student/Instructor models and systems as well as the very rare Domestic models. In 1970 the more portable Mk I Stage model was added to the range as well as the two 88 note Stage and Suitcase models, and in 1974 the brand name was changed from "Fender Rhodes" to just "Rhodes". The Rhodes piano went through internal improvements continuously. The hammers became all plastic, the pedestals changed shape and were bare for a short while, (the felt was on the underside of the hammer), the pickups were altered, and the tine structure modified to endure more wear. The Mk II model was introduced in late 1979.
Also manufactured for a brief period was the Rhodes Mk III EK-10 which had analog oscillators and filters alongside the existing electromechanical elements. The overall effect was that of a Rhodes piano and a synthesizer being played simultaneously; compared with the new polyphonic synthesizers being marketed at the same time, it was far too limited in scope and sound. Very few units were sold.
The final Rhodes electric piano was the Mk V in 1984. The Mk V was thought to be the ultimate Rhodes instrument. With a lighter body, all new action design with an improved cam, increasing the hammerstroke by 23% for power and increased dynamics. A new harmonic tone bar designed for better upper and lower clarity as well as a big reduction in the weight with usage of polymer material in the outer case reducing the weight to about 100 pounds.
Different models of the Rhodes pianos were manufactured. 73 and 88 note versions were available of both the stage model and the suitcase model, which included built in pre-amp with the famous Stereo-Vibrato, amplifier and speakers. Starting in 1980, a 54-key version was also produced. The first model to be produced by Fender-Rhodes was the 32-note PianoBass in 1959. This was followed by the Sparkletop Fender-Rhodes Electric Piano or "Mk 0" (1965), Mk I (1970) and Mk II (1979) which was continuously improved and developed, but housed in about the same construction throughout the years. In 1984, the last year of production, the Rhodes Mk V was released. A total amount of 2000 Mk V's were produced.