5 things Jeff Babko Has Learned About Playing Jazz on the Rhodes

January 11, 2017

The Fender Rhodes is not an acoustic piano, nor should it be approached or played like one. It is its own beast, and a beautiful one at that.

Originally made from surplus army parts, with a sustain pedal rod from a drummer’s hi-hat stand and the top sourced from a boat, the Rhodes was meant to be used when an acoustic piano was unavailable. Of course, Joe Zawinul, George Duke, Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock pioneered the use of the Fender Rhodes in jazz. And although it fell out of fashion in the ’80s and early ’90s (thanks in large part to keyboards such as the Yamaha DX-7), the Rhodes has returned to become as vibrant and relevant as ever. Here are five tips for getting the most out of this classic instrument in a jazz setting.

1. Remember the Role of the Rhodes

Keep in mind that the Rhodes is an electric instrument and doesn’t have to be played as if it were merely an alternative to an acoustic piano. For example, it can be used in way that is similar to an electric guitar. Try running it through stomp-box effects such as delay, reverb, distortion, and ring modulation. Volume swells offer another nice color. Or try pedaling on an octave or creating an ostinato, just as U2 guitarist The Edge would do: This works well in the jazz idiom, too!

2. Check Your Voicing Thickness

Piano voicings don’t always translate directly to the Fender Rhodes, which has overtones and a sonic texture that differ from an acoustic instrument. Some clusters work, and some don’t. Moreover, the middle register of the keyboard (just below middle C) can sound muddy if a chord is too thick. Voice your chords so the instrument sings clearly.

3. R Is for Rhythm

The punchiness and body of the Rhodes (not to mention its bright tonal quality) give you an opportunity to react and integrate with the rhythm section. On Headhunters and Thrust, Herbie Hancock adapted the syncopated ideas he learned listening to Sly Stone to create his signature punches and jabs, creating interplay and becoming a component of the rhythm section. But be careful: Keyboardists tend to be a little busy and occasionally “on top” time-wise. Space is the place in funk, and often the less activity there is in your playing, the better. And remember always to keep it deep in the pocket.

4. Sonic Variations

Take advantage of the built-in vibrato, if your Rhodes has it. But keep in mind the difference in texture between a slow stereo pan and a fast, ping-pong effect. For example, on a rich ballad, a wide vibrato can be elegant and sexy, but on an up-tempo song, it can make the bite of the Rhodes mushy or disappear altogether.

And get to know how the sound of the instrument changed over the years when it was in production, as well as the differences between the Suitcase and Stage models. The Rhodes of the Holy Grail era (1972-1974) tend to have a lush but slightly darker sound (think Stevie Wonder Innervisions) than the models from later years, which are a bit brighter. Don’t let anyone tell you that there’s nothing good about the late ’70s or early ’80s instruments: Recording engineers happen to love a 1979 model with its plastic parts, which I use all the time! Every Rhodes has likeable qualities and is good for different occasions.

5. Think About Attack

One thing I strive to achieve is a clean, precise attack on the Rhodes. Two masters that come to mind in this regard are Jan Hammer and Chick Corea. Listen to the Jan Hammer Group’s Oh Yeah? and Melodies, or Chick Corea on Stan Getz’ “Captain Marvel” or Return to Forever’s “Captain Señor Mouse” and note the accurate attack and independence of each note in their lines. Both Chick and Jan are also drummers, so their rhythmic acuity comes as no surprise.

When working on your attack, try groupings of 5 and 7 notes when you improvise, in addition to your regular lines and scales, and think in more of a “drumistic” way as you play. Subtle things like this can help you achieve a higher level of rhythmic precision.

Jeff Babko is best known for his spot in the house band on Jimmy Kimmel Live, as well as his keyboard work with artists such as Sheryl Crow and James Taylor. His latest release, Band of Other Brothers—City of Cranes, features Jeff Coffin, Will Lee, Nir Felder, and Keith Carlock. Find out more at jeffbabko.com.

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