The Inside Story of the Return of the Real Electric Piano
The Rhodes electric piano is one of the most recognizable and imitated keyboard instruments ever, appearing on some of the most indelible recordings of the past halfcentury. Legendary keyboard players such as Josef Zawinul, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Joe Sample, George Duke, and Donald Fagen got a large part of their signature sound from the Rhodes, and consider themselves forever indebted to inventor Harold Rhodes.
Contrary to many predictions that a genuine electro-mechanical Rhodes could never again be built in this digital age, the new Mark 7 (reviewed on page 48) improves upon the vintage models. Keyboard got the inside scoop on how that journey began and what it took to bring the Rhodes back to life.
Harold Rhodes’ first and lifelong passion was music education. Before World War II, he ran a chain of teaching studios in major U.S. cities, and taught piano to Hollywood stars such as Lana Turner and Harpo Marx.
Having served in World War II, he conceived his first pianos as a form of music therapy for wounded soldiers, cobbling together the first Army Air Corps Piano (later called the Xylette) out of spare metal tubing from B-17 aircraft, and teaching over 250,000 soldiers how to build and play their own Xylettes.
Some years after the war, Rhodes met guitar mogul Leo Fender. Harold had signed over the rights to his name and pianos to Fender, but Fender never really gave Rhodes the materials and human resources to get his pianos off the ground.
“Harold told me Leo treated him badly,” says Joseph Brandstetter, CEO of today’s Rhodes Music Corporation. “He promised Harold the money and tools to build the prototypes in exchange for the rights to the name, but he never supplied Harold with anything further he could use.”
Though Fender did make and sell the Rhodes Piano Bass (famously played by Ray Manzarek of the Doors), as well as a handful of prototype pianos, it wasn’t until 1965 — when CBS bought Fender — that Rhodes got a leg up into mass production of the models we know today, beginning with the first Mark I Suitcase that year. (For all practical purposes, there is no such thing as a “pre-CBS Rhodes,” at least not in the sense of a keyboard equivalent of the coveted pre-CBS Fender Stratocaster guitars.)
In 1980, CBS briefly produced the short-lived Mark III EK-10, which added a synth that, in theory, could be layered with the sound of the tines. In practice, the synth section was so unstable as to be virtually unusable. CBS had also bought synth maker ARP, and in 1979, introduced the velocity-sensitive ARP Electronic Piano, which it later marketed under the Rhodes name. It was a technological and commercial failure, and Harold Rhodes was very upset that CBS had put his name on this keyboard.
Harold and his team introduced the Mark V in 1984, which greatly improved on earlier versions. The plastic body reduced the weight to 100 pounds, plastic keys were changed back to wood, and dampers were upgraded. Relatively few Mark V pianos were produced — a single-digit number of prototypes added MIDI output.
When Roland bought the brand in 1987, the Rhodes as we knew it had ceased production. “Rhodes” keyboards of the late ’80s included the MK-80 and MK-60 digital stage pianos. Though Harold Rhodes dutifully appeared at trade shows and Roland events, he confided to Keyboard that the sound made him “sick.” The real electric piano was dead, or so everyone thought.
Enter Joseph Brandstetter, originally the proprietor of a small chain of retail piano stores in the Los Angeles area. His relationship with Harold Rhodes stems back to the late ’80s, when the two partnered to update and market the Rhodes teaching method. Brandstetter bankrolled the effort and they hired about ten full-time teachers to write and edit, as well as to come up with a version for children. They also put close to 2,000 Casio keyboards in schools and recreation centers around the U.S. to test and refine the Rhodes method.
Beginning in 1996, Brandstetter was instrumental in convincing Roland to part with the Rhodes trademark — something industry wisdom said would never happen. It took almost a year of legal wrangling (and fees), but when all was said and done, Harold Rhodes, for the first time in his life, had the right not only to put his name on his instrument, but to build it to the high standards neither Fender nor CBS nor Roland ever fully supported. Rhodes had Brandstetter make a one-page website announcing plans to make new pianos, and there was talk of merging the educational and hardware sides of the company.
However, Harold suffered a stroke that year, and could no longer be involved to the same hands-on extent. Realizing Harold’s health was in decline, Brandstetter petitioned the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences for their Lifetime Presidential Merit award. They concurred, and in September 1997, Brandstetter organized a ceremony at Harold’s retirement home. There, artists such as Horace Silver and Josef Zawinul lauded Rhodes’ contributions to modern music and to their lives.
Harold Rhodes passed away on December 17, 2000. Brandstetter was almost obsessive about seeing that Harold’s pianos were built again. It would take the better part of the next decade to do it.
While Harold had convalesced, legal troubles over trademark rights brewed between a triangle of parties: Brandstetter, Rhodes’ widow Margit, and Rhodes’ children from a previous marriage. While the courts sorted out the verbal and written agreements various parties had made at different times, trying to determine who was entitled to do what, the prospects for anyone building new electric pianos sat in limbo. In October 2003, Brandstetter settled amicably with Margit Rhodes and became owner of all intellectual property. This cleared the way for his Rhodes Music Corporation to start building new instruments — from scratch.
It’s not as if the materials, schematics, and machines CBS used to make the Rhodes were sitting in some warehouse. All Brandstetter and company had to go on were 13 Mark V pianos, which they reverse-engineered as the first step in a long process of rediscovery. In this sense, the new Mark 7 is very much a re-imagined Mark V.
Research led the company to engineers who worked on the original Rhodes, from Horst Abbsman, Mike Peterson, and Steve Woodyard, to Kevin Nelson, who worked in R&D at Fender and works at Rhodes today. The Herculean difficulty of redesigning and sourcing so many moving parts, especially in an instrument industry now geared towards printed-circuit boards and standardized keyboard actions, was a main reason the Mark 7 was so slow to market since the first prototypes were shown at the 2007 Winter NAMM show.
“In retrospect, it might have been better P.R. to have announced it somewhat later, or to have been more transparent earlier,” Brandstetter told Keyboard. “The wait fueled some skepticism out there about the new piano and about me. You gotta admit, building an instrument that’s all mechanical engineering in this day and age — it seems nuts, so I totally get that people didn’t think it would happen. We really did want to get it right, though, and now I hope people judge us on the piano we’ve made.”
Tooling up involved designing new machines and finding new sources for hammers, hammer tips, pickups, tone resonators, preamp electronics, and all parts right up to the exterior shell. For the shell, Rhodes turned to SnugTop, the wellknown maker of camper shells for pickup trucks. Like the truck shells, the new cabinets are quite durable and can be painted custom colors. SnugTop designed molds using CAD software, and each cabinet takes about an hour from molding until the resin has cured.
The dozens of interior components are manufactured separately at contracted factories around the globe before subassemblies come to the main factory in Long Beach, California, for final assembly and testing.
To stress-test actions, the company built a device called “the finger,” which plays one note repeatedly (about 65,000 hits per day) at twice the force of the human finger. The constant hammering pushes just about everything in the piano to the breaking point: keys, hammers, combs, grommets, tines, tone generators, and even the back felts on the keys themselves.
Big on everyone’s mind are the tines. Keyboard has examined them and played many Mark 7 specimens over the past year, and our opinion is that Rhodes did their homework. The overall tone, though, depends on a lot more than the tine. For instance, the tone generators — resonating metal bars into which each tine fits — are slightly differently sized than those on the vintage Rhodes pianos, and their metallic composition has been tweaked to provide longer and more evenly-decaying sustain.
The screws that fasten the tonebar/tine pairs to the Baltic birch frame have larger heads, and the rubber grommets that surround those screws employ three different weights across the note range. Varying weights have a subtle but definite influence on the sound: the harder the grommet, the more bell-like the tone.
Another upgrade was to the materials used for the hammers. Nicknamed the “mutt dog,” the new hammer tip is highquality neoprene molded around a piece of maple. CBS-era hammers used tubing that was heat-shrunk around maple tips, which was sonically inferior.
The tip hardness or “shore” affects the resonation just after the hammer strike. The Mark 7 uses five different shores: harder on the upper keys to accentuate the percussive quality; softer on the slower-vibrating, longer tines of the bass notes. The hammers also have larger nipple (striking surface) with a bigger diameter at its base. This makes them less prone to breakage. Indeed, the “finger” test device proved that a hammer could endure more than ten million hits.
THE SUM OF THE PARTS
The Mark 7 sounds every bit as good as its predecessors, and in many cases, better (see our review on page 48 for more). Currently, the journey it took to get this far continues at the level of commerce, as Brandstetter explains.
“One challenge has been educating distributors and dealers — those that are used to digital keyboards — that the Rhodes is more like an acoustic piano than anything else,” he says. “You can voice it, you can regulate the action and the dampers, and if your piano has made a long trip in a shipping container or UPS truck, you need to do this to get an ideal sound. So far, Europe and Asia have been more receptive to this — and to the somewhat higher cost compared to a digital stage piano — than the U.S. market. Maybe that’s because there aren’t as many used Rhodes pianos overseas. Also, we really wanted to get the U.S. price right, and make sure we could meet demand. It’s just come to fruition in the last few months that we feel truly ready for the U.S.”
With the Mark 7 now shipping in the U.S., more musicians will be able to try it for themselves, so we think that situation will improve. Having visited Rhodes HQ several times to examine and play pianos in various states of completion, we can report that the care that goes into the Mark 7 is evident in every process and every employee. “Not to get all metaphysical,” Brandstetter prefaces, “but at one time or another, everyone in this building has felt, very palpably, that Harold is watching. If I didn’t believe we were doing him justice, I’d be doing something else.”
SOMETHING OLD, SOMETHING NEW
Both vintage Rhodes actions and the new Mark 7 have the same basic geometry, but here are the most important improvements the Mark 7 makes in materials and design.
- Keys are slightly wider, with a longer “dip” than a Mark I or II for more piano-like feel.
- Hammer tips are high-quality neoprene on maple, not shrink-wrapped tubing.
- Hammer-to-tine distance is optimized to avoid the “second strike” that can kill sustain on vintage models.
- Damper material is more resistant to notches being worn in by the tines.
- Rubber grommets better resist lateral motion, and use varying hardness for three note ranges of the Mark 7.
- Tonebar and pickup rails use thicker wood than before.
- Tonebars have improved sustain.
- Pickups are more resistant to hum and crosstalk, and are less microphonic of internal mechanical noises.