Vintage Vibe's Chris Carroll on the greatest piano that never was

Today the MK V is considered by many experts to be the greatest Rhodes piano ever made.

As you might imagine, my company Vintage Vibe get lots of inquiries from folks looking to sell electric pianos. We’re somewhat picky but every so often there’s a diamond in the rough that makes this work a lot of fun. So a few months ago a guy from Salt Lake City called and told me he was looking to sell an MK V. My ears perked up. Then he mentioned the piano was given to a friend of his by Leo Fender. My interest was peaked.

When I received the pictures of the piano I couldn’t believe my eyes. To my total shock it was an 88-note piano. This appeared to be the lost Holy Grail 88 note prototype Rhodes MK V. I called the seller to let him know it was a total go. We had it crated and shipped to us from Salt Lake City. The piano had spent its entire life in California before going to Salt Lake City and now it was on its way to our shop in New Jersey where we would give it a full restoration.

To Rhodes players, the Rhodes MK V is the Ferrari of electric pianos. It's rarity and price tag keeps it out of reach for the majority of musicians. The lure of achieving that Chick Corea tone, the high performance and the prestige of being a member of the MK V club are all part of the siren’s call. It’s no wonder why the MKV piano is so highly sought after today.

HISTORY OF THE MKV

In 1983 the Rhodes Corporation was up against a wall having previously failed in an attempt to improve their piano’s stability and gain a larger market share. With the MK 2, Rhodes changed the entire key bed, including the keys and rail pins, to all plastic and aluminum components. This negatively impacted the feel of the action and added considerable weight. These pianos are often referred to as the “plastic key” models; also known as the worst idea Rhodes ever had.

To rectify the situation, Rhodes enlisted their A-team, head engineer Steve Woodyard and design engineer Mike Peterson, to design a new and improved model for the company. They eventually came up with two designs: the MK IV and the MK V. The MK IV was a conceptually more advanced piano with a radically different key (Harold Rhodes called it the dog leg) and hammer action. Unfortunately it was decided there was neither the time nor money to work out the remaining issues in its design and the project was abandoned. To this day, with the whereabouts of the original prototype unknown, the MK IV exists mostly as Rhodes mythology. The MK V, on the other hand, was a solid production ready design. The design team had found that by increasing the hammer throw and changing the geometry of the key stick, they were able to increase the dynamics of the piano, meaning you could get more pop or bark out of a tine with less effort. This improved upon the simple Rhodes action, which is exactly what was needed.

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ALLURE OF THE MK V

For the 1980's, the MK V had a very stylish and modern look with it's modular architecture. The MK V also shed about 30 lbs. from the earlier MK 1 model and about 50 lbs. from the plastic key MK 2. With the steady increase of digital pianos and synthesizers that offered more sounds and less weight coming into the market, it was an enticing prospect for piano players to know that the old Rhodes that broke many backs was going to shed some pounds. Add that artists such as Chick Corea were playing the MK V and the allure was very strong for Rhodes enthusiasts and potential new customers.

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RHODES MK V: LAST DITCH EFFORT OR SAVIOR?

For the Rhodes Corporation, the MK V was a savior in that it reaffirmed the reputation that had been tarnished by the plastic key MK II debacle. By producing a lighter piano that innovated with traditional wood parts the company should have been on target for sustainable growth. Unfortunately, their customer base was already jumping ship for digital pianos and synths.

Ultimately, the MK V proved to be a last ditch effort. The writing was on the walls. While the factory personnel were beaming with pride and excitement over their new creation, the bean counters upstairs at CBS drew a hard line and closed the factory. And just like that it was game over for the brilliant engineering minds of Harold Rhodes, Steve Woodyard, Horst Absmann and Mike Peterson. 

I have no doubt Rhodes would have evolved into a state-of-the-art company and kept up with the evolving demand for smaller and lighter pianos if they had a longer runway. 

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RHODES MK5 LEGACY

Today the MKV stands as a monument to some as the greatest Rhodes piano ever made. Whether you agree or not, the mythology and its rarity and often hefty resale price is enough fodder to excite the imagination and create a folkloric legacy. The MKV has a strong following to this day, including Chick Corea who believes it to be the best Rhodes piano ever made. Taking into account his experience and accomplishments it is certainly difficult to ignore the validity of this notion.

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RHODES MKV 88 PROTOTYPE: A PIANO THAT NEVER WAS

In 1983-84 the Rhodes Corporation were beginning to build prototypes for the new MK V 73 and 88 note pianos. Mike Peterson, who had designed and built the wooden molds for plastic forming the lids, ran into a problem. While in the midst of removing the first 88 lid, the mold broke. Rhodes decided not to invest any more money or resources into a new mold and the MKV 88 note was history.

So with only one 88 lid, only one MK V 88 was ever produced and all we have is the prototype. Although Rhodes included a photograph of the MK V 88 in their promotional advertisements, no production pieces were ever made. The pictures here are of the sole prototype.

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Chris Carroll is founder and president of Vintage Vibe. In addition to being the only company in the world currently manufacturing electro-mechanical tine pianos, Vintage Vibe restores and repairs vintage keyboards and manufactures aftermarket replacement parts. Notable users of the Vintage Vibe piano and Vibanet (a modern-day Clavinet replacement) include Stevie Wonder and Greg Phillinganes. Find out more at vintagevibe.com.