More than Simply MkI vs. MkII

The design evolution of Rhodes' electric piano is not so clear cut
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I often read discussions on the Web where people make definitive claims about the sound differences between a MKI Rhodes electric piano and a MKII. I have been guilty of this same transgression, and it is a gross oversimplification of the subject matter. Being a hand-built, electromechanical instrument, the truth is that every Rhodes could vary a bit in sound, and in the “finger-to-sound” connection. How the instrument was set up, voiced, and maintained also has a lot to do with it. But the bigger issue really is that the MKI instrument went through many changes over its lifespan before the MKII came out, and knowing which MKI you are comparing to which MKII is paramount to the discussion. Follow me down the rabbit hole and I’ll explain.

Fig. 1: The teardrop shaped felt hammer used in the early “sparkletop” Rhodes, circa 1965-1969.

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(Photo courtesy of Vintage Vibe)

Fig. 2: The first MK1 hammer design, with a plastic shank and a wooden head.Fig: 3. The rare early MKI Rhodes felt hammer tips, used in the first year or so of production.

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The Life of the MKI

The MKI Rhodes suitcase came out in 1969, and it was a Fender Rhodes branded instrument, quickly followed in 1970 by the Stage model. These were both 73-key instruments, and they had black plastic lids. I mention the lid, because the previous models (1965-69) have been dubbed “sparkletop” due to their flecked lid design. It is this classic instrument that first made the Rhodes sound famous as used by Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul with Miles Davis; by Bill Evans on From Left to Right; by Billy Preston with the Beatles on “Get Back,” and many other tunes. This design had a felt, teardrop hammer design (see Figure 1), giving it a softer, warmer attack and a more bell-like tone.

 When the MKI was first released it had hybrid wood-plastic hammers, with a plastic shank and a wooden head (see Figure 2). The first tips were made of felt and glued into a slot in the hammer head (see Figure 3), and they sounded more like the early sparkletop. But the felt tips would wear down quickly and need replacement, so in early 1971 the factory switched to Neoprene tips, which are the most common ones you will find. In late ’71/early ’72 the tone bars were changed from a fat block iron (or aluminum with a counterweight) design to a twisted steel shape, which had an effect on the sustain and duration of the sound. Tim Warneck of Retrolinear discovered that, in mid-1972, the pickups were changed to allow for a larger input signal and for closer proximity to the tine without too much saturation and distortion.

So you already see that in the first few years of the MKI there were major changes in the design. Everything I could find showed that Harold Rhodes was constantly tinkering with the design of the instrument in an effort to improve the sound, the reliability, and the durability.

In 1974, the name Fender was dropped from the piano faceplate. This was done so dealers that were not authorized to sell Fender guitars and amps could stock and sell the electric piano. In 1976 the hammers were changed to an all-plastic design, and some other changes were made which greatly affected the action. They were harshly criticized, and by 1978 things were worked out so that post-’78 pianos are lauded for their good action (thanks in part to a return to the key pedestal bump that was a part of the early sparkletop design).

The Tine Timeline

Fig. 4: The three major tine designs. The differences are not easily seen; they need to be heard. The tine (a metal rod that is struck by the hammer) is an important element of the Rhodes sound, and how much or how little of it is present in the sound can be controlled by the voicing of the instrument (see our September Coda with Chris Carroll of Vintage Vibe: 5 Ways to Make Your Rhodes Piano Play Better). But there were changes in manufacturer and design, and the techs I interviewed differ on its importance. Max Brink at Chicago Electric Piano Company feels they are important, and he is a fan of the Torrington-era (1970, switching to a tapered design in 1971, and lasting until around mid-1977. Previous to that, Raymac made the tines.) Chris Carroll at Vintage Vibe feels that the tine changes were not as critical, although some sustained better than others within any vintage. His business manufactures their own based on the Torrington design. In mid 1977 the tines were changed to ones made by Singer, and they have been described as more durable, but less bell-like. The Singer tines were quickly changed to ones made by Schaller, mostly for quality control, and it is unclear exactly when this happened. Suffice it to say that pianos made from 1978 and later have the Schaller-made tines (see Figure 4).

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Ken Rich of Ken Rich Sound Services in L.A. describes them as “sweeter, but not as punchy.” Max Brink describes them as “a bit more balanced in the harmonics, which lost some character.” Tim Warneck reminds us that these differences are all about the tone and complexity of the initial attack: All Rhodes settle into a very pure sine wave tone during their duration and decay.

A Change in Hammer Tips

Fig. 5: The classic neoprene tips (top) compared to the later graduated tip design (bottom). Max Brink stated that “The original cubed rubber tips gave a unique tone that had deep lows and more crystal-clear highs. The early cubed tip sound is today the quintessential part of the Mark I Rhodes sound, which lasted until early 1976.” In 1976 they changed to a tapered tip design, where the height of the hammer tips varied across different ranges of the keyboard (see Figure 5). This was not a welcome design change, and technicians state that it is hard to voice a balanced sound without obvious transition points using these tips. So why did the company do this? Most experts agree that it was to reduce the time needed to set the strike line of the hammers, reducing assembly time. This design change, along with a now aluminum harp frame (opinions differ on whether this change affects the sound or not) constitute the MKI sound of 1978 and early 1979. And it is identical to the sound of the MKII as it was first introduced!

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Enter the MKII

When the MKII was introduced in late 1979 the main change was in the lid of the piano. The rounded plastic top was changed to a ribbed flat top, better for stacking another keyboard on top of it. There were others changes to the design as the MKII progressed, but they related to the key action and internal assembly issues that had no effect on the sound. But all the techs groused about these changes as it relates to their ability to work on the instruments. Tim Warneck observed that, due to constant pressure at the factory to reduce assembly time, the MKII’s rarely left the factory set up well, and that may account for some negative perception of those instruments.

How Do You Know?

Fig. 6: The date stamp, in the upper right of this photo, found on the inside of every Rhodes piano. This is all great information, but how can you clearly identify which model is which? Luckily, every Rhodes was stamped on the frame with a number that represented the week and year of manufacture (see Figure 6). The first two numbers represent the week, the second two the year. So the figure tells us that my MKI suitcase was made week 30 in the summer of 1978. Ideally, when you shop for a used Rhodes, or when a company develops a new Rhodes sound library/physical model, they would identify the source by at least the year. This is not a perfect science, as parts were not transitioned cleanly at the factory: They would want to use up inventory rather than throw it out, so there will surely be hybrid combinations of tines, hammers, and so forth in a given instrument near the design changes I have listed. But it would help to clarify some aspects of the design and ensuing sound.

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Personal Favorites?

Every tech that I spoke to had eras of Rhodes that they held up as the pinnacle of design and sound. For Ken Rich it ranges from 1972 to the first few months of 1975. The ’72-’73 had a gritty edge to the sound, and his favorite instrument, from 1974 has what he describes as a “buttery deliciousness” to it. Max Brink loves 1974-’75 Torrington-based suitcases and feels it was the pinnacle of 88-key models. But he quickly added, “Many players prefer the late-era MKI/MKII’s more balanced tone to the beefier sound of the early and mid-era MKI.” Tim Warneck had an interesting take on this: He would marry the action and feel of the late MKI to the tone production assembly of a ’71-’72 for the perfect “Frankenstein.” Chris Carroll prefers instruments from 1971-1973, with a fondness for the sparkletop sound as well. He reminds us, and everyone agrees, that the majority of sound differences can be mitigated through careful voicing, save for the differences in felt-versus-rubber hammers and some pick-up characteristics.

Closing the Lid

People want definitive answers and clear-cut differences, and in the case of the Rhodes sound that isn’t possible. Every instrument can sound a little different due to the mixture of parts, the vagaries of hand assembly, and varying setup care. But hopefully my research will help to lead the discussion into what year Rhodes rather than what Mark revision we’re talking about when describing an instrument.