Rhodes Rebels

Learn to play the Rhodes in the style of iconic musicians

I bought my first Rhodes electric piano in 1989. As a deep follower of Rhodes stylists like Herbie Hancock, Donald Fagen, Victor Feldman, George Duke and Clare Fischer, I was eager to have one of my own and discover its rich tones and action. In the 1980s, many musicians were selling their Rhodes pianos in favor of newer keyboards like the Yamaha DX-7. But in the 1990s the sound of the Rhodes returned to popularity—both in alternative music (i.e. Radiohead) and in contemporary R&B (like D’Angelo). In my own work, the Rhodes has constantly been a staple of my session and live arsenal.

One of the pioneers of the Fender Rhodes was the great Herbie Hancock. Not only did he create his own personal “voice” on the instrument, he also adapted the Rhodes with external electronics. I asked Herbie about his relationship with the Rhodes and he explained, “One day in the early 1970s, Harold Rhodes showed up at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, California where my Mwandishi Band was playing. After the set, he came up to me and asked why I cannibalized his piano by taking the top off and inserting other ‘things’ in it. I told him that I was using a Cry Baby Wah-wah pedal and an Echoplex in order to manipulate the sound and I had no other way to insert external devices except to take the top off and use the RCA jack between the keys and the electronics. I then suggested that he put insertion ports on the outside and to add phone (TRS) and XLR connectors to the speakers, because other musicians were going to want to do the same thing and to make it easy for use in the recording studio. From that day forward his next models came out with those additions.” (Other musicians may have suggested the same idea as well). Harold was always open to suggestions that he felt made sense. Let’s explore some great Rhodes examples.

1. The ’60s

Ex. 1 is reminiscent of the kind of 1960s Rhodes playing by bands such as the Doors. Note the ascending sixteenth-note “thirds climb.” The chordal vamp that follows is also reminiscent of the Doors’ keyboardist Ray Manzarek, as well as something Gregg Rolie might have played in Santana. Vibrato here is on deep and fast. I volume-swelled the first chord, which I find is a fun Rhodes trick.

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2. Rock Rhodes

Ex. 2 illustrates how the bell-like quality of the Fender Rhodes makes for a sweet sound that cuts well in current alternative and rock music. I also like to use an Echoplex or delay effect to bend the sound a bit. Note the nod to “Eastern” harmony, which works nicely with the Rhodes tone and delay.

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3. Mr. Tee

Richard Tee was an absolute champion of the Rhodes and often used his Small Stone phaser in conjunction with the instrument. Ex. 3 demonstrates a syncopated (make sure to “lay back” here) gospel-infused “walk down” and rhythmic churchy vamp in F, followed by a chromatic chordal walk-up, one of Tee’s trademarks.

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4. Steely Sounds

Ex. 4 celebrates Steely Dan founder Donald Fagen, along with re-occurring band keyboardists and Rhodes masters David Paich, Michael Omartian, Victor Feldman, Don Grolnick, and Joe Sample. Remember that doubling bass lines can be a cool effect, but don’t stay down there too long (especially with any sustain pedal), as it can get pretty muddy. Also “adult chords” with jazzy extensions, as well as sus chords really get juicy on a Rhodes. Note the little treble stabs that can really poke out nicely in a track with a band.

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5. The James Drop

Bob James is another Rhodes master, and his 1970s records became hip-hop staples for sampling breakbeats and EP inspiration. James’ staccato attack and favoring of the higher register make him identifiable on the Rhodes, as seen in Ex. 5. You can hear how I borrowed his approach for an arrangement and performance on bassist Nathan East’s solo album on the song “101 Eastbound.”

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Practice Tip

“Playing the Rhodes differently from an acoustic piano and as its own instrument really makes it shine. Never forget to experiment with vibrato settings and the volume knob, as well as outboard effects,” says Jeff Babko, best known for his spot in the house band on Jimmy Kimmel Live. He has recorded with Frank Ocean, Jason Mraz, Sheryl Crow, and Mark Guiliana. Babko’s latest release Crux is out now. Find out more at jeffbabko.com.