The Rhodes Less Traveled

A masterclass from the January 2015 issue of KEYBOARD
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The Rhodes is an instrument with a practically unparalleled dynamic range, versatility, richness and playability. Just about anything that sounds good on a piano sounds good on a Rhodes as well. But unless you’ve known one intimately by toughing it out, carting it to gigs and getting to know it inside and out, the only contact you may have had with this ancient funk machine might be through “vintage keys” sample libraries and virtual instruments. In this lesson, let’s break things down and discover how to get the most out of your Rhodes, whether you are using a virtual version or the real McCoy.

1. Lighten Up!

The general rule for voicing chords on the Rhodes, whether they are for jazz, rock, funk or R&B, is that smaller, tightervoicings are more effective. You really do get more bang from fewer notes.

Ex. 1a illustrates a typical rich piano chord.

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Ex. 1b shows the same chord lightened up a bit.

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Since the high midrange of the Rhodes really rings out, higher voicings have a full presence and take up a lot of sonic space, even when played softly, as in Ex. 1c.

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2. Pedal Down

In general, you can use much more of the sustain pedal on a Rhodes than on an acoustic piano. Again, you should pare down your chord structures so as not to muddy up the mix: Lighten up on the left hand and experiment with smaller voicings and fills as you hold the pedal down. Let’s take our D major chord again, add an extension or two, and experiment with different ways to layer chord structures with the sustain pedal depressed.

Ex. 2a unfolds into a really big chord and will sustain for a long time, but it sounds clear and not overpowering. (Traditional jazz and pop piano parts sound sweet when played with more pedal than your classical teacher may have taught you!)

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Ex. 2b is another Rhodes voicing that is both clear and ringing.

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Ex. 2c has tight, pop piano chords and bell-like Rhodes fills. What do Chick Corea and Styx have in common? These types of well-designed Rhodes voicings!

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3. Riff It Good

Just like the piano, the Rhodes can be a riffing instrument, a lead voice, a color in the ensemble, or all three. In the 1980s, keyboardists liked to double their Rhodes part with a real piano or with a guitar. When you put a phase shifter or chorus pedal on the Rhodes, the resulting layered sound is even richer. That being said, many great tunes are still built from a simple, unadulterated Rhodes riff that drives the entire song.

There are tons of great riffs built on a simple ii-V progression, like the one seen in Ex. 3a.

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Gospel and funk players often use three note voicings moving down the scale, as in Ex. 3b. These kinds of structures soar on the Rhodes. Many iconic tunes are built a ii-V vamp, like Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish,” Kool and the gang’s “Ladies Night,” and Grover Washington Jr.’s “Mr. Magic.”

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Ex. 3c should be played strong and punchy, a la Stevie Wonder.

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Ex. 3d is a great, staple jam session riff. Lay it back, put it “in the pocket,” and play lightly in the left hand. Then fill in some syncopations or “ghost” some inner notes, and you’re ready to rock—or jazz!

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4. Solo Concepts

All the big jazz and rock voicings, as well as high piano blues riffs, sound great on Rhodes.

A jazz or blues pianist might use a wide, two-handed voicing (Ex. 4a) . . .

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. . . or a riff using that voicing (Ex. 4b) in a loud, exciting solo.

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Simpler things like octaves and single lines work as well. Ex. 4c is funky but also rocking, and includes some blues riffs and single lines.

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How you play the left hand in a solo like this is up to you—jazz players might favor small, tightly punctuated comping, while rock players might go for lower octaves. For reference, watch the Beatles’ Rooftop Concert and see Billy Preston’s heavy, gospel-style left hand during his solo. It’s all about articulation and punch.

Turn It Up!

“Artists like Ray Charles were early adopters of electric pianos because of the unpredictable condition of acoustic pianos in nightclubs. But there was another benefit to going electric: You could finally turn up (without mic feedback) and compete with loud bandmates,” says Grammy-nominated keyboardist Scott Healy. Healy has performed and recorded with Tony Bennett, B.B. King, Bruce Springsteen, and Christina Aguilera. He’s also the longtime keyboardist in the Basic Cable Band on TBS’ Conan. Healy’s acclaimed new album Live at Kilbourn Hall is out now. Find out more at bluedogmusic.com.