A history of the fender rhodes electric piano

By Jared Pauley

Many of us here at jazz.com are also musicians and I am no exception. Even though I tend the think of myself as a pianist/keyboardist, I’m really at heart a Rhodist. The first time I touched the keys of the Rhodes piano and played a chord . . . I can never forget that feeling. I remember specifically what chord it was; Gmaj7/A, the Earth, Wind, &Fire, Marvin Gaye chord. Since that fateful day, I—like so many other musicians before—fell in love with the bell tone instrument and have never looked back.

 Fender Rhodes

The Rhodes has long been a serious topic of discussion in jazz music, given its historical role in the electric music of Miles Davis and others. Other than the grand piano, no other keyboard instrument has a more distinguished and cherished sound than the Rhodes keyboard. I’m sure that, when Harold Rhodes started designing pianos for injured war veterans during World War II, he had no idea what kind of musical revolution his invention would start some twenty years later. The place of electric instruments in jazz music is always going to be debated by some, but to me, the Fender Rhodes is the most pure, powerful instrument ever created. Let’s take a look at the history of the instrument and how it has impacted not just jazz, but all music for that matter.

Harold Rhodes was born on December 28th, 1910 in California. By the age of twenty, he had purchased a school from his piano teacher. Now called the Harold Rhodes School of Popular Piano, the school encouraged self-instruction on the instrument. During World War II, Rhodes was a member of the Army Corps where the first incarnation of his piano was created using aluminum pipes from military B-17 bomber wings. Originally the instrument was used by bed stricken soldiers for therapy and rehabilitation. The instrument ended up being a success and thousands were produced. Rhodes was awarded the Medal of Honor by the United States government for his invention.

 Harold Rhodes and his keyboard

After WWII ended, Rhodes established the Rhodes Piano Corporation, and produced a thirty-eight key version which was premiered at the first NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) show in 1946. This version was acoustic like the original but Rhodes soon modeled an electric version that featured tube amplification and 6"speakers. After two years of producing the Pre-Piano Rhodes, Harold dissolved his business and moved to Texas. Several years later, he invented a tuning fork concept, which he later patented and used this new concept as the basis for a new seventy-two note model. During the 1950s, as Rhodes was reinventing his own electric piano, the Rudolph Wurlitzer Company began manufacturing their own electric piano. The Wurlitzer Electric Piano used steel reeds and a DC pickup system. Sun Ra was the first musician to record with an electric piano, the Wurlitzer, for his 1956 recording Angels and Demons at Play.

Rhodes combined forces with Leo Fender, the influential instrument producer of the 1950s, and they created the Fender Rhodes PianoBass. The model was released to the public in 1959 but, ironically, the seventy-three note version wasn’t released until 1965—after Fender was bought up by CBS for $13,000,000.00. The PianoBass was used heavily by Ray Manzarek for the bass sound of The Doors, one of most recognized musicians who incorporated the instrument into popular music.

 Fender Rhodes ad

Prior to the release of the suitcase Rhodes, there had up to this point been many instrument evolutions that drastically changed the musical landscape. 1960 saw the release of the Fender Jazz Bass, the Hohner Pianet arrived in 1962, and the Hohner Clavinet in 1964. Music making had greatly expanded by this point and the historical contributions of these innovations cannot be denied. During the years of 1965 and 1969, several different versions of the Rhodes were sold. The most common model sold during this time was the Fender Rhodes 73 note Electric Piano. The company also produced the less common Celeste version and a classroom system, both of which were made to order.

During the late 1960s, the Fender Rhodes electric piano became a revolutionary force in the future direction of jazz music. It’s often hard to point at an isolated innovations that creates a change in the sonic quality of jazz but the Fender Rhodes is one of those. Along with advancements in recording techniques and analog tape treatment, the Rhodes began making its way into the music of Miles Davis.

 Inside the Fender Rhodes

The Rhodes was also adopted by other musicians in other genres, including Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and the Beatles. It was also incorporated into the work of jazz pianists such as Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul, Keith Jarrett and Jan Hammer, among others, who helped shape the jazz fusion sound of the 1970s.

Unfortunately, the identity of the first major musician to record with the Rhodes is not certain, but one of the first jazz musicians to play the Rhodes was Joe Zawinul when he was in alto great Cannonball Adderley’s band. Zawinul used a Wurlitzer on the recording Mercy, Mercy, Mercy, recorded on October 20th, 1966. But Zawinul soon began using the Rhodes, after being introduced to the instrument by Victor Feldman, on live dates with Adderley. Zawinul can be heard playing the Rhodes on his solo recording The Rise and Fall of the Third Stream back in 1968, showing his permanent allegiance to the instrument.

On Davis’s 1968 recording Miles in the Sky, Herbie Hancock plays a hypnotic, funky driven Rhodes on the track “Stuff,” which also showcases the more straight ahead use of the instrument. “Stuff” was recorded on May 17th, 1968. On June 20th, 1968 Davis was in the studio with Hancock, drummer Tony Williams, bassist Ron Carter and saxophonist Wayne Shorter. For this recording date, Hancock played a Rhodes and Carter played electric bass. Davis reentered the studio on September 21st, 1968 with bassist Dave Holland and pianist Chick Corea but Corea ended up playing an RMI Electra Piano instead of a Rhodes. Swedish Rhodes historian Frederik "Freddan" Adlers has noted that Harold personally gave Davis a Rhodes around 1970, as he had also done with the Beatles, who featured Billy Preston on the instrument for their Let It Be project.

By this time, Davis was using the Fender Rhodes not only as a mechanism for recording but also in composition. The sounds of the instrument and the unique textures that could be created with it were surly an influence on Davis’s compositional aspirations during this time. This is highly evident on In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. In a Silent Way was recorded on February 18th, 1969 in New York City. On this occasion, Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock were featured on electric piano while Joe Zawinul was featured on organ. The story goes that Larry Young was supposed to be on organ, but he was asked to leave right when he arrived at the studio. This album marked Davis’s first project built around a rhythm section that consisted exclusively of electric instrumentation. For Bitches Brew, Davis employed many of the same musicians from In a Silent Way, but added more players. The result is not as organic as before, but the album highlights the constant change he and his musicians were applying to their music.

 Bill Evans

Bill Evans, another early Davis collaborator, also began using the Rhodes during this time. In 1970, Evans recorded the album From Left to Right, which presented an elegant, but equally sophisticated usage of the Rhodes. Harold Rhodes even wrote a few words for the linear notes for the album, in which he praised Evans’s playing.

In 1970, Fender released the new 73 and 88 key versions of the Stage and Suitcase MK1 models. The electronics in the Stage model were passive and utilized four legs for support. The Suitcase model incorporated a cabinet amplification system, which also acted as the stand support system. These models were extremely popular among not only jazz musicians but also soul and R&B artists. Stevie Wonder used the Fender Rhodes beginning in 1972 with his classic album Talking Book. The most notable keyboardists to use Rhodes continued to be the performers who had recorded on Miles Davis’s albums. With the formation of Weather Report (Shorter & Zawinul), Return to Forever (Corea), Mahavishnu Orchestra (John McLaughlin) and Mwandishi and the Headhunters (Hancock), the sound of the Fender Rhodes was introduced to an entire new generation of fans and musicians.

 Bill Evans

Along with the development of the Moog synthesizer and the ARP 2500 and 2600, many more tools were available for musicians to use in sound expansion. When fusion took off in the early 1970s, the Fender Rhodes was an integral part of the sound along with the aforementioned instruments. The keyboard is heard in full on Return to Forever recordings, starting with Light As a Feather, in 1973 and on Herbie Hancock’s 1973 album Headhunters. Iconic jazz rockers Steely Dan were also using the instrument—it has been featured on all of their releases and is still used by the band to this day. Rock groups such as the Eagles also started using the instrument and composer/guitarist Frank Zappa employed George Duke on many recordings using the Fender Rhodes. Pianist Ahmad Jamal also recorded with the instrument, as did Cedar Walton, Tommy Flanagan and Hank Jones.

By 1974, the Fender name had been taken off of the product. The company continued to develop and release new versions of the instrument for the rest of the decade. In early 1981, the piano was briefly produced with plastic keys but was soon discontinued and replaced with original wood keys. By 1983, Bill Schultz, the head of CBS, had bought the Rhodes corporation and eventually released the Mark V version in 1984. It’s been noted that three versions of this keyboard were made with MIDI capabilities and that Chick Corea is the lucky owner of one of these three rare models. By 1987, Roland had acquired the Rhodes name from Bill Schultz. Waiting two years, the company finally released a digital version of the Rhodes calling it the Rhodes MK-80, but it was nothing like the real thing.

During the 1990s, the Fender Rhodes made a comeback, driven by the popularity of the suitcase models. British groups such as the funk band Jamiroquai and rock band Radiohead began using it in their music, while many American artists were also adopting the sound. During the neo-soul movement, artists like D’Angelo, Maxwell, Erykah Badu and the Roots, built sonic landscapes that fully relied on the nuances of the Rhodes. Today, the Rhodes is used in the jazz world, perhaps most notably by Robert Glasper, and continues to be an instrument of choice for others. Like many, I have to believe that it’s undeniably the sound of the Rhodes that has allowed it to endure for so long. The crunchiness, softness and the sustain are all distinctive qualities that have given the instrument a new breath of life in contemporary music.

Sadly, Harold Rhodes passed away on December 17th, 2000 at the age of eighty-nine. He never got to see the relaunch of the new Rhodes and I am sure that he would have been glad to know that the new releases were real pianos. In 2007, a new model of the Rhodes piano was premiered at the NAMM conference where pianist George Duke and others played several demonstration songs, including Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island.”

Currently, the new models are being made to order directly from the Rhodes corporation. Three different series are currently being offered; the S series, the A series, and the AM series. All of the models are available in white, red and black—and I must admit that they look absolutely exquisite. I think it’s very safe to say that Harold Rhodes would be very happy with the new models being manufactured. You can go to www.rhodespiano.com and check out the different pics and sounds of the new models. I haven’t had a chance to play one yet, but I suspect that they play wonderfully.

The Fender Rhodes has come a long way since its days during WWII but its impact on plugged-in jazz and popular music is second only to that of the electric guitar. I think that’s why I love history so much—because one thing leads to another, and all of a sudden something new and fresh has entered the arena. I still love to sit down and play my suitcase seventy-three. Nothing beats the warmth of a Fender Rhodes and I bet many of you out there, regardless of your opinions on jazz after 1970, like the Rhodes just as much as I do!

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July 23, 2009 · 0 comments

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