The Rhodes piano was invented in the 1940s by Harold Rhodes, and its principles are derived from both the celesta and the electric guitar. The action is similar to that of a conventional piano, but whereas in a conventional piano each key causes felt-covered hammers to strike sets of strings, in a Rhodes piano rubber-tipped hammers strike tuning fork-like constructions to sound the note.
The Fender Guitar Company bought the Rhodes company in the 1950s, and produced the instruments for many years, in conjunction with Fender-designed amplifiers. The instrument is thus often termed a 'Fender Rhodes'.
For many loud rock bands in the 1970s, using an acoustic piano was a difficult problem. It was heavy, had a tendency to go out of tune, and was difficult to amplify without feedback. Back then, the most reliable touring piano sound was obtained with a Fender Rhodes electric piano. While the Fender Rhodes sounded more like bells or a celeste than a stringed piano, it was easy to amplify, and easy to move. It also had weighted keys that respond similarly to a real piano, and it had a sustain pedal, which the Hohner Pianet did not.
Sound producing mechanism
The tuning forks themselves are 'unbalanced' or asymmetrical: one arm consists of a short, stiff metal rod (essentially a stiff wire) called a 'tine' which is struck by the hammer, and the other arm is a tuned resonator resembling a piece of metal bar stock, sized to sound the appropriate note. The actual sounded note is too soft to be practical, so each tine vibrates in front of an electric-guitar-style magnetic pickup. The pickups' output is fed to an amplifier which can be adjusted to produce the desired volume.
The sound produced has a bell-like character not unlike a celesta or glockenspiel. Because the instrument produces sound electrically, the signal can be processed to yield many different timbral colors. Often the signal is processed through a stereo tremolo (which was called Vibrato on the Rhodes front panel) effects unit, which pans the signal back and forth between right to left; it is this 'rounded' or chiming sound that is most typically called a classic Rhodes sound, which can be heard on, for example, many 1970s pop songs. The preamp with stereo panning is included on the 'suitcase' models; the 'stage' models lack the preamp.
In the 1980s a set of Rhodes modifications done by a company called 'Dyno My Piano' became popular: it made the sound brighter, harder, and more bell-like. It can be heard on many records from that time. When notes are played forcefully, the sound becomes less sweet, as nonlinear distortion creates a characteristic 'growling' or 'snarling' overload—skilled players can contrast the sweet and rough sounds to create an extremely expressive performance.
The Fender line
The first Fender-Rhodes (sic) product was the Piano Bass in 1960, but no other models were produced until after the CBS takeover of Fender. During January of 1965 CBS bought the company, and shortly afterwards the 73-note Student Piano and Suitcase Piano went into production. In 1970 the more portable Stage model Mk I Stage Piano was added to the range, and in 1974 the brand name was changed from 'Fender Rhodes' to simply 'Rhodes'. Rhodes at this point changed internally. The hammers were plastic, the pedestals were bare, (the felt was on the underside of the hammer), the pickups were a different shape, and the tine structure differed from pre-1975 tines. The resulting sound was described as 'mellow', but in actuallity the sound was more 'bell' like due to the missing midrange. 1975-1979 Rhodes pianos are known for their ease in regard to repairs and upgrades. The first Mark II was introduced in late 1979.
Also made for a very brief period was the Rhodes Mark III EK-10 which had analogue oscillators and filters alongside the existing electromechanical elements. The overall effect was that of a Rhodes piano and an electronic piano being played simultaneously; compared with the new polyphonic synthesizers being marketed at the same time it was far too limited in scope. Very few units were sold.
The final Rhodes electric piano was the short-lived Mk V in 1984, which is thought to be the perfect Rhodes due to portability, and tweaked design that avoids key/hammer bouncing. The Mark V Stage 73 was the last piano to be manufactured before the Rhodes Works shut down in 1985 never to reopen.
In 1987 the Rhodes trademark was acquired by Roland, but they only applied the name to digital pianos; they did not manufacture real Rhodes pianos.
The original instruments are still quite common: they are sturdy,a bit heavy, and fairly easy to adjust and tune. Consumer-grade electronic keyboards usually include built-in 'electric piano' patches that approximate the Dyno Rhodes sound with considerably more convenience but none of these is capable of the range of expression of an actual Rhodes piano, and many people and keyboard companies mistake the Dyno Rhodes for the unmodified original Rhodes sound.
More recently, both software and hardware manufacturers such as Native Instruments and Clavia DMI have developed sample-based emulations of the Rhodes piano. Because the emulation is based on samples of individual notes played on an actual Rhodes the software is better able to capture the idiosyncratic characteristics of the instrument than pure synthesis.
In the early 2000s, the 'Rhodes' name was bought back from Roland by one of Harold Rhodes's erstwhile colleagues, and new electromechanical Rhodes pianos are being produced.
Different models of the Rhodes pianos were manufactured, 73 and 88 note versions, the stage model, and the suitcase model which included built in amplifier and speakers. The Rhodes 73 Suitcase model has 73 keys and the 'Suitcase' is the large box that sits below the keyboard. This box contains two amplifiers, and two pairs of speakers. Unfortunately, the built-in amplifier is not very loud, and the keyboards must be run to larger amplifiers. The Stage 73 model, is a similar piano, but with no speaker box. Instead, it had chrome legs to support it. It was fed to two 1960's Fender Dual Showman amplifiers so it could be as loud as the guitar amps. The Stage 88 is also another model, and it too had chrome legs for a stand, but had a full-length keyboard with 88 notes (the same number of keys as a standard piano).
For a short time, a 54-key version was also produced. The first models to be produced was the 32-note PianoBass. This was followed by the Sparkletop or 'Mark 0' (1965), Mark I (1970) and Mark II (1979) which was continously improved and developed, but housed in the very same construction. In 1984, the last year of production, the Mark V came out.
The Rhodes was particularly popular from the late 60's-early 80's, and many of its signature songs date from this period: The Doors' 'Riders On the Storm', 'Babe' by Styx, 'You Are the Sunshine of My Life' by Stevie Wonder, 'Peg' by Steely Dan, and 'Gotta Serve Somebody' by Bob Dylan. Other users include Tori Amos, Jan Hammer of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Herbie Hancock also used the Rhodes.
The Fender Rhodes became the classic live piano instrument for Led Zeppelin on the 1971 tour, and would remain in the backline until 1978. The sight of John Paul Jones behind his Rhodes became a very familiar sight to Led Zeppelin fans, and was normally used on songs 'Misty Mountain Hop', 'No Quarter' and 'Stairway to Heaven'. The Rhodes Suitcase was used on the early Led Zeppelin tours from 1971 to 1973, often with a covering showing Jones' famous rune/symbol over the speaker box. The Stage 73 is the Rhodes seen on the famous 'No Quarter' portion of The Song Remains the Same film. The Rhodes Stage 73 model was used on the 1973 and 1975 tours. For the 1977 tour, the larger Stage 88 was used. Jones had the Rhodes pickup modified to make it less mellow and heavy. He preferred a sound that was sharper and 'a bit harder.' For this tour, the Rhodes (and other keyboards) were run to a small mixer made by the Mavis company of England. From there, they were fed to the house system and his personal monitors (Showco C4 cabinets).