The Rhodes piano (also known as the Fender Rhodes piano or simply Fender Rhodes or Rhodes) is an electric piano invented by Harold Rhodes, which became popular in the 1970s. Like a conventional piano, the Rhodes generates sound with keys and hammers, but instead of strings, the hammers strike thin metal tines, which vibrate between an electromagnetic pickup. The signal is then sent through a cable to an external keyboard amplifier and speaker.
The instrument evolved from Rhodes’s attempt to manufacture pianos while teaching recovering soldiers during World War II. Development continued after the war and into the following decade. In 1959, Fender began marketing the Piano Bass, a cut-down version; the full-size instrument did not appear until after Fender’s sale to CBS in 1965. CBS oversaw mass production of the Rhodes piano in the 1970s, and it was used extensively through the decade, particularly in jazz, pop, and soul music. It was less used in the 1980s because of competition with polyphonic and digital synthesizers such as the Yamaha DX7 and an inconsistent quality control caused by cost-cutting.
In 1987, the company was sold to Roland, which manufactured digital versions of the Rhodes without authorization from Harold Rhodes. In the 1990s, the instrument experienced a resurgence in popularity, resulting in Rhodes re-obtaining the rights to the piano in 1997. Although Harold Rhodes died in 2000, the Rhodes piano has since been reissued, and his teaching methods are still in use.
The Rhodes piano’s keyboard is laid out like a traditional acoustic piano, but some models contain 73 keys instead of 88. The 73-key model weighs around 130 pounds (59 kg). The keyboard’s touch and action is designed to be like an acoustic piano. Pressing a key results in a hammer striking a thin metal rod called a tine connected to a larger “tone bar”. The tone generator assembly acts as a tuning fork as the tone bar reinforces and extends the tine’s vibrations. A pickup sits opposite the tine, inducing an electric current from the vibrations like an electric guitar. Simply hitting tines does not need an external power supply, and a Rhodes will make sound even when not plugged into an amplifier, though like an unplugged electric guitar the sound will be weak.
The Suitcase model Rhodes includes a built-in power amplifier and a tremolo feature that bounces the output signal from the piano across two speakers. This feature is inaccurately labeled “vibrato” (which is a variation in pitch) on some models to be consistent with the labelling on Fender amplifiers.
Although the Rhodes functions mechanically like a piano, its sound is very different. Vibrating tines produce a mellower timbre, and the sound changes with the tine’s relative position to the pickup. Putting the two close together gives a characteristic “bell” sound. The instrument has been compared with the Wurlitzer electric piano, which uses a similar technology, but with the hammers striking metal reeds. The Rhodes has a better sustain, while the Wurlitzer produces significant harmonics when the keys are played hard, giving it a “bite”. According to Benjamin Love of Retro Rentals, an EQ spectrum analysis of the instrument will have a gap where the frequency of a lead vocal can be. This means the instrument can easily support a voice performance without overpowering it.