Archive for Electric Piano

Vibrating Parts: Geeking Out on the Rhodes Piano

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Last month our friends at Reverb.com stopped by the warehouse to talk about Harold Rhodes and the piano that he invented. Here’s a quote on digital pianos from the article and you can read the whole Reverb article here.

‘Who the hell would think that a musical instrument would have vibrating components?’ Of course that’s a great idea! I think keyboardists get robbed having all of these pianos that have weighted action being what’s being sought after and then in the end you don’t get anything more than a digital sample being played depending on the velocity that you strike it with. What a bummer! Electric guitar players get an electric guitar, it’s not something that is made to sound like playing a Stratocaster, it is a Stratocaster.”

-Max Brink

Read the full article here.

How to Value a Fender Rhodes.

How to Value a Rhodes Piano

Ira Rhodes With Logo

Part 1: How much is a Fender Rhodes Piano Worth?

Determining the value of a rare vintage instrument is a difficult task. There are many factors to consider which may seem trivial to certain players while being crucial to others. Some of the most significant factors that will always affect the value include the geographic location or market, the rarity or demand for the specific model, and perhaps most importantly its playing condition. Unfortunately, from our first hand observations of Rhodes sold in the near Chicago market the playing condition of the instrument is not commonly reflected in the asking price of the piano. We have observed nearly identical instrument models going for between $300-1,000 in relatively the same unserviced condition. Other instruments get listed at prices higher than that range but seem to have a much harder time selling. Given this range of prices it is absolutely critical to know what to look for when determining the fair value of an instrument if you are going to purchase an instrument that is not professionally serviced or restored.

In the past decade the price of Rhodes pianos has increased fairly steadily but this has not always been the case. Up until the late 1990’s, Rhodes pianos were regularly sold for less than they are today and far less than their original retail price–even without adjusting for inflation. For instance, in 1973 a Fender Rhodes 73 key Stage piano sold for a retail price of approximately $720 (which in 2013 would have the same purchasing power of $3,764 according to the Consumer Price Index–which speaks to the craftsmanship that went into a Rhodes, which in still holds today–) and Suitcase models retailed for more than $1,000 ($5,228 today adjusted by the CPI). Unlike vintage Fender or Gibson guitars from the same era that have appreciated in price by leaps and bounds, Rhodes pianos have not kept up with the times as well until the past decade.

The drop in prices for Rhodes throughout the 80’s and 90’s was mainly due to the rising trend of players turning to synthesizers and digital keyboards as well as the lack of proper maintenance for Rhodes pianos throughout those decades. But even as the technology has advanced, no digital emulation to this day comes close to the feel and the sound of a real Rhodes (or Wurlitzer) piano. Players that have played both side by side often complain that they have a hard time relating to a digital keyboard the way that they find a natural connection with the real electro-mechanical instrument.

The trend over the past decade for digital keyboards, on the other hand, has been that they have not held their value, even over short periods of time. This is largely due to newer digital pianos constantly being introduced with advancing technologies and additional features, making many of the former models less desirable and often impossible to re-sell. Once a digital keyboard gets to be more than five years old the advanced technologies of newer models render the former relatively obsolete. Comparatively, digital keyboards are disposable instruments.

Although most stories of clients of finding their Rhodes or Wurlitzer dumpster-side happened in the 1990’s, these rare scores are still happening today. Many Rhodes owners are simply unaware that the instruments’ have value in today’s musical landscape. Most Rhodes that we follow on the Chicago area craigslist sell within a single one or two weeks when listed between $300-1,000 in average unserviced condition. And almost all Rhodes owners the we speak with have sold their Rhodes for the same amount that they purchased it for or more. The instrument has grown to have more than a cult following and are still continually heard on new recordings released every year. It seems that the electro-mechanical design of the Rhodes piano has stood the test of time.

Side Note: Just as another example of how skewed this market currently is near Chicago, any Rhodes purchased for $500-600 with $500-600 of service from our shop will be in a completely different league than any Rhodes for sale at $1,000-1,200! In most cases, that budget will be enough to cover a complete restoration of the voice and basic setup of the instrument if the action is at a desirable level. Aside from the Hammond M3, we believe that Rhodes pianos may be THE most undervalued vintage instrument that you will come across!

Know Your Rhodes Models

When it comes to getting great tone from a Rhodes a little setup goes a long way – but the instrument will always be limited by the parameters of the components within the Rhodes’ production era. Small design changes were made to the Rhodes piano practically every year which gives each era of production its own unique action and voicing characteristics. In our previous post we discuss some of the basic changes that are observed throughout the eras based on ideal setup conditions, and why certain eras are more desirable to some players.

Aside from those variations year by year, the Mark I and Mark II were offered in four common models throughout the years: the Stage and Suitcase, each offered with either 73 or 88 keys. In addition to these main four models, there was also a 54 key version of the Mark II and a Super Satellite (dual speaker cabinet for stereo tremolo offered as an alternative to the Suitcase) Rhodes that are more rare.

The Rhodes Suitcase models all have a 4×12″ cabinet with two speakers facing both directions resulting in a very unique sound when the stereo tremolo circuitry is activated (–as long as it isn’t pushed up against a wall!). In addition to this classic tremolo sound, the built in amplification is a huge bonus for players that do not have a competent amplifier to pair with their Rhodes (click here for our previous post on Rhodes amplification). Because of their bulkier size due to their speaker cabinet, Suitcase Rhodes are often in better cosmetic and playing condition since they are less likely to have seen time on the road.

In general the 73 key and 88 key models are valued around the same price (because of the tradeoffs in weight associated with the additional keys) but some cases may cause the 88 key model to draw a higher price or lower price. Since the 88 key model requires more service it may justify a higher asking price if it is recently serviced or a lower price if it is in need of service. Still, there are certain players who cannot perform without 88 keys.

Even though there are few official production numbers the most common Rhodes models seem to be Mark I Stage 73 models from ’76-79. Earlier Fender Rhodes models, suitcase models, and 88 key models are harder to come by. In the end, regardless of the rarity of the model, some Rhodes will be more sought after by players that are looking for a particular sound.

 

Once you have determined the model Rhodes that is right for you, the next step is to determine the Rhodes’ overall condition… Here is our detailed post with pictures that walks you through everything that you need to look and listen to in order to determine the value of a Rhodes piano.

How to Date a Rhodes

How can you find the year your Rhodes was manufactured?

How old is my Rhodes? This is one of the more frequently asked questions of our workshop when pianos are brought in for restoration or repair. Luckily, dating a Rhodes is extremely simple and can usually be determined within the precise week that it was ‘born.’ Here’s how you find out:

If you lift up the vinyl lid of your Rhodes you will find that there is a four digit stamp (red, blue, or black depending on the year) that will tell you what week of what year your Rhodes is from. The four digits will read as follows: WWYY (Week, Year).

Here are some examples from our workshop:
40th week of 1972

4072 = 40th week of 1972

0475 = 4th Week of 1975

0475 = 4th Week of 1975

1780 = 17th week of 1980

1780 = 17th week of 1980

2584 = 25th Week of 1984

2584 = 25th Week of 1984

As you can see, the numbering scheme was consistent from the first Mark I in 1969, through the Mark II’s of the early ’80’s and on to the Mark V of 1984. For more information about what makes each year different, check out our previous post, The Ultimate Rhodes Timeline, for more information about the characteristics of each era of production.

Side note: there are some typos from 1975 that will read as 1985. We have seen this a small handful of times and it seems that there was a week or two in 1975 where they were accidentally stamping them as 1985.

 

The Ultimate Fender Rhodes Timeline

The Evolution of Fender Rhodes Production and Sound

If you’ve played a handful of Rhodes pianos you may have noticed that they each have their own unique sound and feel. But what makes some Rhodes sound and play better than others? And what years of Rhodes are best for achieving the sound that you are looking for?

Over decades of Rhodes production from the 1960’s through the 1980’s the Rhodes piano’s design went through a number of changes that impacted the electric piano’s action and tone. While the setup of the Rhodes is critical to getting the most out of the Rhodes’ timbre, the instrument is still constrained to the components of the specific era of production giving each era of production its own unique sonic characteristics. Even though some of the design and production changes improved upon the previous era, many of the changes were simply cost-cutting measures that negatively impacted the Rhodes’ action and tone.

Here’s a brief overview and timeline of the changes: 

Note: All opinions of the models are based on evaluating the Rhodes after it is professionally setup by our workshop in its ideal state. Some of these models will require more setup than others from their original design in order to achieve the ideal levels that we assume in our descriptions.

1960’s: The Sparkle Top Years

This is the Fender Rhodes that you will hear on an introspective journey through Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew or paired with Bill Evan’s Steinway on From Left to Right. These rhodes are significantly more rare and currently considered more collectible than other eras of production.

Rhodes electric piano production from this era of production is easily recognizable by their sparkle top. Their sound characterized by its felt teardrop hammer tips similar to those of an acoustic pianos and the tone bar and tine assembly was more primitive than the later model Rhodes.

1969-Mid ’74: The Early Mark I

This is the introduction of the classic Mark I tone. The Early Mark I was introduced in late 1969 and after a couple of design changes in the first couple years they settled into the classic Fender Rhodes design that more than holds its own against the test of time. Its tone throughout these years has the quintessential warm Rhodes bark that is sought after by most players making them more valuable then the later Mark I years.

These years are distinguished by their wood/plastic hybrid hammers and wooden harp supports that allow it to achieve its classic tone. One of the downfalls of this era is its “skirted” key caps which were plastic and curved on top. While this gives it a feel that is in some ways inseparable from The Early Mark I it lacks the feel that most players come to expect from a piano.

This era of production is also unique because it is the last years that you see the “Fender Rhodes” name before it was changed to simply “Rhodes.”

Mid ’74-Late ’75: The Golden Year of the Mark I

For just over one year in the mid 1970’s the Rhodes piano hit its stride. Although most of our favorite pianos happen to be from ’72, this single year of production has some of the best design characteristics. Mid ’74 is the same time that the Fender Rhodes name was changed to Rhodes and the curved skirted plastic key caps were replaced with the fitted key caps that you find on an acoustic piano which greatly improved the feel of the instrument. However, the key pedestal design was still lacking and some of the pianos from this era have sluggish action without being properly setup or modified for better response.

These are the only ‘Rhodes’ pianos that still have the quintessential ‘Fender Rhodes’ bark with beefier bass and mid tones.

Late ’75-1979: The Late Mark I (Pre-Mark II)

The Late Mark I years are mostly shaped by cost cutting measures that greatly altered the classic Rhodes bark. Most of the change in tone is due to the change from wood/plastic hybrid hammers to the all plastic hammers as well as the change from wooden harp supports to aluminum supports. The action’s design went through several changes throughout this period marking both the worst action design (’76-77, with felt on the back of the hammers instead of the key) and best action design (post ’78, with the pedestal bump being re-implemented).

Side note: For the suitcase model Rhodes, this period could also be split in two with the former 80W Peterson amplifier being replaced with the updated 100W Janus design in 1977. Both amplifiers have their own strengths and weaknesses and we will need to save that discussion for another post. In short, the Peterson has a more charming tremolo due to the filament bulbs used in its circuitry and the Janus has much better EQ controls for shaping the amplifier’s EQ curve.

During these years the classic Rhodes bark begins to transform into a darker bell-like tones that are characteristic of the Mark II.

1979-1982: The Mark II

When introduced, the Mark II was identical to last design of The Late Mark I in every way with the exception of its new cosmetic design. For whatever reason, even though the pickups were identical in impedence, they changed the tape used to cover the pickups’ coils and the new white tape’s adhesive has a tendency to corrode copper wire causing them to fail over time. (It has also been pointed out by readers familiar with the pickups that the copper coating on the wires changed around this time which is also a smoking gun).

The Mark II is a classic benchmark in Rhodes sound and many players prefer its tone to the beefier sound of The Early Mark I and Golden Year of the Mark I.

1984: The Mark V

Although it lacks the classic looks of the Mark I and Mark II, the Mark V is the best design that the Rhodes brand ever produced. –But that’s not to say that its design doesn’t have its own unique charm given that it was produced in 1984! The action was greatly improved with changes to the pedestal and the hammer that increased the dynamic play in each note. Also, with its new plastic enclosure, the Mark V is dramatically lighter than the earlier designs and is much more practical for a gigging musician.

The tone of the Mark V is analogous to the Mark II but with a little more clarity and response due to the dynamic play of the action.

 

UPDATE: For more information on how to find the year of your Rhodes piano, check our post How to Date a Rhodes.

Choosing the Best Amplifier for a Rhodes or Wurlitzer

There are many opinions floating around on the best way to amplify an electric piano. Most of which can inevitably be summed up by our favorite sound engineering cliche — “It all depends on the tone your are looking for!” While this is invariably true, here are some more concrete guidelines for choosing the right amp for your Fender Rhodes or Wurlitzer electric piano.

Solid State v. Tube –

This is an ongoing argument that we could write paragraphs about. Perhaps here is where your personal sonic preferences will come most into play. To be concise, The Chicago Electric Piano Company fully endorses tube amplification  The saturation of vacuum tubes really enhances the harmonic overtones created by the reeds/tines in these instruments. The warmth and depth of tube amplification brings out the best tones from your electric piano. Read more

Stretch Tuning vs. Equal Temperament Tuning

Stretch Tuning vs. Equal Temperament Tuning: The Proper Way to Tune Your Rhodes, Wurlitzer or Clavinet.

 

What is the difference between Stretch Tuning and Equal Temperament Tuning? And why can’t you tune a piano with a guitar tuner?

 

If you took a high school or university physics class that had a unit on the physics of sound, you may recall learning that notes an octave apart have a frequency ratio of 2:1. These are the place holders for the two ends of a scale. Taking this basic knowledge, it may seem reasonable to take the twelve notes of the scale and divide the octave into even portions. If this were the case, over the course of several octaves as on a piano’s keyboard manual, the harmonies would begin to sound dissonent. But why? In the most simplified terms, this is because as intervals move further apart, the human ear finds the beats generated by the two or more frequencies unpleasant. Luckily, there are alternate methods of tuning that produce more appealing harmonies.

When two intervals are played together, the combination of the two or more frequencies produce beats. The rate of the beats is a function of the differences in frequency of the two pitches, which is one of the components of how the human ear interprets harmonies. In order to produce the most appealing harmonies in a piano or ensemble, a number of tuning philosophies exist that create more pleasant beats, and can even account for inharmonicity within the instrument (more on inharmonicity in a later post). The philosophies typically use more pure major thirds, minor thirds, fourths, fifths—you name itRead more