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.