What is the Fender Rhodes “Bark?”
The Fender Rhodes “bark” is the signature tone of the Rhodes that distinguishes it from other electric pianos. This is the tone that most Rhodes enthusiasts just can’t get enough of! It is described by players as that “punch,” “drive,” “bite,” “growl,” “grit,” or sometimes just “that certain something” that they are seeking from their Rhodes. But how can you get more “bark” from your Rhodes?
When set up properly, with dynamic action, escapement levels, voicing, and pickup placement, all Rhodes can produce this signature “bark.” Unfortunately, most of the Rhodes that have been living decades in the rock and roll lifestyle need to be adjusted and brought back into the proper setup in order to obtain this signature timbre.
That said, some Rhodes will have more grit to their bark than others and all of them will have their own unique voice. [Psuedo-Footnote-Interuption: This isn’t emphasized enough since most Rhodes go for the same prices on used markets like Craigslist or ebay regardless of whether one has much more ideal sonic characteristics than the other]. Even two Rhodes from the same year setup nearly identically will sound distinctly different played side by side. Some have more grit than others, I find some models to be more clear or almost nasally, and others range from bright as a bell to dark and mellow.
Typically, the earlier models have the most rich bark. ’70-’73 Rhodes will have a brighter bark than around ’74-’75, which are more characteristic of beefier mid range and bass. From ’76 on through ’79 their tone becomes nasally or muddy and around ’79-80 their tone becomes becomes the dark and often bell-like timbre traditionally associated with the Mark II. Because of this it is common for Rhodes owners to purchase multiple Rhodes from different era’s of production to complete their collection’s diversity of sound.
Broken down to a more technical level, the “bark” is produced by the overtones generated by the Rhodes’ tine and tone bar when proper escapement and pickup distance is set to capture these overtones within their magnetic fields. When setup properly, the dynamic range of the bark can be set such that the player can bring out more or less bark with more or less forte in their playing. This is truly the ideal level of bark that can be attained only when the dynamic levels of the action and the voice of the instrument is setup at the ideal levels.
Players often find that these overtones are best enhanced by tube amplification, which are better suited to enhance even more color and living character to the overtones. Because of this, it is common for players to use of tube drivers, tube preamps and tube DI’s between their Rhodes and its amplification.
At least one well known tube driver, although not designed for the Rhodes but for the guitar, the B.K. Butler Tube Driver, was specifically designed with the Rhodes in order to test its ability to have the best overtone and harmonic response possible. After later gaining popularity with ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, this tube driver sky-rocketed in popularity with guitarists and still makes a great companion for a Rhodes player who is seeking to push their Rhodes’ bark with additional tube drive.
Today there is a seemingly never ending number of tube drivers to choose from but just as each Rhodes has its own unique character, each tube amplifier also will have its own EQ characteristics and add its own unique color to your sound. And only the best will be suitable for the dynamic overtones of a Rhodes.
…And we’ll need to save that for a later post.