What is the difference between a Fender Rhodes Mark I and Rhodes Mark II? Which model is better? How can I make my Mark I sound more like a Mark II (and vise versa)?
These are questions that are asked by Rhodes owners and electric piano enthusiasts. It’s not uncommon for a Mark II owner to request ‘more of a Mark I sound.’ The quick answer to these questions is surprisingly simple: when the Mark II was introduced in 1979, the only true changes were to the exterior aesthetic design of the instrument—the Mark II was nearly the identical instrument to the Mark I on its day of birth. Throughout nearly a decade of Mark I production, however, minor changes were made year-by-year that greatly differentiate the early Mark I’s from a Mark II. Three changes in particular had the greatest impact on the tone of the Rhodes.
After the Mark I was introduced in 1969, the first of major changes in production happened in the early 1971 when Fender Rhodes production switched over from felt hammer tips to neoprene rubber hammer tips. This change was intended to give the hammer tips a longer life span because the felt tips developed deep grooves that needed to be filed by a tech to restore their sound (and the filing eventually would affect the height of the hammer). Just over one year into production, this switch marked a substantial shift in the tone of the Rhodes. Today, most Mark I’s from the felt tip era of production have been serviced with replacement neoprene hammer tips in them which makes the original felt tips quite a rare find.
The most notable change for stage piano models happened in late 1975 when the Rhodes’ design changed from wood harp support blocks to aluminum supports and from wooden/plastic hybrid hammers to plastic hammers. While the aluminum supports were designed for easier setup in the factory to reduce costs, the wood supports and hammers provided the Fender Rhodes’ characteristically warm bark that many players feel is ‘the’ quintessential Rhodes tone. As we mention in a later post about the different eras of Mark I production, this shift in Rhodes Mark I production has been coined the ‘Pre Mark II’ era of production through the point when the Mark II was introduced in 1979.
Perhaps the single greatest change in Rhodes Mark I design was the change happened with amplifier built into its suitcase model. In 1977, the 80W Peterson design was replaced with an all new 100W design known as the Janus amplifier. Majority of the perceived differences in tone may be derived from the differences in these two systems. Both amplifiers have the same controls as one another but with very much their own characteristics. In short, we prefer the Peterson’s vibrato and the Janus’ EQ controls, but both amplifier systems have their strengths and weaknesses that will be discussed in greater depth in another post….
(to be continued)…
The final note: Up to 80-90% of the tone of the Rhodes depends on how well it was maintained and how the instrument is set up. Very minor changes in the pickup placement and the escapement levels of the piano will have a significant effect on the tone. These setup differences will have a much greater impact on the tone than the various changes year by year or model by model.