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. It only becomes more complicated because of all of the changes throughout Mark I design that led up to the transition to the Mark II. Changes were made nearly year-by-year for the Mark I are what differentiate early Mark I pianos from a Mark II even though late Mark I’s will be more like a Mark II than a Mark I… Three factors have the greatest impact on Rhodes tone: The hammer and hammer tip, the tine, and the amplification system.
I. The Hammer Tip
After the Mark I was introduced in late 1969, the first of major changes in production happened in the early 1971 when Fender Rhodes production switched over from felt hammer tips to cubed 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 and the harp or tine re-aligned for proper strike line to restore their sound (and the filing eventually would affect the height of the hammer). The cubed rubber tips gave a unique tone that had deep lows and more crystal clear highs. The early cubed tip sound is today part of the quintessential part of the Mark I Rhodes sound which lasted until early 1976. For many players that seek that classic sound there is no other way to get it than the original hammer tips or those produced by Retro Linear.
After mid 1976 Rhodes pianos began to feature tapered hammer tips that changed height within sections of the piano moving from the bass to the treble. This design caused a greater noticeable imbalance in tone at the points of crossover because it also affects the strike line of the hammer with the tine. Additionally, the attack of the bass notes dramatically changed because of the depth of the neoprene hammer tip used. Because the change in hammer tip happened halfway through Mark I production it is often a point of confusion for the differences between the Mark I and Mark II sound. In fact, we are huge fans of Mark II Pianos with the early Mark I style cubed tips because you get the balanced harmonics of the Mark II Tines with the early Mark I attack–particularly in the bass!
II. The Tine
Even though it is less noticeable than the hammer tips from a visual perspective the tine is one of the most important aspects to the pianos voice. The tines were redesigned and commissioned to different manufacturers throughout the years. Almost every other year there were slight differences in production of the tines that affected the tone of the Rhodes piano. We always restore our pianos with period correct parts–especially when it comes to the tines–because of the dramatic impact that it has on the tone of the instrument.
The changes in tines’ production within the Rhodes piano is directly analogous to changes in strings of a piano or guitar and is especially analogous to the metallurgical makeup of guitar strings. Since the Rhodes’ tines and an electric guitar strings are both interpreted by an electromagnetic pickup before amplification the behavior of the vibrating parts and the metallurgical makeup of the parts themselves have a great impact on the timbre and the sustain characteristics of the instruments. In the case of early Rhodes Mark I pianos the tines were slightly more brittle with warmer bass and mids and brighter highs while the changes leading up to the Mark II piano gave it a more balanced moderately bright tone with more bell like highs and cooler mids and lows. The later tines were also developed to be more robust and had slightly different attack/sustain characteristics than the early tines.
III. Suitcase Model Amplification
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 which both have very subjective trade-offs. The later “Janus” model has better control of the EQ of the instrument while the earlier “Peterson” Design has less control but can be dialed in for great tone. The Peterson amplifier makes up for the less dynamic EQ sculpting with its warm alnico speakers and the incandescent lightbulbs in its vibrato circuitry that give it a quintessential silky smooth timbre. Both amplifiers have the same controls as one another but with very much their own characteristics within the sets of controls.
(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 if you were to compare a poorly maintained instrument to one that was fully restored by our workshop. –If you don’t believe me come on by and check out our instruments for yourself!