Tag Archive for Rhodes Tone

How to Determine the Value and Condition of a Rhodes

How to Value a Rhodes Piano Part 2: How to Determine the Condition of a Rhodes

As mentioned in the first half of this post, unserviced Rhodes and in summary pianos in comparable condition around the Chicago regional market vary from $300-1,000 on average. Other pianos that have been partially repaired can range are valued from $800-1,200+ but are only worth the additional investment if they include a good invested labor and maintenance that keeps them in top condition. Fully restored pianos from our workshop start at around $2,000 and range up to $4,000+ and are rebuilt from the key bed up with 15-25 hours of specialized restoration work. Unfortunately for the buyer, this range of pricing from $300-4,000+ can leave many confused about the wide range in prices. In order to make sure that the Rhodes is worth the asking price, it’s important to know what to look, feel, and listen for.

Here are the parts to look for in a Fender Rhodes:

The main reason that you find such a wide range of prices for Rhodes pianos being sold is that people don’t understand how to spot deteriorating parts or even worse that the vintage parts were replaced with new parts of poor quality. Most of the parts insstrument will be easily accessible by lifting the vinyl lid and all of them will be accessible if you have a phillips screwdriver handy for removing the four screws that hold the wood harp bracket to its side supports.

The Keys & Action:

The action of the instrument is more than just the feel of the instrument and will also impact the harmonics and dynamic levels of the Rhodes. You’re not going to get the most out of your Rhodes in terms of tone if the keys and hammers are not playing properly. First play notes in various octaves softly and make sure that there are good dynamics in the bass and mid sections. Next, play it with some forte and make sure that it has the proper setup to achieve the classic Rhodes bark. When playing with forte the notes should still be pronounced and there shouldn’t be any interference in the attack of the note. From there, make sure that the volume of the notes across the keyboard are even when played with varying dynamics.

It is critical that the keys are as level as possible and that they have the proper amount of key dip. This is a quick way to judge the condition of the piano’s action. In ideal condition the keys will feel stable from left to right movement and feel buttery smooth when depressed. The textbook level of key dip should be 3/8-13/32″ deep for all keys. Unless the Rhodes was professionally setup, however, it is likely to be well outside of those margins which can cause the action to feel slow, stiff, loose or sluggish.

Bushing felts are the felts in the center of the piano key and help guide the piano key as it is depressed. If you move the piano key gently from left to right there should be little movement. When there is a loose feeling in the key and there is a lot of lateral movement in the key then the bushings should be replaced to restore the proper feel of the keys. The feeling of a key being depressed should be snug but not tight as the key is depressed.

Simple action adjustments may only take a few hours but our full key bed setup can take more than 8 hours of service to achieve ideal action levels.

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Leveled Keys

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13/32″ Key Dip Block

Tines:

The tines are what makes a Rhodes a Rhodes. These are the vibrating pieces of metal that are amplified by the electromagnetic pickups (analogous to the relationship between the strings and pickups of an electric guitar). When tines go bad in the low register their pitch will usually shift and in the upper register they will lose sustain (however, both of these problems could also be due other issues with the setup of the instrument). Most importantly tines should be completely free of rust.

Tines were contracted by different companies throughout Rhodes production so when replacing tines they should be replaced with a piano of the proper production period. Many pianos which are being sold today will have replaced tines from improper periods which causes notes to have the wrong harmonic, attack, or sustain characteristics from other pianos. At The Chicago Electric Piano Company all of our tines are separated by the production period in order to make sure that the restorations performed are period-correct.

Replacing tines can cost around $15-25 each for most pianos.

Acceptable Clean Tines

Rusty Tines

Heavily Rusted Tines

 

Tone Bars:

Together with the tine the to like a tuning fork and the tone bar is mostly there to provide mass for the sustain of the tine. The tone bars are a great way to get a quick indication of the overall condition of a Rhodes. Corroded tone bars should not have a dramatic impact on tone but could be an indication that the Rhodes has been exposed to elements that have negatively affected other aspects of the instrument.

Re-plating the zinc finish on tone bars is possible for those who want a shiny new finish.

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Healthy Tone Bars

Grommets: 

At this point in a Rhodes’ lifespan the grommets should be replaced to insure that the piano can be setup properly. Grommets are the small pieces of rubber in the center of the tone bar and suspend the tone bar so that a note can sustain and hold a consistent voice. When grommets start to age they harden and become loose in their sockets. Often their shape will hold the “memory” from years of pressure which can complicate the voicing process and can cause the voice to drift over time even after it has been setup. Grommets that look warped–especially ones that are pancaked under the washer–or grommets that are loose will definitely need to be replaced.

In the upper and lower registers, gently rock the tone bars from left to right to see if they are loose. These registers are the most prone to show the negative symptoms of bad grommets. When moving tone bars gently the tone bars should feel snug within the grommets.

There is a big difference in the tonality of a Rhodes with different grommets. We have experienced many Rhodes pianos with poor reproduction grommets that leave the pianos sounding nasally or thin often with oscillating notes because of improper tooling or density of the grommet. If you are planning on replacing the grommets yourself please make sure that you are using the highest quality components.

Grommet replacement requires completely re-voicing the Rhodes note-by-note and  falls under our “the works” services.

Warped Grommets

Warped Grommets

Healthy (New) Grommets

Healthy Grommets (New from our friends at Retro Linear)

Hammer Tips: 

Either with a flashlight or by unscrewing the harp bracket (two screws on either end of the tone bars), check the hammer tips for grooves created from striking the tine. There should be no groove at all on the wood core tips in the uppermost register or it will be nearly impossible to voice well. Like the grommets. the rubber hammer tips should have been replaced at this point in a Rhodes’ lifetime. If you see cube shaped hammer tips sometimes with yellow and red paint on the hammer tips they are the originals and are likely to need replacement.

In early Rhodes Mark I production the hammer tips were square cubes which gave the early Mark I it’s signature attack. Pianos from this period will not sound period-correct for an early Mark I piano without using cubed hammer tips. We offer either hand selected vintage hammer tips or new cubed hammer tips for these models (circa 1971-mid 1976).

For later model Rhodes the hammer tips were tapered. This presents challenges for the setup of the instrument because the changes in the height changes the strike line of the hammers with the tines across the piano. Rather than having a linear strike line of the cubed hammers the strike line is tapered because of the changes in hammer tip height. This was used in Rhodes production after mid 1976 and is also the signature shape of most reproduction hammer tips available before recently.

Look out for Early Mark I pianos with tapered hammer tips as they will most likely either have improper strike line or damper issues. When the height of the hammer tips is cut in half by using tapered hammer tips in an early Rhodes it requires that you reposition and service aspects of the Rhodes’ damper assembly, the strike line of the harp, and the height or escapement of the harp. In our opinion performing all of these adjustments for a sound that is not period-correct is too invasive and in most cases the adjustments are not even made in DIY repairs.

Hammer tips can be replaced on an as-needed basis but replacing them in full sets is the only way to get perfectly even voicing throughout the instrument.

Original (early cube) Hammers with Gooves

Wood Core Hammer Tips (Upper Register) with Grooves

Healthy (New) Hammer Tips

 

Sustain Pedal and Damper Felts:

If the owner has the sustain pedal, make sure you test it to make sure that it fits snugly within the instrument and properly pulls the damper felts down sustaining any notes evenly. The damper felts only have one function: to dampen the note after the key is released. Pay close attention to their ability to dampen the bass notes with ease. Once again, grooves should be avoided but as long as all of the notes are dampened then they are functioning perfectly fine. Still, it is important to make sure that they aren’t completely warn down.

Notes that don’t dampen can be eliminated within a typical standard tuneup but if there are many faulty notes there may be other more critical issues with the Rhodes.

Bad Damper Felts

Bad Fraying Damper Felts

 

Cosmetic Condition:

This is the factor where the originality of the parts has the most impact on the value of the instrument. Vintage instruments should be all original cosmetically or restored professionally to the original specs to hold their value over time. Small tears in the tolex covering the instrument may give it a Rhode-worn vintage look, but larger tears will decrease the value of the instrument. Likewise, check the logos and scripts to see if they have broken off or have been scratched or broken.

Scratched Logo

Tears in Tolex

 

Original Accessories:

The Rhodes Stage models should have four accessories to look for. Here’s the checklist: 1) four legs, 2) sustain pedal, 3) cross bars and knob, and 4) the case. All of these parts are critical to the instrument and can be very hard to replace.

Finding replacement parts can take time and costs can add up. Replacement case tops need to be custom fit to the Rhodes since cases vary up to 3/4″ in some instances.

Original Rhodes Case Accessories

Original Rhodes Accessories Including Legs Pouch and “Case Candy”

Side Note: “Case Candy” refers to any additional parts or memorabilia that originally came within an vintage instrument’s case and can significantly increase the value of the instrument for a collector. Originally, the Rhodes came with an owners manual and replacement tines that can increase the instrument’s value.

Ask Good Questions

Before shaking hands on a deal, or placing an offer or bid online, it’s important to learn as much as you can about the instrument and most importantly its upkeep over the years. Make sure that you have learned everything that you need to know about the instrument before shaking hands on a deal. Here are some good questions to get started:

  • “How long have you owned this Rhodes?”
  • “What issues have you had with it since you owned it?”
  • “When was the last time it was professionally serviced?” 
  • “Have any of the parts been replaced? Has anything been modified or updated?”

Beware of sellers that claim “it was stored for the past ten years” as these pianos are just as likely to need service as pianos that were played for the past ten years. If a Rhodes has not been serviced in the past ten years it is more than likely that the works’ is needed to get it back up to par. At this point in a Rhodes lifetime, there should be at least some restoration work in order to guarantee that it is playing at peak performance. Regular standard tuneups every one to four years can help prolong the instrument’s health and help the instrument maintain its value over time.

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.

The Fender Rhodes “Bark”

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.

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