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 mid 1980’s the Rhodes piano’s design went through a number of changes that impacted the electric piano’s action and timbre. While the setup of the Rhodes is critical to getting the most out of the Rhodes’ dynamic and tonal range, 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 altered the Rhodes’ action and tone for better or worse.
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 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, Billy Preston on The Beatles’ rooftop sessions of “Let it Be,” or paired with Bill Evan’s Steinway on From Left to Right. These Rhodes are significantly more rare and currently considered more collectible than anything else since their parts are less reliable and harder to replace when they break down.
Most Rhodes electric pianos from this era of production is recognizable by their sparkle top, but some 1969-1970 pianos have “Sparkletop Era” components under a black plastic lid. These pianos had felt hammer tips that were darker and mellower in attack than the later pianos. When you dig in it has a bark that’s entirely different from the later 1970’s models because of the differences in the hammer tips and most importantly the Raymac tines. This gave them a wonderful and unique tone that’s featured on a lot of our favorite records from the era, but likely because of some of the flaws in the design of these early pianos we unfortunately don’t hear many of them on professional recordings of today…
1971-1973: The Early Fender Rhodes 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 than the later Mark I years. They hit their stride with the design of the piano around 1971/1972, but that doesn’t mean that they play great. Players often complain about pianos from this era playing “swampy” or “stiff” because they hadn’t yet worked out the kinks in getting the action design ‘just right.’
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 bothers some players more or less than others).
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.”
1974-Early ’76: The Transitional Years
The change of the trademark branding from from “Fender Rhodes” to “Rhodes” took place in the second half of 1974. There weren’t any immediate changes to the instruments design, but from then until mid 1976 there were a series of changes that alter the Rhodes’ in impactful ways. First, the action is updated with a fully plastic hammer (the previous hammer was a hammer and wood) in the middle of 1975. The hammer’s contour was also updated, which gave a slightly “tighter” response as compared to the earlier “bounce” felt between the key and hammer. This difference is fairly negligible when the instrument is setup with proper action, and some players seem to have a preference towards the earlier or later action depending on their own style. The harp support design was also updated were also updated
In our opinion the most dramatic change in tone happens in early 1976 when the Rhodes’ hammer tips were updated from a cube hammer tip to a graduated hammer tip style. Shortly after the tines were shifted from Torrington production to Singer. Although the “Fender Rhodes” trademark was dropped in early 1974, these two changes are what truly marks the end of the early “Fender Rhodes” sound.
1976-1979: The Late Mark I (Pre-Mark II)
The changes in the design of the Late Mark I years seem more like a series of business decisions made by “suits” rather than changes that improve the instrument itself. I’m not sure if I’d call it an experimental period, but some of the changes implemented during this period were also reversed and some aspects were somewhat improved upon to some degree. For instance, from mid 1975 through early 1978 the action felt was repositioned from the key pedestal to the back of the hammer, but learning from this mistake (the felt on the back of the hammer doesn’t hold up as well as it breaks in) they also made improvements to the pedestal design with what is now known as the pedestal “bump” (first installed with a piece of felt and later notched into the wood) contoured into the key. 1978 marks the period when the Rhodes action design hit its stride.
During these years the classic Rhodes bark begins to transform into the more bell-like tones that are characteristic of the Mark II.
1979-1982: The Mark II
When it was first introduced 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. The Mark II is a classic benchmark in Rhodes sound and a handful of players have a preference towards the Mark II sound. It is generalized that the Mark II is more bell like and are somewhat less “deep” and barky than the early models, but in some situations this is preferable or even advantageous in the mix.
For some reason the pickups in the last year of the Mark I and the first year of the Mark II are extremely prone to failure. Although it has been attributed to the “white tape” period of production, the failures seem to predate that change in production. Whatever the cause of the failure is, the 1979-1980 pianos seem to have the highest rates of pickup failure…
1984: The Mark V
Although it lacks the classic looks of the Mark I and Mark II, it’s fundamentally the same instrument. –But that’s not to say that its design doesn’t have its own unique charm and improvements of its own! The action was dramatically updated with changes to the pedestal and the hammer that increased the dynamic play in each note. Unfortunately it also seems that the hammers are much more prone to failure than the previous design. The failure of hammers, and other parts unique to the Mark V’s design make them very hard to maintain over time.
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 original stand that accompanied the Mark V was attached to the Rhodes with flimsy metal connections and these days it’s uncommon to find one in good condition.
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.