When it comes to keyboards, the Rhodes electric piano is a class unto itself. Few other pianos, acoustic or electric, share the Rhodes’ iconic, instantly recognizable sound-or its fervent, almost cultlike following.
Vintage Rhodes pianos are the muscle cars of the keyboard world: old, unwieldy things that are tough to transport and prone to breaking down. Yet, some 25 years after the original Mark V model went out of production, Rhodes instruments are still sought after by keyboardists young and old, and perpetually available in music shops and through websites like Craigslist and eBay. The reason? Their unique character and versatility, from the snarling, dirty low end to the soft, tinkling upper register.
A little back-story: After starting and folding his own company in the 1940s, inventor Harold Rhodes, a pianist and innovative piano instructor, partnered with Leo Fender and introduced the 32-note Fender Rhodes Piano Bass in 1959. But it wasn’t until 1965, after the Fender company was purchased by CBS, that he was able to deliver the Fender Rhodes Electric Piano. The instrument evolved rapidly over the ensuing years and shaped the jazz, funk, rock and pop of the day; in fact, it’s hard to imagine fusion’s golden age-albums like In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew and Head Hunters-without the Rhodes timbre. Which is why, when Rhodes’ business associate Joseph Brandstetter set about restarting the Rhodes line in 2009, he faced a pressing question: How do you top the original Rhodes?
The answer, Brandstetter found, was not to top them so much as try and advance them. The Rhodes is a physical, electro-mechanical instrument: When a key is pressed, a hammer strikes a metal tine and a pickup captures the vibrations (this is also why even the newer, lighter Rhodes pianos weigh upwards of 90 lbs). For his new Mark 7 line, Brandstetter and his crew went back to the basics. The series was inspired mostly by the Mark V, which was manufactured in the mid-’80s. They developed new, lead-free tone generators and came up with a way to seat the tines better in the block, which, Brandstetter said, should cause fewer tines to break-a constant nuisance for vintage Rhodes players.
The result is an updated Rhodes which stays true to the instrument’s rich heritage but has a sharper, more specific sound. This was most noticeable in the low end of the two Mark 7 series models I tested: the Active, or A Series 73, which has a few effects knobs but is otherwise true to the original, and the Active MIDI, or AM Series 73, which has pitch and modulation wheels and MIDI capabilities. There is also a simple, streamlined S Series, which has only the traditional passive volume and bass knobs. Finally, Rhodes offers a new speaker platform, which has been redesigned to handle bass frequencies more effectively than the guitar amplifiers CBS shipped with its pianos.
At first blush, I was taken aback by how similar yet different these new Rhodes are when compared with the vintage models. As the owner of a Mark I Stage Piano, I’m used to a murky lower register, which has a tendency to pitch up at the end of the note. Not so with the new Mark 7s. Both had bold, precise bottom ends, with the notes only opening up and wavering a bit when I really nailed them.
All three new models come in three colors-a soft white, lipstick red and black-and are available in 61-, 73- and 88-key editions. Thankfully, both models I tested had a newer, more contemporary keyboard, closer to an acoustic piano. The hard keys and stiff action of the older Rhodes models had the tendency to wear out the hands of even the most skilled players. The keys on the new Mark 7 models are a welcome relief, with softer action, real finesse and impressive response. The more nuanced notes, I’m sure, have more appeal for classical pianists-a market the company appears to be targeting.
The A Series comes with equalizer and tremolo knobs, which add some dexterity to the sound without cluttering up the instrument’s traditionally modest design. The top is made of fiberglass, and folds back on hinges to reveal shiny, new components. A basic array of inputs, including mic and quarter-inch jacks, is tucked away on the left side of the instrument. The MIDI-enabled AM Series synchs with a laptop, and lets you play either the Rhodes piano, the MIDI instrument or both at once. It’s a nice effect: You can shadow the piano notes with some gentle strings or bring the MIDI effect to the forefront and let the shimmery Rhodes sound be the backdrop.
Though Rhodes is promoting the new Mark 7 overseas, it has yet to market the new line seriously in the States, Brandstetter said. There are a few reasons for this, and the estimated 400,000 vintage models still bouncing around the U.S. market play a role, for sure. Today, Rhodes is a small company, and the Mark 7 line is boutique in comparison. Plus, they’re still tweaking certain aspects of the new pianos as early testimonials roll in. Currently, the Mark 7 line has limited distribution in the U.S. (I tested mine at Bullock’s Piano Salon East in Southern Maryland.)
The new pianos aren’t cheap, either. The S Series 73 retails for $3,299, the A Series 73 for $3,999 and the AM Series 73 is $4,999-out of the range of many amateur players, but still within reach for pro musicians and well-heeled hobbyists working through a mid-life crisis. In all seriousness, a vintage Rhodes Mark I or II usually goes for around $1,000 online, and professional overhauls can cost an additional $1,000. So it’s not unreasonable to consider springing for a brand new Mark 7.
Though some vintage Rhodes purists may discredit the new models as too clean- and clear-sounding out of the box, the Mark 7 models are fitting successors for a line of pianos with such a storied legacy.