A short history of the Fender Rhodes Piano

We recently released a virtual version of the legendary 1976 Fender Rhodes Piano. A great excuse (if any were needed) to dig into the colourful history of this fascinating instrument.

The story begins during the Second World War. A certain Harold Rhodes gave up his chain of piano schools and joined the US Army Air Corps. A short while into his service, the Army Air Corps asked him to build an acoustic piano so compact that wounded soldiers could play it in bed, using it as music therapy in recovering from trauma.

Music from spare aircraft parts

Rhodes managed to construct the small piano using aluminium pipes from old B-17 bombers and other parts available at the Air Force base. He subscribed to the motto: “if you want to play the piano, first you need to understand music as a whole” –  the best way to do that of course being to build your own instrument, in this case a piano. Around 125,000 of his “Army Air Corps Piano” or “Xylette” as they where called, were produced between 1942 and 1945.

After the war Rhodes continued to work on his piano, and teamed up with Leo Fender who at that time was already successfully producing electric guitars and amps. Under the new company name “Fender Rhodes” the first “Fender Rhodes Piano” was released. The whole concept had evolved, turning the little piano into a full-sized one. It was followed by a suitcase version with integrated amplifier, and cheaper, lighter stage version without; both were available with 73 or 88 keys.

The Rhodes Mark I Stage Piano

For the recordings of our Session Keys Electric R we used a Rhodes Mark I Stage Piano from 1976. After Fender Rhodes was sold to CBS they decided to shorten the name to Rhodes in 1975. They also updated the models to use plastic hammers with neoprene heads, vastly increasing longevity and minimizing weight. The overall sound was now softer with less treble. Also the amplifier gained an extra output for mixers.

Fender Rhodes mood shots

A classic still valued today

Top artists including Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Justin Timberlake have all recorded hits featuring the Fender Rhodes, and the classic Rhodes sound is still popular today in Nu-Jazz, R&B and House productions, leading to an increased demand for original instruments. The downside with originals is they’re hard to come by in good working condition, not to mention bulky to carry around. This makes authentic virtual instruments with no compromise in sound a convincing alternative.

It’s certainly a story of tenacity and patience – success was a long time coming to Harold Rhodes, but he stuck to his guns and continued his work, and by the 1970s was seeing 50 Rhodes pianos a day being sold across the US. He also stayed true to his motto throughout his life, still working with schoolchildren on building musical instruments at the age of 86.

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