A life-long love affair
McCauley’s love affair with the Rhodes goes way back, to when he first heard its distinctive sound as a child: “They used to have television shows like The Midnight Special or Don Kirshner’s Rock Concerts back in the 70s and I would be up late when I wasn’t supposed to – my parents would have killed me for being up that late! – but I would see this instrument on stage, this piano-looking thing…I’d never seen one in before but I would hear the musicians playing it and it had this interesting tone, this sound to it….” And when the young McCauley heard the instrument in the flesh, a true passion was born: “I remember the first time actually hearing someone play it in person was by Patrice Russian at our noon-time concert at our high school. For one thing I’d never seen a woman play it before, but more than that I was blown away by the beautiful sound she had out of it. I don’t know, it just stood out to me more than any other instrument on the stage. It was something about that instrument. It hugged the music, it was just such a beautiful, warm, just a caressing kind of sound to my ears, so I said “Man, I want one of those”.
A few years later McCauley’s dreams came true as he got his hands on his very own, salvaged from a friend’s garage. “That was just the best thing someone could give me. It was awesome. It didn’t have a top and he was going to get rid of it, but this Rhodes was in perfect shape. I mean, I opened it up and I saw that all the wood was new, everything was new… still to this day, I haven’t heard a better sounding Rhodes than that one!”
It was something about that instrument. It hugged the music, it was just such a beautiful, warm, just a caressing kind of sound to my ears, so I said “Man, I want one of those”.
Crossing genres and generations
Much of the Rhodes’ appeal, McCauley enthuses, is its versatility. It has transcended so many genres over the years, used across a huge range of musical styles and songs. “It gives the keyboard player a lot of flexibility because even though it’s one singular sound, there are so many things that you can do with the instrument – effects, pedals, even the way you play – it has so many dynamic ranges. You could do something by playing one note on the Rhodes that you can’t get away with on any other keyboard. I think that people find it a necessity in terms of writing, in terms of what it gives you back when you write. You want to hear beauty in the chords of a song and it just gives you an electric tonality and feeling that I don’t think you can get from any other keyboard instrument.”
Not only does it transcend genres but it transcends generations. With an ageless charm it pops up in every age of music since its conception, becoming a benchmark for the authentic piano sound. “Everything in progressive technology is emulating something vintage. When you pick up a soft synth package or keyboard package for software or a digital keyboard, the first things that you’re going to look at on that instrument is the acoustic piano patch, and you’re going to look at the Rhodes patch, and that’s going to pretty much tell you everything you need to know of where it goes after that.”
McCauley leaves us in no doubt that we are dealing with an absolutely iconic and seminal instrument:
“You can park the Rhodes in the same garage as the acoustic piano in terms of being such a major step in musical evolution.”
Every instrument created is important to the musical sphere, but the Rhodes was just so important in how music evolved and how people found it. It has an unforgettable tone. It gives you that unforgettable feeling when you hear it. Sometimes it’s present, really in front, and sometimes it’s just passive, something you go “What did I just hear?” It’s used a lot as an effect and I think that’s what it gives you versus other instruments: a Rhodes can be noticed or it can go unnoticed and blend very well in a whole wall of sound. I’ve heard songs that have Rhodes in them that I wasn’t aware of until much later, until I looked through the credits or really listened enough and realised.”