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The Fender Rhodes

The desire for the authentic sounds of the 70s harboured by some modern prog bands has led to a quiet revolution in digital samples. The historic unreliability of a Mellotron for live performance (see was most recently manifest by the lengthy delay that preceded Änglagård’s performance at the Resonance Festival in 2014, a problem that could be circumvented by investing in one of Markus Resch’s digital Mellotrons or utilising Mellotron patches on digital keyboards. As much as I love the feel of the old M400, I suspect that anyone who favours the authentic sound of the Beast is now better off going digital, with the bonus of much improved portability. I don’t know if it was just Rick Wakeman’s choice of programming but when he switched from mini-Moogs to Polymoogs when he re-joined Yes for Going for the One (1977), I thought the tones he utilised lacked timbre, and the same goes for the Emerson sound on the Yamaha GX1 when ELP reconvened for Works Volume 1 (1977). Mini-Moogs disappeared in the 80s but it’s pleasing to hear the original Moog sound, apparently the result of an incorrect calculation that led to the filters being overdriven by around 15dB, has been recreated in the Moog Voyager series, seemingly the synthesizer of choice of bands playing progressive rock today.

Änglagård sound check, prolonged by two obstinate Mellotrons, Resonance Festival 3/8/2014

Wakeman, Emerson, Patrick Moraz and Rick Wright all used grand pianos in a live setting but by the end of the golden era of progressive rock the sheer bulk of the instrument and the advent of polyphonic synthesizers meant that traditional piano parts were played on instruments like the Yamaha CP-70 electric grand, a half-way house between an acoustic instrument and a digital piano but far less unwieldy than the acoustic grand. There is a lot of rock music that features piano but exponents of prog rock used the instrument as a shade or tone in a broader palette, like the calm interlude on South Side of the Sky (from Fragile, 1971) providing stark contrast with the angular electric mayhem the precedes and follows; there aren’t many prog albums where the only keyboard is piano, even though it can be used for both delicacy and thunder.

The less bulky cousin of the grand is the electric piano which features in a wide variety of progressive rock and fusion. When I bought a Korg MIDI keyboard some years ago I was a little surprised to see a voucher for genuine Fender Rhodes patches but since then, on albums like Steven Wilson’s The Raven That Refused to Sing (2013) and the more recent Cupid and Psyche by Höstsonaten (2016), I’ve noticed the classic electric piano sound returning to the genre.

Whereas Wakeman used the RMI (Rocky Mount Instruments) electric piano and harpsichord and Peter Hammill, David Cross and Robert Fripp played Hohner electric pianos (Cross’ in white to match his Mellotron and Fripp’s in black, to match his), it’s the distinct sound of the Rhodes/Fender Rhodes that best exemplify the electric piano, an almost bell-like resonance that retains its identity even when overdriven. Moraz may have owned a Fender Rhodes but it’s a keyboard that tends to be associated with jazz rock, rather than symphonic prog, so it’s not surprising to see a Rhodes listed in the instrumentation for bands like Greenslade, where their roots are in the British take on jazz and blues.

Peter Hammill and his Hohner electric piano

The mechanics of an electric piano are the same as that for an acoustic model, where depressing a key operates a hammer; this is in contrast with a digital piano which uses either synthesized piano emulation or sampled sound, making these electronic instruments. On an acoustic piano, the hammers strike metal strings which vibrate against a sound board and the hollow body of the instrument amplifies this sound. The force of depression of the key, the attack, also affects the volume. The hammers on different makes of electric piano strike different resonating materials. The earliest electric pianos used strings; the first commercially available electric piano was the RCA Storytone from 1939 although the Bechstein company produced the first model in 1929. Manufacturers of instruments that appeared in the late 50s and 1960s used a variety of other vibrating parts, with Wurlitzer using flat steel reeds struck by felt hammers. The reeds fitted into a comb-like metal plate, creating an electrostatic or capacitive pickup system which produced its own distinctive tones, sweet and vibraphone-like when played gently but developing a hollow resonance with more attack. The original Hohner models utilised a hammer pluck on flat reeds and a similar pickup arrangement to Wurlitzer but later products replaced the electrostatic pickups with passive electromagnetic pickups.

The tone of the Rhodes comes from the unique wire tines, tuning fork-like components of varying lengths that are struck by the hammers; the tines connect to tone bars and the amplification is by electromagnetic pickups. The characteristic bell sound is produced when the tine and the pickup are in close proximity and though there is a degree of similarity between the Rhodes and the Wurlitzer, the former has better sustain while the latter produces a range of harmonics when the keys are hit hard, providing more bite.

The story behind the Rhodes is quite inspiring because inventor Harold Rhodes became a full-time piano teacher after dropping out of university to support his family through the Great Depression, utilising a technique that combined classical and jazz. He then began developing instruments to help the rehabilitation of soldiers during the Second World War, utilising surplus army parts as he was required to stick to a very tight budget. The involvement of Fender came in 1959 with the marketing of the Piano Bass, the bottom 32 keys of the full 88 key design, and the later inclusion of a built-in power amplifier and a combined tremolo and auto-pan feature that bounces the output signal from the piano in stereo across two speakers, a feature mistakenly called ‘vibrato’ on some models which is consistent with the labelling on Fender amps. The first Fender Rhodes was released in 1965 following the acquisition of Fender by CBS; this model had 73 keys and included the built-in amplifier.

It’s mainly Miles Davis’ alumni that popularised the instrument though Ray Manzarek used a Piano Bass with The Doors, providing the bass lines for the bass guitarist-less band. From Miles In a Silent Way (1969) and Bitches Brew (1970) period, keyboard players Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul and Herbie Hancock spread the word and the sound through their respective bands while guitarist John McLaughlin formed the Mahavishnu Orchestra featuring Jan Hammer on mini-Moog and Fender Rhodes and the keyboard was subsequently taken up by British jazz-rock bands influenced by the Mahavishnu Orchestra, including Brand X and Isotope. Return to Forever sailed closest to progressive rock of all the fusion bands with Romantic Warrior (1976) which became their best selling album despite critical drubbing from Robert Christgau, the self-appointed Dean of American Rock Critics. I fully believe the success of the album is its appeal to fans of symphonic prog; the majority of prog fans also like jazz rock but Romantic Warrior is a collection of pieces pushing all the right prog buttons: fantastic musicianship; extended instrumental compositions; a broad palette including an entirely acoustic track; and a loose concept. It comes across like a fusion version of Refugee by Refugee (1974).

Brand X with their Fender Rhodes (left) and Mellotron (centre) - from the back sleeve of Moroccan Roll

The popularity of the Rhodes piano declined at the end of the 70s as electronic keyboards began to proliferate but also because the quality of the instrument itself dipped as a consequence of cost-cutting and an attempt at mass production. Rhodes was sold to Roland by the company president William Schultz in 1987 and Roland produced digital pianos under the Rhodes name until Harold Rhodes, who hadn’t authorised the use of his name, bought back the rights to the instrument in 1997.

It’s good to hear the Rhodes sound on contemporary prog.

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