On the Rhodes Again: The Electric Piano of Harold B. Rhodes

Oliver Wang
Nov 23, 2017 · 11 min read

by Oliver Wang and Eothen Alapatt

Rooftop like we bringin’ 88 back

Originally published in Big Daddy #8, 2001

When Harold B. Rhodes died last December [2000] in Los Angeles, many didn’t realize who he was, and more importantly, what he had contributed to the world of music. He was never an artist, nor a producer, and certainly not an industry exec, but an erstwhile inventor, and at core — a teacher. That desire and passion to bring music to people was the fuel behind his inventive drive and the blueprint that helped create one of the most important instruments that popular music has seen in the last fifty years. We’re talking of course of Rhodes’ electric piano.

That sound. Even if you’ve never played a Fender Rhodes electric piano, never seen one, never even knew about it, you’ve heard that sound.

If the Steinway Grand defined Ken Burns’ jazz era up until the 1960s, then the Fender Rhodes transformed the sound of modern jazz from the ’70s onward. People have described that sound as everything from tubular bells dunked underwater to the bastard child of a piano and guitar, but whatever words you choose, there’s no denying how far the warm, resonant tone of the Rhodes has suffused popular music as we know it.

An entire generation of jazz pianists — too hot to be cool, too young to be bop — came into their own with this clunky contraption that voiced a funky feeling. And even after the Rhodes fell out of favor with the coming of the synthesized ’80s, its sweet, ethereal song arose again as appreciative hip hop producers curried the instrument’s forgotten flavor from the 1990s onward. All this the result of an unassuming music teacher whose love for the piano was so great, he ended up revolutionizing it.

Born and raised in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles, Harold B. Rhodes was a piano teacher by profession, never intending to get into the invention business. “He was always a teacher first and a designer second and the second part took over the first part,” recalls Steve Woodyard, former head engineer of the Rhodes. “He always thought that was kind of funny.”

What led Rhodes to design his groundbreaking keyboard was the proverbial mother of innovation — necessity. During WWII, Rhodes worked in the Army Air Corps as a music teacher but found it impossible to travel with an instrument as heavy and bulky as a conventional piano. Then, in 1942, he rigged up a small, portable piano from aluminum tubing taken off a B-17 bomber. Though its clear, bell-like tone was closer to a xylophone than piano, its light weight made it an ideal student keyboard that Rhodes could take to different hospitals and VA centers.

After the war, Rhodes started his own music company, hawking his non-electric Army Air Corps Piano and later Pre-Piano (the first “electric” Rhodes). Into the late ’50s, he made a key partnership with guitar mogul Leo Fender which led to the creation of the first mass produced Rhodes keyboard, the Piano Bass, designed to replicate the lower 32 notes in the bass register.

The Fender-Rhodes line was still underutilized within musician circles but when CBS Instruments bought out Fender’s company in 1965, the company helped release what would become the model for the modern Rhodes electric keyboard — the Suitcase Piano. Sporting 73-keys (in 1970, they’d debut the even more popular Rhodes Stage Piano, an 88-key monster), the Suitcase was so-named because it folded into its own carrying case, making it desirable to musicians for whom sporting a baby grand just wasn’t so feasible.

The keyboard still worked on the same basic principles that Rhodes had begun with during WWII, including the heavy hammer-action of the keys designed to replicate a conventional piano. But instead of striking strings, the Rhodes keyboards hammered metal tubing that was then amplified internally. This simple combination, combined with an impressive range of adjustable settings, is at the heart of the Rhodes’ inimitable sound. Says Woodyward, who worked with Harold B. to continually improve the instrument’s mechanics — “that’s the wonderful sound — [like] somebody’s coming around with a pair of mallets and hitting tubular bells. When you listen to that sound on a record and it’s done really well, it’s beautiful.”

By all accounts, Harold B. was a consummate craftsman, modest in his personality, but magnanimous in his work ethic. There was rarely a point where he stopped working on his invention and each new generation of Rhodes, up until the last of the keyboard line in the mid ’80s, featured improvements and changes made from the last. The impetus behind this continual tinkering was, surprisingly, Harold B’s own dissatisfaction with the keyboard’s acoustics. “Actually, Harold was never really enamored with the sound of the instrument,” says Woodyard. “Harold’s goal was to make an acoustic piano so he wanted the harmonic content of the richness of the strings, he wanted the feel of it. It was part of his never-ending quest.” (Despite his obsessive ethic — or perhaps because of it — Rhodes was also known as quite the “absent-minded professor”. Woodyard recalls, “He had a habit of concentrating so heavily on what he was doing that he’d forget everything else and that included leaving his car at the airport and taking a taxi home after he’d gone on a trip.”)

In spite of all his work and effort, Rhodes’ electric piano was far from an initial hit, virtually unknown in many circles all through most of the 60s. But by the end of the decade, the signs of a sea-change would begin to crest and by the 70s, the Rhodes piano rolled like the tide over the music world.

Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul on the Rhodes

Most would credit Miles Davis’ landmark “Bitches Brew” for opening the jazz era to the Rhodes’ round song. Indeed, this electric opus afforded pianists Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul a chance to plug in and upstage convention. The trio neglected the Wurlitzer electric piano that came before — the short keyboard offered neither the range nor the sonic possibilities that its better equipped successor did. But the Rhodes had already started to creep into the jazz consciousness as early as 1964 when Zawinul began playing the keyboard with the “Cannonball” Adderley Quartet; he crafted the smash “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” around an understated electric vibe in 1966.

Joe Zawinul on the Rhodes

At the same time in New York City, pianists like HAIR composer Galt MacDermot were recording fusions of jazz improvisation, a funk backbeat and Harold Rhodes softly-singing keyboard. “For certain types of songs the Rhodes is perfect, it has a vocal quality to it,” offers MacDermot, who played the piano in HAIR’s pit band on Broadway. “And the Rhodes was tough enough to stand up to the punchy music we were playing.” HAIR’s “Easy To Be Hard,” and the droning “Field of Sorrow” from MacDermot’s Shapes of Rhythm LP (1966), benefitted from the Rhodes’ voicing.

Galt on the Rhodes (natch)

The Rhodes’ versatility and funky phrasing made it strong competition against the Hammond B-3 organ in the emerging soul-jazz scenes of the 1970s. However, the B3, popularized by the likes of Jack McDuff and Jimmy McGriff, couldn’t sing like the Rhodes did. The B3 shouted with the intensity of a church choir, or growled a mean blues, but the Rhodes could croon a sweet, ethereal song or chase a rolling bass line as quickly as its hammers could strike their metal tines. Weldon Irvine, known to plug away on a B3 in his time, adopted the Rhodes shortly after his stint as Nina Simone’s musical director in the late 1960s — the Rhodes figures prominently into his six solo efforts on Nodlew, Strata East and RCA. “I liked the thickness of the texture,” Irvine opines, referring again to that elusive sound. “It blended nicely with other instruments as well. If you were in an all electric context, the Rhodes had a distinct sound and was compatible.”

George Cables on the Rhodes

“For a lot of us, that became the sound of it — that was the specific thing that allowed us to break out of habits,” reflects Bob James whose Rhodes work on CTI and KUDU is considered landmark within the soul-jazz movement. “The impact was so strong it branched over into pianist like Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson and a number of traditional jazz pianists that would use it in order to come up with a more contemporary sound.” The nimble fingered composer of “Nautilus” and the carefree “Take Me To The Mardi Gras” actually appreciated the Rhodes’ percussive non-response. “Sometimes it was frustrating, because the unpredictability of it prevented you from being perfect, “ James states. “But for a certain kind of rhythmic music… (It was like) nothing we had heard before and it was fun.”

Jazz artists were far from the only musicians to take advantage of the Rhodes — you can find it in the pretzel logic of Steely Dan, Earth, Wind and Fire’s spirit and Stevie Wonder’s innervisions. Dig a bit deeper and hear the Rhodes reverberate on Timothy McNeally’s deep funk classic “Sagittarius Black,” and on the Kashmere Stage Band’s “Kash Register” — as well as on their monstrous cover of “Scorpio.” And wasn’t that a Rhodes on JB’s psychedelic Sho’ Is Funky Down Here venture? MacDermot, himself a jazzer at heart, argues that the Rhodes greatest effect wasn’t on jazz, but on the funkier side of the musical spectrum. “I wasn’t too aware of the Rhodes in jazz. In comparison to the piano. It meant nothing in jazz,” MacDermot states. “But it meant something in a soulful type of music. My taste in jazz was falling off by the time I started using a Rhodes.”

Besides charmed music audiences, Harold B. was also a major fan of the musicians who played his invention. For his biggest clients, like Hancock or Corea, Rhodes was known to make emergency house calls to venues to help fix an ailing model, even driving up from L.A. to Seattle one-time (a minimum 20-hour trip) just to help repair a broken keyboard. Says Woodyard, “I used to tell people that whenever they bought a Rhodes piano, there was always two owners. They bought it, but Harold always thought he owned them and always wanted every single one to play the best they could.” Capitol Records producer David Axelrod, Adderley’s right-hand man throughout his 60s sessions, concurs. “Once, Cannon’s piano was on the fritz. I walked into the room and there was this old dude working on it. I said to Cannon, ‘Who’s that?’ ” Axelrod remembers. “He said, ‘Oh, that’s [Harold B.] Rhodes.’ That blew my mind.”

George Duke on the Rhodes

By the 1980s, the Rhodes had literally played itself out as keyboardists began turning away from the piano towards newly emerging synthesizers. 1985 marked the last year a Rhodes electric keyboard rolled out of the factory and from there on out, synthesizers were digitally programmed to replicate the Rhodes tones but no acoustic keyboards existed. While some jazz groups continued to keep the instrument around, its rich, flannel tones fell silent until the late ’80s when hip-hop helped fuel its resurgence. Weldon Irvine remembers when he first heard Boogie Down Productions sample him, playing the Rhodes, on “My Philosophy” from the 1988 album, By All Means Necessary: “I was first in line, bought the tape, put it in my tape deck and stopped. I said, that’s my keyboard in there! [KRS-One] and Scott La Rock had sampled “Sister Sanctified,” which is a joint I wrote for Stanley Turrentine’s [Cherry LP]. It rocked my world.”

Bob James on the Rhodes

In retrospect, it might seem surprising that the Rhodes didn’t come into play earlier, nor was it extensively used immediately following BDP’s initial tap. However, at the height of hip-hop’s so-called Golden Era, James Brown and then the P-funk reigned dominant, neither a particularly thick with Rhodes use. And even when groups like Digable Planets started to raid jazz catalogs, they were largely lifting from pre-fusion era, Blue Note albums, most of which were released too early to include the Rhodes. You can find faint Rhodes samples on songs like DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince’s “Touch of Jazz” but it took a Tribe Called Quest to bring the Rhodes full force into hip-hop.

Once again, Weldon Irvine was the source — elements from his “We Gettin’ Down” becoming the foundation for “Award Tour”. Moreover, the album the song came from, Tribe’s 1993 Midnight Marauders LP was the first hip-hop albums to extensively utilize Rhodes samples. From there everyone from The Roots, to Gang Starr, to D’Angelo have used the Rhodes to achieve a fresh sound by going retro.

D’Angelo on the Rhodes

DJ Khalil, producer for L.A.’s Self Scientific, is a recent convert himself, having purchased two vintage Rhodes models. He was turned onto the instrument not only by peers like A Tribe Called Quest, but also because so much of the older jazz and funk he samples seemed to feature the Rhodes. “All that funk stuff had Rhodes in it,” observes Khalil. “I think that’s why hip-hop producers are attached to that sound — everything that we sample, it had a Rhodes in it.”

Irvine concurs, “There was an affinity for the [funk] practitioners in the ’70s for the Rhodes that made that their instrument of choice. So now, that affinity just crosses over into the next idiom because producers will play a sample on four different keyboards and say, forget the acoustic, forget the B3, forget the Wurlitzer, gimme that Rhodes sound.”

Madlib, one third of The Lootpack and alter-ego (or is it the other way around?) of helium-voiced Quasimoto, recently embarked on a journey to move beyond sampling the Rhodes. “My pops played me Donny Hathaway and I was tripping off the Rhodes on “Everything is Everything, ” Madlib remembers. “I was 11 or 12. I never thought I’d play any of that instrument.”

Yet nearly 15 years later, Madlib now says, “I play it cause I want to try something different. I don’t want to be limited to hip hop. I chose the Rhodes above a Wurlitzer, Clavinet to try first cause that’s mainly what I sampled on my old beat tapes. It’s what I always wanted. My moms had an acoustic piano, but I never really messed with it. The sound of it for me, that’s basically it. There ain’t no other piano that sounds like it. It’s how Harold made it. I like the Wurlitzer too, but the Rhodes is the leader to me.”

Joe McDuphrey on the Rhodes

For producers like Madlib, Khalil and others, the keyboard’s allure is just as strong as its always been: “It doesn’t remind me a piano,” says Khalil. “It just sounds like a cross between a piano or a guitar and a harp but it takes the smooth characteristics from each instruments. It’s so smooth but full and it can also be aggressive. You can play it for any kind of music and it will fit.”

Harold B. Rhodes died 12/17/00 at the age of 89. Before he was felled by a stroke in 1996, the plan was always to bring the Rhodes electric keyboard back into production in all its analog glory. Currently, several companies are vying to bring a Rhodes-like piano back into play though an ongoing lawsuit over the Rhodes trademark is stalling production. However, even in a day where digital rules, it’s not unlikely that some day, very soon, the wash of a new Rhodes piano will soon return to cloak us all in the warmth and character of that sound which has become so much a part of our everyday aural experience.

Oliver Wang

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