World War II may have given us the atom bomb, but it also contributed what RayCharles would call “an atom bomb on the musical landscape.”
Charles would call “an atom bomb on the musical landscape.”
Predating synths like the Moog, the Rhodes piano was the great keyboard instrument innovation of the twentieth century. Its history is intertwined with the history of jazz, and while jazz keyboard began on a borrowed European invention, the Rhodes was the first keyboard instrument jazz could call its own.
Harold Rhodes got his start as one of the first jazz theorists and teachers, instructing the likes of Lana Turner and Harpo Marx and hosting his own nationwide instructional radio show. But the basic idea for the Rhodes piano was born when an Army doctor asked Rhodes to soothe bedridden wounded soldiers by teaching them piano. Recycling airplane parts from B-17 bombers into handmade, laptop keyboards, Rhodes first employed the xylophone keys that would later ring inside his signature piano.
After the war, Rhodes worked on mass-manufacturing his pianos, and added the elements that give the Rhodes—and countless jazz records—their sound. The basic innovation was to solve the problem of tuning by turning the entire sound-making mechanism into a tuning fork. As with a conventional piano, the Rhodes has strings struck by hammers. In the Rhodes, these strings are steel wires called “tines,” tuned by coil spring. Harold Rhodes added a resonating tone bar behind each string. The combination of the string and bar acts like the two bars of a tuning fork. As with the electric guitar, the electronic amplification of the Rhodes piano gave it the gift of loudness and the timbre-shaping power of effects, changing music forever.
Ironically, it was jazz’s great trumpet player Miles Davis who may have had the deepest impact on the instrument. He insisted his musicians adopt the Rhodes and leave behind the history of the acoustic piano. Miles got Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea playing electric piano on his sessions. On the 1969 recording sessions for Bitches Brew, as many as three Rhodes pianos blend into new and distorted timbres, helmed by Chick Corea, Larry Young, and “Pharaoh’s Dance” composer and Rhodes innovator Joe Zawinul. The same year, the Beatles got an aggressive Rhodes injection from soul musician Billy Preston as they recorded “Get Back.” By 1973, the sound of the Rhodes found its way into the pages of Down Beat magazine, quite literally, on a four-song demo album by Herbie Hancock included with the magazine. From Stevie Wonder to Radiohead, countless artists have become Rhodes players.
Harold Rhodes died before he could finish his successor to the Rhodes, but he did rescue the trademark from Roland, clearing the way for a new, more modern Rhodes (rhodespiano.com). Software synth renditions face the challenge of an organic, electro-acoustic instrument. Some use recorded samples (Native Instruments’ Elektrik Piano), some physical models (Ableton’s Electric); Digidesign’s Velvet uses a combination of the two. But perhaps Harold Rhodes’s spirit is most alive in the renewed interest in the DIY instrument building he first tried to teach.