updated: 01 Nov 2005
The Rhodes Piano
Pretty early on in my search for cool keyboard, I hit upon an instrument which was great value, and was a blast to play.
This instrument, of course, is the venerable Rhodes piano. At the time I has basically
no money, but I wanted something with a little bit of soul. The Rhodes has big hairly
gobs of soul. Mine was a funky old Rhodes Stage 73 piano. I bought it out of
the paper and I think I paid $150 for it. It turned out to be a great choice. They're heavy,
but they're cheap and plentiful, and it's a very responsive, fun instrument to play. They
seem to be back in vogue, but even still I see them in the paper for $200-$400. I played mine
through a Sunn bass amp, and it sounded really great the two or three times I was able to
play it through a friend's Fender Twin.
A few years later I was short on cash and ended up selling my Rhodes, but about eight years ago
I bought another one just like it. I also managed to find an old Stewart pre-amp, which is a little
op-amp board powered by a 9v battery. It boosts the signal and gives you some EQ control. Stewart
Electronics is now a big, proper, company, with a big, proper product line. I talked to one of
the founders of the company at NAMM many years ago, and asked him about the Rhodes piano preamp.
He gave kind of a boy-those-were-the-days chuckle, and said that the Rhodes preamp was their
very first product. This humble little device gives the Rhodes an amazingly clear bell-like sound
if you want, or it can get all burly and fat.
MIDI for the Rhodes
MIDI for the RhodesYes, you can add MIDI to your Rhodes. Many years ago, from about 1990-1995, I wrote embedded software for Gulbransen. Among other things, Gulbransen made retrofit MIDI controllers for acoustic pianos. Over the years, pieces of Gulbransen have been sold off to various different companies, but very recently (as of April 2003) there are some interesting new developments with the MIDI strip business; namely that the inventor of the optical MIDI strip has bought that business from Gulbransen. The new company is called Midi9 because the old Gulbransen SysEx ID was 9 (number nine, number nine, number nine...) It seems their first official act was to lower the price of the MIDI products. In particular, the lowest price product (KS-1) now supports the 61 and 73 note strip, great news for Rhodes 73 owners. (Previously, if you were looking to MIDI 73 keys, you had to pay top whack for the top-of-the-line KS-20 controller).
You need backchecks. The action on a Rhodes is, well, funky. One of the places Harold Rhodes saved money was in in the escapement mechanism. If you take apart your Rhodes (something every Rhodes owner should do), you will see that when you press down on a key, it basically yanks on a weird little strap which causes the hammer to fly up and hit the tine. The problem is that when the hammer falls back down, it yanks on the strap and causes the key to bounce. This isn't much of an issue until you install a sensor strip. The sensor strip uses key motion to detect MIDI events. Having the key bouncing all over the place isn't good. It confuses the control unit and can cause false note triggers. The good news is that backchecks are not all that expensive and are not hard to install, just a little time-consuming. Also, the addition of backchecks will go a long way towards cleaning up any sloppiness the action of your Rhodes might have. I bought mine from a piano repair supply house; sorry it's been so long I've lost the address. They shouldn't be hard to find. Buy ordinary upright piano backchecks. If given a choice for stem length, go with the longer stems. Hopefully the photos and diagram are clear enough. You basically want to mount the backcheck in a location so that when the key is at rest, the backcheck felt rests against the back of the hammer. A drillpress is nice to have, but I made a simple jig to hold the keystick, and I drilled mine by hand using a cordless drill. The backcheck should be positioned in such a way that it supplies enough pressure (friction, really) to catch the hammer after it strikes the tine, but not so much pressure as to make the note harder to play. The exact drilling location isn't super critical because you can easily bend the backcheck stem to adjust the tension.
And that's my rap on the Rhodes piano.
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