The Rhodes piano (also known as the Fender Rhodes piano or simply Fender Rhodes or Rhodes) is an electric piano invented by Harold Rhodes, which became particularly popular throughout the 1970s. Like a piano, it generates sound using keys and hammers, but instead of strings, the hammers strike thin metal tines, which are then amplified via an electromagnetic pickup which is plugged into an external keyboard amplifier and speaker.
The instrument evolved from Rhodes' attempt to manufacture pianos to teach recovering soldiers during World War II under a strict budget, and development continued throughout the 1940s and 1950s. Fender started marketing the Piano Bass, a cut-down version of the piano, but the full-size instrument did not appear until after the sale to CBS in 1965. CBS oversaw mass production of the Rhodes piano in the 1970s, and it was used extensively through the decade, particularly in jazz, pop, and soul music. It fell out of fashion for a while in the mid-1980s, principally due to the emergence of polyphonic and later digital synthesizers, especially the Yamaha DX7, and partly through inconsistent quality control in production due to cost-cutting measures. The company was eventually sold to Roland, which manufactured digital versions of the Rhodes without authorization or approval from its inventor.
In the 1990s, the instrument enjoyed a resurgence in popularity, resulting in Rhodes re-obtaining the rights to the piano in 1997. Although Harold Rhodes died in 2000, the instrument has since been reissued, and his teaching methods are still in use.
The Rhodes piano features a keyboard with a similar layout to a traditional acoustic piano, but some models contain 73 keys instead of 88. The touch and action of the keyboard is designed to be as close to a piano as possible. Pressing a key results in a hammer striking a thin metal rod called a tine connected to a larger "tone bar". The whole "tone generator assembly" acts as a tuning fork, the tone bar reinforcing and extending the vibrations of the tine. A pickup sits opposite the tine, picking up its vibrations and inducing an electric current in a similar manner to an electric guitar. The basic mechanical act of hitting tines does not need an external power supply, and a Rhodes will make sound even when not plugged into an amplifier, though like an unplugged electric guitar the sound will be weak.
The Suitcase model Rhodes includes a built-in power amplifier and a tremolo feature that bounces the output signal from the piano in stereo across two speakers. This feature is mistakenly labeled "vibrato" (which is a variation in pitch) on some models to be consistent with the labeling on Fender amplifiers.
Although the Rhodes has the same mechanical operation as a piano, its sound is very different. The sound produced by the tines has a mellower timbre, but varies depending on the location of the tine relative to the pickup. Putting the two close together gives a characteristic "bell" sound. The instrument's sound has been frequently compared with the Wurlitzer electric piano, which uses a similar technology, but with the hammers striking metal reeds. The Rhodes has a better sustain, while the Wurlitzer produces significant harmonics when the keys are played hard, giving it a "bite" the Rhodes does not have.