The delicate art of reinventing the Rhodes

By in Features





Inside a factory in an unassuming Leeds suburb, a small, passionate team is shaping the future of one of music’s most iconic — and idiosyncratic — instruments.

“It’s a state of mind, a lifestyle, a movement,” says Dan Goldman, in the back room of a workshop on an industrial estate in Meanwood, north-west Leeds. He’s talking about the Rhodes piano, and his enthusiasm is perhaps unsurprising: Goldman has dedicated his career to playing, repairing, and researching one of jazz-funk’s most eccentric instruments.

For the past 15 years, Goldman has been the UK’s leading Rhodes repairer, the go-to person for the notoriously temperamental electro-mechanical instrument.

Eight years on the road with electronic outfit Morcheeba provided plenty of first-hand experience, and saw Goldman getting creative with Rhodes maintenance solutions. “You had to do whatever it took,” he says. “That might be getting a piece of rubber or a pencil eraser, cutting it open, and sticking them on the hammers to keep the piano working.”

Dan Goldman, making tweaks

Now, Goldman and the team in Leeds have embarked on what he describes as the hardest thing he’s ever done: creating the Rhodes MK8, the latest addition to a family of pianos that has sculpted the sound of popular music.

The history of the Rhodes is full of colour and questions. It began with Harold Rhodes, an American piano teacher who joined the US Army Air Corps in 1942 and found himself providing piano lessons for injured servicemen.

Rhodes needed a solution to the mobility issues his students faced when hopping out of bed to sit at the piano. So, he fashioned the world’s first lap piano, the Xylette, out of aluminium tubes he scavenged from a wrecked B-17 bomber. The model sold upwards of 125,000 units and attracted attention from instrument makers across America.

After deciding to give production a go himself — debuting the 38-key Rhodes Pre-Piano in 1946 — Rhodes later entered a partnership with Leo Fender (of Telecaster fame), to produce the Fender Rhodes Piano Bass. The Piano Bass offered an alternative to the traditional electric bass and most notably found favour with The Doors’ Ray Manzarek, who would popularise a later version of the instrument with his trickling intro to ‘Riders on the Storm’.

Dan Goldman has been the UK’s leading Rhodes repairer for the past 15 years

Fender was bought out by CBS in 1965, but the name remained and the Fender Rhodes Mark 1 arrived that same year. The addition of electric pickups meant the Rhodes became a hotbed of musical experimentation, with pedals, modulators and the sonic fine-tuning of the insides of the instrument beginning in earnest.

This is where Goldman’s history with the instrument began. As a child, he studied classical piano, later enrolling on the jazz course at Leeds College of Music in the late-90s. “I’d always known the Rhodes sounds, but I didn’t know it all came from the Rhodes,” he says. “I knew as soon as that sound entered my psyche that I just wanted to own one, and find one.” Goldman eventually earned the nickname ‘Funky Dan’ due to being the only student willing to lug a Hohner clavinet or one of his early Rhodes models into college for jams and practice.

Goldman at his piano

Getting hip to the Rhodes took Goldman through Patrice Rushen, Bob James, Ramsey Lewis and Weather Report’s Joe Zawinul, whilst Jamiroquai’s Toby Smith showed there was still a commercial possibility for the instrument. But at the centre of Goldman’s universe was Herbie Hancock, and his classic Rhodes recordings — from Mwandishi and Crossings through the Columbia Records classics Head Hunters and Thrust, to the more commercially oriented later records Secrets and Sunlight. “The Rhodes was his voice on those records. For me, he was the epitome of Rhodes.”

Read more: The story of Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters in 10 records

Part of the instrument’s draw is its fallibility. Famously, or perhaps infamously, every Rhodes is different: some freakishly responsive, some with keys that stick like glue, and all with uneven registers, darker corners, and sweet spots.

“It has a strong musical voice,” says Goldman. “Even if it was a bit of a beaten-up piano, you always play to its strengths, or incorporate the weaknesses into your playing.”

Piano technician Olly Harvey-Ball goes under the hood

Digital sample technology, popularised by Roland’s early machines, hasn’t ever really been able to replicate the nuances of the Rhodes’ electromechanical origins. “If you sample one instrument, it’s a snapshot. But most of the software I had just doesn’t give you the same amount of control,” says Goldman. “Here, if you take the lid off the piano you can really shape the sound.”

Part of that was in Harold Rhodes’ original masterplan. As well as being an inventor, Rhodes was a keen pedagogue, marketing his Rhodes Piano Method well into his 80s. His philosophy was that students should not only learn how to play the piano, but how music is constructed, how to play by ear, how to improvise, and, crucially, to develop a strong relationship with their instrument — something it’s impossible not to do with the Rhodes.

Electronics engineer James Evans brings an exacting approach

Goldman subscribed to Rhodes’ original philosophy, seeing the instrument as an essential part of his musical expression, and even an extension of himself. So when the call came from Rhodes’ head office, he jumped at the chance to work on the MK8, and was keen to see the instrument become a tool in the arsenal of today’s musicians, rather than just a collector’s item.

The early signs are good, with the list of interested parties growing everyday: Bill Laurance, Mike Lindup from Level 42, Robert Glasper, Lettuce’s Nigel Hall, one for Yard Act at the Mercury Awards, one for London’s Ronnie Scott’s jazz club…

What’s new with the instrument? Well, pretty much everything.

The first thing you notice is the feel of the keybed, supplied by German brand Kluge, who work closely with piano makers Steinway. Where many older Rhodes feel like squelching through treacle, there’s a lightness of touch here.

Elsewhere, despite the classic exterior, every part has been redesigned, made by suppliers all within an hour’s drive of the base. “Everyone asked the same question. I thought it was an American brand?” says Goldman. In fact, all of the assembly takes place in this unassuming Leeds suburb.

Piano technician Freya Rhodes, screwdriver in hand

Goldman’s way of linking tradition with the present involves bringing the digital and analogue worlds closer together on one console — something that’s never properly happened with the Rhodes previously. This approach provides the main cosmetic and technological change, namely an extensive preamp panel on the front-left of the instrument.

While still using a completely analogue signal path, and adding some standard features — an EQ section with a high, low, and mid-range resonant filter, for example — it’s in Goldman’s own, personal touches where the most innovations occur. A range of sound envelopes on top of the existing preamps give it a malleable, tactile sound, which can be adapted further still with foot pedals. There’s a special FX model on the way, complete with an analogue compressor, chorus, phaser and delay, designed in collaboration with Cyril Lance, Moog’s chief technology officer.

Control is the key with these changes, and the additions make it a wildly adaptable instrument. Gone are the days of the synth on top, Rhodes down below setup: this new flexibility puts it in the same league as most top-end synthesisers. And though the additions push the price up — starting at £7,795, rising to £8,920 with the optional extras — as Goldman points out, it’s not too far off what you’d spend on a good second-hand instrument.

The Rhodes MK8 includes a wealth of new features

With a 21st century instrument comes the experience of musicians who have lived the Rhodes lifestyle, and know its drawbacks as well as its advantages.

The MK8 weighs in 25lbs lighter than the previous Rhodes, meaning owners will avoid the same fate as Robert Glasper, who used to wheel his instrument around New York in an old milk crate, or Goldman, lugging his Rhodes around college and later around the international gig circuit.

“It’s as light as you can get it without fundamentally changing the sound,” Goldman says, a statement that summarises his knowledgeable approach to selecting the best bits from the instrument’s past, and updating them for the present so it can prosper into the future.

“We’re trying to bring the Rhodes back,” he concludes. “Not just as an instrument, but as a movement, and as something that becomes part of your life.”

Photography courtesy of Rhodes and Leeds Conservatoire