Its sounds are familiar to keyboard enthusiasts and casual music fans alike. Even if you don’t know the name, chances are you’ve felt the vibe- the sweet, warm tone of the Fender Rhodes. Invented by Harold Rhodes in 1942, the instrument was first made for injured World War II soldiers who wanted to play lying in hospital beds. Similar to an acoustic piano, the keyboard contains touch-sensitive hammers, but instead of hitting steel cables, these hammers strike small metal tines amplified by guitar-like pickups. The sound can be further amplified through other devices to alter its sound, creating timbres ranging from a warm glow to a gritty edge. Originally constructing the keyboards with hydraulic aluminium pipes from B-17 bomber aircraft, Harold Rhodes started the Rhodes Piano Corporation after leaving the service. After some lucrative offers, he sold his company to famed guitar manufacturer Fender (which was later acquired by CBS) and the device made his way into the mainstream instrument market.
While the keyboard existed in several iterations before the 70s, its major breakthrough came with the advent of the Rhodes Mark 1, first manufactured in ‘69. Catching on like wildfire, the instrument quickly infiltrated jazz, funk, R&B and soul circles in the 70s, with champions including Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, Steely Dan, and Chick Corea. The keyboard continued to see modifications and upgrades throughout the years, but most consider its the classic 70s models peerless. Today they’re hard to find and coveted by serious keyboards around the world. Mach of the classic music made in the 70s was anchored by the keyboard born on hospital beds, and for anyone exploring the instrument, that decade is definitely the place to start.
With that, we present 10 Fender Rhodes Songs You Need to Hear, one for each year of the instrument’s heyday.
Michael Naura – Soledad de Murcia, from Call (1970)
After making his rounds as a sideman in Berlin, German pianist Michael Naura headed a celebrated combo of his own and released this gem. The record was released on Germany’s MPS Records, (“Musik Produktion Schwarzwald”, or “Music Production Black Forest”), which became a hub for American, European, and Japanese jazz and funk artists, many of whom prominently featured Rhodes into their sound.
Bora Rokovic – Soft Hands Had the Rain, from Ultra Native (1971)
This Yugoslavian composer and arranger found success in Germany after transitioning from classical to jazz. Here, he applies a soft touch to a tune from his out of print 1971 masterpiece. Another MPS release, this tune adds a moody and mellow vibe for a lazy afternoon.
Herbie Hancock – Quasar, from Crossings (1972)
Herbie’s album Crossings showcases the master pianist at his most experimental. Recording the album with what began as a six piece band, Herbie decided to augment the group with synthesizer mastermind Dr. Patrick Gleeson after hearing him play a Moog during session setup. As a sextet, the band laid down some otherworldly grooves incorporated instruments new and old.
Smoke – Shelda, from Everything (1973)
Smoke shows us why vibraphones and Rhodes are a match made in heaven on their album Everything, a project that also features organ, bass guitar, bass violin, drums, congas, harp, sax and bass clarinet. This downtempo, psychedelic tune almost sounds like nag champa wafting through the air.
Ahmad Jamal – Theme from M*A*S*H, from Jamalca (1974)
Known to most as “Suicide Is Painless”, this cover originally served as the theme for the dark comedy TV show and film franchise. This tune is from Jamalca, a treasure trove for hip-hop crate diggers that was recorded as Jamal transitioned from straight-ahead jazz into funk. After pulsating percussion and rubbery bass set the tune off, tender chords warm things up in a major way. Blistering arpeggio runs are accompanied by 70s strings that give the downbeat jazz funk interpretation a cinematic feel.
Bob James – You’re as Right as Rain, from Two (1975)
No Rhodes retrospective would be complete without the inclusion of keyboardist, arranger and producer extraordinaire Bob James. Widely known for crafting breakbeat goldmines such as Nautilus and Take Me to Mardi Gras, he’s cashed many a royalty check in the last 30 years. This tune exemplifies his signature style- lush strings, rhythm guitar, and other tasteful accents add rich texture to his lead keys.
George Duke – Liberated Fantasies, from Liberated Fantasies (1976)
Keyboard guru George Duke released a string of albums in the 70s that brought jazz funk and fusion to new heights. With an increasingly R&B-friendly sound, Duke maintained his jazz cred by injecting danceable grooves with indisputable technical prowess. Also incorporating the rhythms of Brazil (a frequent theme for Duke), this track exemplifies his unique blend of forward-thinking, synth-led jazz that bridged the gap between the 70s and 80s.
Tarika Blue – Dreamflower, from Tarika Blue (1977)
Any E. Badu fan will immediately recognize this haunting groove, famously interpolated by Dilla on Soulquarian staple “Didn’t Cha Know”. With New York session player Phil Clendeninn at the helm, Tarika Blue married traditional jazz sensibilities with the mysticism and vibes of the musical age of Aquarius.
Weather Report – Young and Fine, from Mr. Gone (1978)
This “buttery” sample will ring bells for any Tribe fan. With keyboard and synth master Joe Zawinul helping lead the way, fusion icons Weather Report were on the vanguard of experimental jazz in the 70s and early 80s. Zawinul was a champion of Fender’s trademark keyboard himself, manning a modified Rhodes 88 on much of their eighth studio LP. While this record wasn’t received too warmly in its day, it’s gone on to inspire a generation of band geeks who are still challenged by its demanding compositions.
Roy Ayers – Love Will Bring us Back Together, from Fever (1979)
On this standout opening track from Fever, Roy Ayers leaves the vibraphone mallets aside for turns on the Rhodes and Clavinet. While the keyboard has been used for headier projects over the years, this dance floor boogie has the Rhodes’ tines sounding right at home in the disco.
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Written by @BrotherHayling