Fender Rhodes 1967 "SilverTop" "SparkleTop" Electric Suitcase Piano

1960s badge
Before Restoration
Harp assembly
badge before fender-rhodes-sparkletop-harp-pic

After Restoration

In action!
in action
Last Update 04/07/2012

Personal Experiences
Sparkletop Foibles
Key feature of a good piano
The fabled "Model E"
Safe Buying Tips
What amp?

Harold Rhodes may have invented the Rhodes piano but inventors can't stop tinkering with their product.  These pianos had so many variations during their production years of 1965 to 1985 that you need a scorecard to keep track.  Harold joined forces with Leo Fender in the late 1950s to market his pianos.  Many an internet poster has made the request "what is the best rhodes to buy"?  Unfortunately there is no single correct answer because:

Harold was changing his design as he was trying to make them lighter, more production-friendly, and more durable for touring.  Pick up a 1960s Rhodes with the wood case and then pick up the final 1985 Mark V with the polymer case, and you'll be shocked at the weight difference.  He was also trying to improve the durability of the tines - the last generation Schagler were the most durable although that had more of a bell tone than the thick tone of the 1970s Torringtons associated with funk and fusion.  Most recorded Rhodes were the early 1960s pianos with Raymac tines .  There is an even earlier pre-1965 tine design where the tine and tone resonator were one integrated design, but it was very crude and poor sounding and broken tines were difficult to replace in the field.  These tines were simply piano wire and broke easy.  These were the "pre-CBS" rhodes - Leo Fender liked the 32 note bass piano but he disliked the upper keys on the full piano and wouldn't allow it to go into production.  There are so few of these bass pianos around that you are unlikely to locate spare tines.  Prototype 73 key or 61 key pianos did get made (easy to identify with the knobs on the "campbell tomato soup colored" harp cover instead of the name rail) but no confirmed example(s) has surfaced anywhere.  Only when CBS acquired the Fender company in 1965 did Harold get his opportunity to improve his pianos and finally get them in production.

The unofficial variations were known as sparkletop (or silvertop), Mark I, Mark II, and Mark V.  "Sparkletops" (and student pianos for music schools) were made from 1965 to 1969.  "Sparkletop" gets its name from the harp cover finished with silver reflective sparkles under a shellac layer.  Bass pianos continued to sport the silver harp cover through 1975 but were discontinued before 1980.  The "sparkletop" ushered in the "suitcase" format with the top piano assembly sitting on a matching bottom cabinet that enclosed an amplifier and speakers.  The "stage" pianos were introduced in 1970 sans bottom cabinet and amp/speakers, aimed at the gigging musician who didn't want to haul the cumbersome suitcase format from club to club.  In the same year the 88 key format joined the popular 73 key format.  The Mark I and Mark II span 1970 to 1983, with the latter changing the harp cover to a flat design to accommodate stacking keyboards.  A 54 key Mark II (stage format only) was also offered - essentially a modern day "Celeste" in production form.  There was a Mark III "EK-10" that attempted to marry the Rhodes with electronic tone shaping, but it was poorly designed and extremely unreliable.  The Mark IV was a radical redesign that never got beyond the prototype stage.  The Mark V was the final model and was only produced as a 73 key stage piano.  The Mark V was the peak of Rhodes design as the action and sound was optimal and the wood case was replaced with the much lighter polymer case.  Three Mark V pianos were fitted with MIDI.  One 88 key Mark V was made, but the mold for the polymer harp cover did not survive the first casting and they never made another one (this single specimen is now in the possession of Stevie Wonder).   Mark Vs were produced for only one year (1984) before CBS discontinued the Rhodes line and sold the Fender company.

Mark I suitcase pianos used the Peterson preamp/poweramp design (identified with three knobs on the namerail), with the Mark II continuing the same preamp until 1977 when the Haigler preamp/poweramp (identified with slidepots on the namerail) was implemented.  The sparkletop used a Jordan design preamp/poweramp (three knobs on the namerail) although later sparkletops introduced the Peterson system (earliest known specimen is 1968).  None of the preamps are interchangeable with the other poweramps without an adapter.  Stage pianos did not have these preamps/poweramps, although Rhodes did offer a retrofit that installed the preamp on a stage piano to be used with remote speakers like the Satellite (Peterson) or the Janus (Haigler).

The Peterson is the favored design as it introduced stereo tremolo with 80 watt power output and is the "classic" sound associated with many recordings.  Haigler systems was a different preamp which added an LED to illuminate the rate of tremolo and boosted the power output to 100 watts stereo.  Both Peterson or Haigler sound fine.  The Jordan system is mono tremolo and only 50 watts.  The Jordan system had two problems.  One, the power amp uses matched PNP germanium power transistors that have not been made for decades.  The germanium low-level PNP transistors of the 1960s were unreliable as they often self-destructed when they broke down - the yield of the substrate manufacture back in those days were pretty low and it was a parameter they couldn't control.  I don't even want to imagine power transistors!  NPN silicon has succeeded PNP germanium as superior but they are not interchangeable.  Two, the 1/4" TRS connection between top and bottom cases is prone to failure - the "ring" carries the power rail that powers the preamp and is vulnerable to shorting to ground "sleeve" if connections are made with power turned on.  The cable should be connected with the power OFF.

An excellent comprehensive resource is the Fender Rhodes historical supersite.  This website has lots of great information - history, soundclips, repair tips, schematics, and links to parts sources and restoration services.  There is a wonderful Rhodes piano documentary that was recently made available.

Following the dissolution of Fender Rhodes/CBS, the Rhodes trademark was sold to Roland of Japan.  Harold stayed on to advise Roland.  Roland had no intention of manufacturing mechanical pianos and they simply badged several of their digital pianos with the Rhodes name.  These keyboards bore zero resemblance to their heritage and Harold was so disgusted that he sought to get his namesake trademark back.  Harold did get his trademark back and set out to re-issue the electric piano, but he soon succumbed to Alzheimers and died of pneumonia in 2000.

Another confusing use of the Rhodes name was the Rhode Chroma and Chroma Polaris synthesizers from 1982  to 1985.  These were not electric pianos, they were synthesizers that were originally ARP products whose manufacture and trademark rights were acquired by CBS after the liquidation of ARP.  There were also Rhodes electronic pianos that were also re-badged ARP products that bear no resemblance to Harold's tine piano.

There is no difference between a piano that carries the "Fender Rhodes" or "Rhodes" badge.  The two reasons for the badge change in 1975 were 1) Leo Fender had little to do with the design and had long ended his association with the Fender company and 2) retailers who signed a contract to sell new Gibson guitars were forbidden to sell new Fender products, so the "Fender" prefix was omitted to get around this thus a store selling Gibson guitars could sell Rhodes pianos without upsetting the corporate marketers at Gibson, who never had a competing piano product like the Rhodes.

My Personal Experiences

Until my recent piano, my experiences with Rhodes pianos were frustrating.

Any piano player having their first exposure to a Rhodes piano must understand is that it is a different instrument from a piano and demands a separate playing technique - most piano songs (classical, ragtime, stride) will not sound right on a Rhodes.  The action of the Rhodes is extremely crude compared to the piano and often will not permit rapid repetitive playing such as trills.  My first Rhodes was a 1972 Fender Rhodes stage 73 piano from 1978 to 1983, a high school gift from my parents and my first electric keyboard.  It was a good sounding piano but the action was soggy and spongy.  The keyset was the wood actuators with hollow keyshells - you could feel the hollow keyshells flex and the keys "wobbled" from side to side.  Two things prompted me to get rid of it - the sound of a Rhodes just will not cut through the distorted guitars in the club band I was working with, and the action was bad enough that my hands hurt after playing on it for a weekend, and they hurt worse when I sat down to play a proper piano!  I replaced it with a Kustom 88 electronic piano which fit the club band much better as it sounded more like a traditional piano and it could cut through the distorted guitars.

Those were the developing days of my youth and I did a lot of experimenting on my Rhodes - particularly optimizing the tines.  But fixing that spongy action was beyond me.  At the time I did not realize that there were ways to fix the action on those Rhodes, nor did I know that there were better keysets.  There was no internet back then.  I knew of no shops that specialized in fixing Rhodes pianos.  By 1984, the Yamaha DX-7 had taken the keyboard market by storm, and its imitation Rhodes preset "FM Piano" prompted many musicians to dump their Rhodes pianos as the DX-7 was much more compact and didn't need tuning.  From 1984 to the 1990s, few people wanted a Rhodes.  Due to the frustration of my old one, I didn't want another Rhodes and I didn't want a DX-7 either.

The one major beef I have with Rhodes pianos is the assemblers didn't take the effort to optimize each piano off the assembly line, thus finding a good Rhodes is extraordinarily difficult.  There are all kinds of adjustments you can make to them to personalize them, and many owners simply didn't take the effort to do this.  Age has not been kind to them as the mechanical parts don't work as well as the day they left the factory - hammer or balance felts that had increased friction (contributing to horrid action), worn hammer tips, hammer joints that stick.  Indeed, buying a used Rhodes - especially sight unseen on ebay - is a great risk.  It is a sure bet that they are going to need some TLC to get them optimal.

The other major beef is many a Rhodes I have sampled in stores had horrid action.  One reason for this was Harold's incessent tinkering - he was always changing the product!  Years after I sold my piano, I encountered a used Rhodes in a store that had good action, and a major revelation occurred when I discovered the keysets were full wood key like a piano, not the hollow keyshells.  Eureka!  There ARE Rhodes pianos with good action out there!  This speciment was a bit expensive as it was a stage piano with matching Satellite speakers and I still was healing those scars from my first Rhodes, so I didn't buy it.

I later learned that there were four types of keysets used in Rhodes pianos - the worst two being the plastic core or the wooden core with hollow keyshells.  The plastic core keysets used in the early 1980s proved to be unreliable as they break with age (and the only replacement is scavenged parts from another piano).  The wooden core/hollow keyshell was the keyset that was in my first Rhodes piano.  Either there were fewer pianos made with the full wood keysets, or owners just don't give them up.  It is easy to differentiate from pictures hollow keyshells from full wood keys if you're ever looking for one.

About thirty years after I got rid of my first Rhodes, I started getting interested in acquiring one.  I had ROMplers and a digital piano with a "Rhodes" preset - while the sound wasn't bad, they were missing the dynamic timbre of the real thing and the tone wasn't optimal for my uses.  "Crossfading" between different Rhodes samples wasn't the same.  It was good enough for gigging, but as I was gravitating towards recording it became obvious that the simulation wasn't good enough.  One basketcase Rhodes landed in my hands from a tech friend of mine - the piano had sat in his shop for a year, the customer had disappeared, and he wanted it out of his shop.  It was the top part of a suitcase and was beaten up from being gigged.  It also had those horrid hollow keyshells.  I had this bright idea to obtain a full wood keyset and swap them out - only to learn that keysets are NOT interchangeable without the companion frame comprising the balance and alignment pins for the keyset.  The case had a hole in the bottom so it wasn't salvageable, I decided it was a "parts piano" IE scavenge the parts to bring a better specimen up to 100% spec.

I was scouring the ebay auctions for a stage model with full wood keys (not hard to discipher with a close up photo of the keys).  I found a good clean specimen, but alas this one had spongy action and some hammers/pickups didn't work.  So full wood keysets are NOT a guarantee for good action.  Then I started looking into changing parts between the pianos, and I learned that the hammer designs had evolved over the years and were NOT interchangeable.

So I gave up on swapping parts between pianos to make a good one.  Since then I became less enthusiastic about Rhodes pianos and wasn't actively looking for one anymore.  For a crapshoot musical instrument, Rhodes pianos are the absolute worse I have encountered.  And unlike guitars, you cannot interchange keys between them.  By then I was getting pretty frustrated with Rhodes pianos.

"Sparkletop" pianos

Now during those years, I had encountered a couple of "sparkletop" Rhodes.  I first saw one in a store in 1985 and didn't know what they were.  It was also during the reign of the DX-7 and no one wanted a Rhodes back then, and I was in my first year in college and couldn't afford it even though it was $150.  These "sparkletop" Rhodes were made from 1965 to 1969 and were a radically different piano from the later ones.  Instead of the later neophrene hammer tips, these "sparkletop" Rhodes had felt "teardrop" hammers not unlike a real piano.  But they had two major faults: the wood components tended to warp from humidity and temperature, and the hammer felts prematurely wore a groove where the tine was struck.  The Jordan preamp and power amp on these pianos didn't sound very good, and the power amp used germanium PNP power transistors that are impossible to source today anywhere.  The better silicon transistors (used in Peterson systems) were not widely available until the last two years of sparkletop production.  These pianos also used an early tine design (Raymac) that was not durable and tended to snap (again, the only spares come from scavenging a piano).

However, these were sharp looking pianos.  The harp cover was a fiberglass shell with an attractive silver base with metal reflective flakes buried in a clear shellac finish, known as "SilverTop" or "SparkleTop" pianos.  These look terrific under sunlight or good lighting.  Harold revealed that a company that built boat shells made these harp covers and the piano basses had harp covers that came in at least seven different colors (silver, gold, purple, white, green, blue, orangish-red).  They're certainly a lot more stylish than the plain black plastic harp covers of the more common later pianos.  The name rail above the keys was a reflective chrome finish as opposed to the dull finish of the extruded aluminum rails on later pianos.  They only made these in a 73 key format.  Harold did make some prototype 88 key pianos during the 1960s but these are only prototypes, and at least one 73 key specimen of similar construction has surfaced.  A "Celeste" piano containing the top 2/3 of a 73 key piano was available on custom order.  These sparkletop pianos are highly desireable today for their strikingly good looking harp covers and the tone of the Raymac tines and square resonators, and thus sell for much more $$$.  A 32-note bass piano was made during the same era (see this gold sparkletop harp cover), and there seem to be more of these on the used market than the 73 key pianos (at least three very rare 49 key bass pianos - custom order only - have surfaced).  But it can take a significant investment to restore a worn sparkletop piano.  Another desireable trait of these pianos is an early tone resonator design - they were a square solid metal resonator, whereas later more prevalent Rhodes used flat steel resonators of less mass.  They do have a different sound.  Whether it is better is subjective.

After I got out of college I stumbled on another "sparkle top" piano.  This one had a bottom cabinet from the newer pianos, but it was mismatched to the preamp and had a bad hum.  Bottom cabinets are another item that are not interchangeable between different era pianos.  The deal killer was the worn grooves in the teardrop hammers - the tone on this piano was pretty bad.  It is a major labor effort to reshave the felts on the hammers - if they are worn bad enough they would need completely new hammer felts - and I would have to enlist the services of a piano technician.  So I pretty much eschewed sparkletop pianos altogether because they required expensive restoration.

Why did Rhodes stop making the colored harp covers?  They were difficult to get consistent yields (read: the finish didn't come out right every time).  Not only was the later black plastic covers easier to make, but it was lighter.

Key To Good Action - the "Pedestal Bump"

Some time later, another store had a pristine condition 88 key suitcase piano, with a price tag to match.  Action was excellent, so with approval from the clerk I inspected the keyset and discovered that the pedestal on the keys that threw the hammer into action had an integrated "bump".  This is a modification that was done to eliminate the "spongy" feel of early Rhodes pianos, and the later pianos incorporated this "bump".  Okay, so THAT is a feature to look for in good action.  But nobody on ebay takes pictures of the pedestals so I'm not going down THAT crapshoot road again, thank you very much.

The famed "Model E" piano

I was browsing one of my back issues of Keyboard magazine and happened across a "Questions" column that discussed a rhodes piano used on the Al Jarreau "Breaking Away" album.  The piano used on that album was known as the "model E" rhodes that was rented from Leeds Rentals out in Los Angeles, the mecca of recording music back in the 1970s and 1980s.  Everybody in the business knew this as the rhodes of choice for recording sessions and it was in high demand.  This was an early 70s suitcase Rhodes that was modified for its special tone.  Its action was light and fast, not at all wobbly or spongy as most Rhodes pianos.  Leeds had other rental Rhodes pianos with similar modifications but none sounded as good as the "model E".  So I found a copy of the Al Jarreau "Breaking Away" CD and yes that is one unique sounding Rhodes piano - quick attack with a beautiful bell tone on the transient and that thick fusion tone of the Torrington tines.  The "model E" was the inspiration for the Dyno-My-Piano business which fine-tuned the tone on Rhodes pianos that the factory could not, and they found good business as others wanted that "model E" sound.  The "model E" piano wound up in the hands of a private owner after Leeds Rentals folded and our good friends at FenderRhodes.com have tracked down this piano.  But it sure would be nice to find a Rhodes with the sound of that model E - a feat much harder than finding a good Rhodes piano at all.

One day I had a job assignment out of town and finished work early, so I checked out one of my regular stops for used music gear.  They had a sparkletop suitcase piano in clean condition - a little dirty but the tolex had no tears and that desireable harp cover was clean with no scratches.  It was missing the preamp in the top and the bottom cabinet had no power amp or speakers, no big loss as they didn't sound great anyway.  Basically a stage piano with a bottom case to support the piano.  I took off the harp cover for inspection and found that the original teardrop felt hammers had been replaced with the later more superior plastic/wood hammer with neophrene tips.  Turns out that the service manual recommended this upgrade when the teardrop hammers get worn.  The square resonators were intact as were the original Raymac tines.  Someone did a lot of tinkering on this piano!  The 1/4" jack on the name rail went straight to the output of the pickups on the harp, so they had it plugged into an external amplifier.  I started playing it and I heard the most beautiful Rhodes sound - quicker attack on the transient with just the right bell tone.  This was the sound of the coveted "model E" piano!  And the action was light and fast, not at all spongy.  At last - here was a Rhodes with good tone and excellent action!!!

During that audition, a clerk placed the price tag on the piano - unbelievable as it seems they were asking 1/10 its market value.  I immediately told them to pack it up.  They were astounded as the piano had just arrived - the former owner was leaving the store just as I was walking up to the piano.  Talk about timing!!!  This was one of those RARE good Rhodes piano, and I wasn't going to let this one get away!  Especially a sparkletop with all the right combination of old/new components!!!

My concerns about the fragility of the Raymac tines were calmed when closer inspection revealed that these tines were tapered at the mounting post - the telltale sign of the durable tines.  All the succeeding tine designs with better durability had tapered mountings.  Alas, two of the keys had Torrington tines where broken Raymacs once were.  Frankly I hear little difference between them.

One piece of gear I still have from way back is my Leslie 760.  I used to play my Rhodes through that Leslie and it sounded great.  But when I put the sparkletop piano through it, it sounded rather dull.  This experiment with the Leslie made me realize what a good sounding Rhodes I used to have.  Where was that bell tone I heard at the store?  A favorite amp for stage pianos was the Fender Twin Reverb amp known for its clean bright guitar tone, and it is the amp used for 1970s funk or fusion recordings.  The closest thing I had to a Fender Twin was my Selmer Zodiac Twin Thirty, which is a vintage british amp renowned for its clean guitar tone.  The sparkletop sounded pretty good through it, so I started experimenting with the two differently voiced channels (one full voiced channel with the tone rolled off, the other really bright) and found a combination that brought out that magic tone. In fact it was remarkably similar to the "model E" - quick attack with a beautiful bell tone on the transient and that thick fusion tone.  I tried my other Rhodes through the same amp setting and it wasn't even close to that good. I'm convinced that the original square resonators and tines contribute to the timbre and attack as they are one of the only components left over from the original sparkletops (the other are the pickups).  Sorry, the resonators are NOT interchangeable between sparkletops and newer pianos.  The Selmer did a really nice job on the sound, and since it uses a tube rectifier it has a compression "sag" on the attack that will be absent on a non-blackface Fender Twin Reverb.

Not all tube guitar amps are a good match with Rhodes pianos.  Many of them distort too early.  Select them with discretion (IE try them in person).

I have yet to find any datecode on the harp assembly or on the keys.  When I disassembled the bottom cabinet I found two original speakers remaining.  The speaker code identified them as Utah speakers (which Fender did use in the 1960s) and the datecode placed the manufacture of the speakers at the 2nd week of 1967.  So in all likliehood this is a 1967 Fender Rhodes piano.  And the reason for the non-spongy fast light action - the pedestal has a "bump".  This "bump" is responsible for the excellent action - in fact this is the only Rhodes I owned where I could play trills with ease.  Turns out the "middle" period of the sparkletop pianos had this feature but it was not present on later pianos until 1978.  Harold, Harold, why didn't you keep this feature?!?

Gigging with a sparkletop is not recommended.  The hammers and dampers can shift during transit.  The harp assembly flexes up and down more, which impacts the tone.  If the lid on the piano section is missing the red velvet, by all means get it replaced as this protects the photogenic harp cover from scratches against the exposed wood where the velvet once was (that red velvet was not just cosmetic).  Also the original wood screws that secure the harp assembly to the wood harp supports may no longer make a tight seal as the wood threads wear out.  As you will see below, I replaced the wood screws with something better.

As a general rule - other than tines, parts between sparkletops and later pianos are NOT interchangeable.

How many sparkletop pianos are out there?  Judging from ten years of surfing ebay, very few.  There is no known production record from that era.


I did a lot of restoration work on the piano.  I cleaned the piano inside out as it has accumulated a half a century of dust and debris.  The bottom cabinet had been home to rodents so I took it outside and completely brushed out the droppings, and sprayed the inside exposed wood with disinfectant to eliminate the smell.  Rusted or broken hardware (handles, glides) were replaced.  The tolex was scrubbed clean and I fixed loose tolex with 3M weatherstripping adhesive.  I polished the chrome nameplate with No7 Chrome and Metal Polish (available at auto parts stores).  The lid needs the red velure restored so that it doesn't scratch that cool sparkletop harp cover.  I left the original aged speaker grill intact as it was untorn and I liked the karma of the aged look.  Since the rest of the piano didn't look "minty new" I saw no justification for the expense of new speaker grills.

Since the external metal hardware was corroded they got replaced - corners, handles, glides, latches, hinges.  Be careful ordering corners - you want the ones with countersunk screw holes.  Corners, glides, and handles can be procured from mojotone.com, latches from vintagevibe.com.  The original hinges were barely adequate (they do not stay together very well) so I wanted the larger hinges on the later pianos.  Unfortunately no one offers an exact duplicate.  The closest I could get was the Penn-Elcom 1993 three inch "take-apart" hinge which I ordered from Markertek.com. I also got large rubber feet for the bottom case because the original glides made the piano slide around on a wood floor.  When I replaced all the hardware the piano looked like new!

While the key base assembly was on my bench, I found that the open pickup was an easy repair job.  The coil wire had simply broke from the terminal, so it was easy to unwind the coil wire one revolution, scrape off the insulation so that solder would bond, re-connect to the terminal, and the pickup is as good as new.  The ground wire stretched all the way across the pickup harp and was a smaller gauge than I liked, so I replaced it with thicker wire so that ground resistance would be reduced (read: lower noise).  The tonebar springs had signs of oxidation - since the tonebars are grounded through the springs, I removed every tonebar and brushed off the oxidation from the springs, thus lowering ground impedance and lowering the noise level.  Several damper felts and loose hammer tips were repaired, and some hammers had to be slightly repositioned for more reliable striking of the tines.   Since I wasn't going to recover the original preamp, I capped the holes where the controls once existed.  The sole 1/4" jack routes straight to the pickups.

One important modification was new harp mounting screws.  The original wood screws were no longer making secure contact to the harp supports as the holes had worn out.  So I purchased some brass inserts that accept 10-24 screws.  When you drill out the existing holes to accept the new inserts, be sure to shield the key mechanisms so that wood shavings do not interfere with key and hammer pivot points!  Do not use the integral slots to drive the inserts in the wood (brass is soft and the slots break easy) - use a bolt with a pair of locking nuts and drive the inserts using a screwdriver.  You want a wingnut so that when the insert is installed, you can easily release the locknuts and remove the driving bolt.  Then you finish by using a big flatblade screwdriver to drive the insert flush to surface of the wood.  The improved mounting system is shown here.  It is important that the insert does NOT protrude above the surface of the wood, or your strike point will be off (read: your tone will never sound right).

One problem I had to tame was the hiss in the audio.  You can reduce hiss by routing a ground wire from the sustain bar to the pickup harp.  This was stock on later pianos.  It really works!  In an attempt to reduce hiss, the previous owner had installed a layer of aluminum foil under the harp cover with a wire to connect it to system ground but when I disconnected the wire there was no change in noise so I removed the wire.

One foible about sparkletop pianos is the bottom 1/3 bass notes are "wolfy" and don't have that "furry" sound of the later pianos.  This is easy to fix.  Take a 6mm wood shim and secure it between the harp and support on ONLY the bass end.  This raises the bass end slightly which changes the strike point where the hammer strikes the tine, and a positive change in tone results in that desired "furry" bass note.  I discovered this because I had a set of scavenged harp supports from a later piano and noticed that they were different in height.  This was propogated to the sparkletop and resulted in better bass notes.  The only adjustment is you have to re-adjust the dampers to suit the higher displacement.

WARNING - when you adjust the dampers be careful not to pull on the bridle straps that attach the damper to the hammer or you risk damaging the bridle strap.

The whole piano was re-assembled and I went to work on optimizing tonebars and pickup positions.  Another way to reduce the hiss is to make the output louder by positioning the pickups closer to the tines.  I found that as the pickups got close to the tines, the coils would "saturate" with hard playing which generated a "thump" attack transient.  With the right pickup position, I found this "thump" a pleasant transient that varied with playing style.  I did not encounter this with newer pianos so this seems to be a trait unique to the original "green wire" pickups found on 1960s pianos.

The final foible was that cursed hiss.  I tried several techniques to get rid of it.  A parametric equalizer will surgically attenuate it but at the expense of that high end bell tone.  Gates weren't effective as the decay tail isn't natural and you still heard the hiss when the gate was open.  I even tried a special compressor in my arsenal that can compress only selective frequencies, but that didn't work either.  Later I had read that a direct box (DI) is the most effective coupling device to a recording studio, but for use with a Rhodes the DI must have an input impedance of at least one megaohm.  The DI boxes in my arsenal didn't go that high so I ordered a Countryman Type 10 DI with a input impedance spec of ten megaohms.  When it arrived and I tried it by plugging it right off the RCA jack which was a direct connection of the harp pickups, I was amazed as the hiss was significantly reduced without sacrificing the tone of the piano!  My Radial J48 had equally good tone but did not reduce the noise, and my ART DirectX was poor as it changed the tone without reducing any hiss.

NOW we're getting somewhere.  I had a jazz gig coming up where I wanted to use the sparkletop.  I got rid of the noise, but I wanted the tone of the Selmer which wasn't loud enough for a gig.  After some research I decided that a speaker emulator was the best solution.  Speaker emulators replace the speakers in a guitar amp and convert the amplifier output to a line level that is friendly with mixers.  But different speakers have different sound, and the emulator must be tailored for the specific speaker.  I learned that Groove Tubes designed and built a speaker emulator in the 1980s that emulated the Celestion alnico speakers in my Selmer.  I found one used and found that it did exactly what it was supposed to do - it converted the Selmer to a line level signal, which could be routed to a louder system.  Now I had a noise-free piano coupled to a Selmer amp coupled to a speaker emulator that gave me wonderful tone at concert levels.  For effects my favorites on the Rhodes are the Moogerfooger MF108M "Clusterflux" flanger/chorus and the Moogerfooger MF-103 Phase Shifter.

As a final fix, I replaced the unreliable RCA connector on the harp assembly with a 1/4" jack.  The jack fits the frame that holds the RCA connector with no modification.

In the end I had an excellent condition "sparkletop" piano with really nice control of timbre with the keys - the tone being a combination of that thick Torrington "fusion" rhodes with the bell attack of later Schagler tines, with the added bonus of a "thump" transient that did not exist on newer pianos.  The tone and sustain on the top half is much better than newer pianos, due largely to the square solid metal resonator tonebars.  This sparkletop is a WONDERFUL piano - I have been playing it a LOT.  It took me YEARS to find a Rhodes with good tone and good action - the fact it is a sparkletop is a big bonus.  This piano is a keeper.

Oh, that "parts" Rhodes?  Since that is the top part of a suitcase piano, I'm going to scavenge the preamp and try it in this sparkletop.  This Peterson preamp is reputably the best sounding Rhodes preamp and is in demand on the used market, and it appears that the pots line up through the holes where the original preamp was in the sparkletop.  More later.

I had this clever idea to exchange the old harp with the newer one, so I restored the tines and pickups from the "parts" rhodes.  Unfortunately I discovered that harps are NOT interchangeable between sparkletops and newer pianos.  The only way to make them interchangeable was to change out the harp supports and that effort wasn't worth it.  So I sold the harp assembly.  About the ONLY interchangeable part is the tines.  Not even the keys are interchangeable, as they are different lengths and the alignment holes do not match.

What Amp Should I Use?  How do I get the sound of <insert favorite artist here>?

There is no right answer for this - the only way to find the sound you want is to experiment.  Two factors have the biggest impact on sound - the setup of the Rhodes (escapement, strike point, relative position of the tine to the pickup, hammer tips, pickups, resonator bars, etc) and the amplifier.  Another factor is the era Rhodes - no matter how much I adjusted my (now sold) '76 stage piano, I could not get it to sound like my sparkletop.

If you are trying to get the sound of a particular artist, you may be in for a long tone hunt as information regarding said artist's audio chain or piano setup is non-existent or sparse at best (many artist lie about their setup to keep copycats off their trail).  Many professional recording artists have had their Rhodes piano customized for "their sound".  Unless you are extremely lucky, don't expect a Rhodes out of the factory to sound like them.  IE everybody knows that Richard Tee used a Electro Harmonix Small Stone phase shifter for his sound, but his personal unit had a unique sound that worked for him.  Because of component variances and substitutions over the life of the product, there's no guarantee that buying a Small Stone from a store will get that same sound.

For amps, the single important parameter of the target amp is minimum input impedance of 1 megohm, otherwise you may get hiss in the audio.  The suitcase amp and speakers have sufficed many Rhodes players for years.  The adventurous ones sought their own sound by experimenting with other amps and other speakers.  I tend to favor tube amps for the tone color and dynamic timbre they offer - the tone changes depending on how you set the amp controls and how you play, which can be a powerful asset.  My particular studio favorite is my Selmer Zodiac Twin Thirty where I can get a world of tones from just my fingers, although it isn't loud enough for stage work.  If you are using tube amps onstage, you do need to be careful that the amp will deliver undistorted sound at stage volume.  Solid state amps can be louder but they may sound too sterile.

For Stage piano owners (or suitcase owners who don't want to use or can't use the bottom amp), the Fender Twin Reverb was a popular combo amp with 2x12 speakers.  I have the Dual Showman Reverb which is the exact same amp in head version, which allowed me to experiment with different speakers and cabinets.  Being a guitar player (I'm a multi-instrumentalist) I have various guitar and bass cabinets all with different speakers.  I can report that the speaker has as much an impact on sound of a Rhodes as the amp circuitry.  I have Celestion ceramics, Celestion alnicos, Jensens, Magnavoxs, EVs, JBLs in 12 or 15 inch formats.  The speakers I liked best with the Dual Showman Reverb amp were Jensen 15" ceramics in a 2x15 closed back Bandmaster cabinet and Celestion alnicos in a 2x12 open back cabinet.  The same Bandmaster cabinet loaded with Magnovox 15s didn't sound good with the Rhodes.  Although the bottom case of my sparkletop is devoid of amp and speakers, in the future I plan to equip it with a quartet of 15" Jensens to be used with an external amp.

The Twin Reverb works well because it can get loud and stay clean (albiet with a little overdrive as you approach 11).  If you don't need loud there are smaller amps that will work.  The Fender Bassman has been reported to be a good Rhodes amp at moderate practice volume.  Most guitar tube amps will distort too easily so you really need to try them yourself.  I do not know which modern tube amps would work with the Rhodes.  While there are plenty of keyboard amps available today, their inputs were designed for line level and may not have enough gain for the low level output of the Rhodes.  Another option is a tube preamp between your Rhodes and solid state amp, which I have used occasionally.

I did try my amp modeller Vox Tonelab SE but the amp models distorted too easily.

Safe Buying Tips

If you want a good Rhodes piano, I cannot stress enough that you have to audition them in person.  There are so many Rhodes pianos with inferior action that buying one from any trading website is high risk.  The ones with good action will have the pedestal bump.  Any pre-1967 sparkletop or Mark I/II from 1970 to 1978 will NOT have the pedestal bump from the factory and unless the seller agrees to supply picture proof then it is a safe bet that the piano will have soggy spongy action.  You cannot play fast on such a piano and the action will hurt your hand muscles.  A pedestal bump can be added by a competent tech.  And while pianos with the pedestal bump may need TLC, they are a lot closer to good action than one without it.

Be cautious any piano with rust.  Rust on the tines will void the durability and shorten the life of the tines because it permeates into the metal.  Remove the harp cover and inspect the tines and pickups.  If they are free of rust then it is good.  There may be surface oxidation, this is not as damaging as rust.  You can remove oxidation and then apply a light machine oil to reverse any chance of rust developing, but there is no way to completely remove rust once it has started because it has permeated into the metal of tines and pickups.  Removing rust from 73 or 88 tines, resonator bars, and pickups is a LOT of elbow grease.  My sparkletop had rusted handles and glides, but the tines and pickups were clear so handles and guides are not always an indicator.

Suitcase?  Stage?  73 or 88 keys?  If you're going to gig with it, the stage model is better - just make sure the piano includes the sustain pedal and rod, the four legs, the two crossbraces, and the handscrew that attaches the crossbraces to the bottom of the piano.  You'll need a good amp for a stage piano.  The suitcase will have the active preamp and built-in amplifier for all-in-one solution, but it is a bulky package to cart between clubs.   And make sure the cable is included between the preamp and power amp, as replacements are difficult to find.  The 54 key Mark II was good for players who don't need the bass notes, and it's a lighter instrument.

Tolex isn't hard to repair or replace.

Surfers will note that I have purposely omitted the new Rhodes VII.  While it is great to see new Rhodes pianos being made, CEO Joe Brandstetter has been too aggressive in defending the Rhodes trademark after the death of Harold Rhodes.  His single huge marketing mistake was making angry infringement noises to the webowners of fender rhodes discussion forum - the largest community of vintage rhodes piano owners - which effectively p!ssed off the community enough that any mention of the Rhodes VII is banned, removed, deleted from the discussion forums.  Brandstetter went too far in defending his trademark in that he completely alienated an entire community of potential buyers.  Please do not patronize this internet bully's business as you are only adding to his legal warchest.  *UPDATE Brandstetter is seeking buyers for his enterprise - I don't know if this include the Rhodes trademarks, factory, tooling, parts, etc.

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