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Rhodes buyers guide

Started by Rob A, September 22, 2010, 03:25:36 PM

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Rob A

Rhodes buyers guide

Background: "Is this Rhodes worth the asking price?" "How much should I offer the guy?" If you've asked these questions, this guide is intended to help you through the buying process. A few basic assumptions apply to the use of this guide:
•   You are considering buying a Rhodes Mark I or Mark II. Other models are more specialized and possibly of interest mainly to collectors, so if you are after a sparkle top or a Mark V, student, home or other specialty model, the guide is going to assume you already have a decent reason to go after one of those models instead of the mainstream Mark I and Mark II.
•   You will get the chance before purchasing to inspect the piano in person, and "test-drive" it. Obviously that won't be true if it's an ebay purchase.
The two basic models you will run into are Stage and Suitcase. The main difference is the Suitcase includes an amplifier and active preamp, while the Stage is a passive piano requiring external amplification. Both were offered in 73- and 88-key flavors, and a 54 key stage Mark II also briefly available.

The Rhodes pianos we're discussing here were produced between 1970 and 1981 for the most part. The Mark II designation was introduced around 1980. So in reality, there are more differences among Mark I pianos than between a late Mark I and a Mark II. Here's the basic "eras" of Rhodes production, as best we understand them, simplified somewhat for our purposes here:
•   Early Mark I pianos (1970-1974) are considered desirable by some people due to differences in the tines. Be aware you may not get all original tines. Early pianos have none of the action improvements that later pianos got, so pay extra attention to how the piano feels. Early pianos were subject to problems with dampers and double striking hammers. The key pedestals have felt on them. Hammers are a plastic/wood hybrid. The easiest way to spot a piano in this era is the inclusion of the word "Fender" in the logo badges.
•   Middle Mark I pianos (1975-1977) came about as a result of a change to the action. The hammers became all plastic. The pedestals became bare wood and the felt was placed on the hammers.
•   Late Mark I pianos (1977-1979) the next step in evolution was a bump placed on the key pedestal, in conjunction with the return of felt to the key pedestal. Late Mark I suitcase pianos also featured a new, more powerful amp design, easily spotted by the five pin cable used to connect the suitcase bottom.
•   Mark II pianos (1980-1981) came in two varieties: wooden key models and plastic key models. Plastic was used later to avoid problems with wood parts warping, and to reduce weight. The pins holding the plastic keys are difficult to repair if they break, and somewhat more subject to breakage than the metal pins in all the older designs. For that reason, some consider a plastic key Mark II to be less desirable. Other than the obvious "Mark II" labeling, a Mark II will have a flat top instead of the curved top on a Mark I.
The date stamps found on the harp will help if you have trouble determining which bucket your piano falls into. Look for a stamped, four digit number in the upper right corner of the harp. The last two digits are the year that manufacture started. Consult the EP forum for more detailed info on dating.

Checking out the condition
There is very little that can go wrong with a Rhodes that can't be repaired—at a cost. So when you check out your prospective new piano, look for the things that will be costly to replace or repair, and use those things as negotiating points with the seller. Especially if the seller represents the piano as in playing condition, pointing out the repairs needed can help you get a better price. Plus you can avoid buying a piano that will ultimately only be good for parts.
1.   Check all the keys for correct travel, stuck notes, stiffness or other problems.
2.   Look for broken tines. These can be replaced at a cost of around 25 USD per tine.
3.   Check that the dampers correctly stop each note from ringing and note any problems. Replacement damper felts are readily available and simple to install.
4.   Note any missing hammer tips. Replacement tips are usually sold in complete sets.
5.   Look for stiff or cracked grommets on the tonebar assemblies. Grommets are a fairly simple refurbishment to do, but time consuming.
6.   For suitcase pianos, check for the preamp cord and make sure it works. Newer pianos had a five-pin cable, older ones a four-pin.  Replacements are available for both, but will cost in excess of 60 USD typically.
7.   Examine the electronics package. Note any aftermarket modifications made. Many mods don't hold up well at all and will need replacing or restoration. Factory original tone controls and preamps held up well generally, but preamp rebuild kits are available if you need one. The amplifiers in older (4-pin) suitcase models use transistors that are expensive to replace.
8.   Check the operation of the sustain pedal and damper release bar. The pedal rod presses up on a wooden dowel which moves the damper release bar, allowing all tines to ring freely. There are pivot points at both ends of the damper release bar; inspect these for free travel and to make sure they are seated in the holes in the harp support blocks.
9.   Turn all pots and check for noise and static. Pots can be cleaned but may need to be replaced. Original replacement knobs for older styles are nearly impossible to obtain, notably the concentric-knob preamp.
10.   Stage pianos should have a set of four legs, two braces and a knob in order to be considered complete. There was a vinyl bag for the legs, but it is not used other than for storage. The knob is a standard 1/4-20 thread, so don't get tempted to buy a spendy replacement off ebay; just hit the hardware store.
11.   Suitcase pianos have an amplifier as their base. Check that this powers on; if not take a look at the circuit breaker or fuse. Power cords are easily replaced. The older ones use a standard extension cord; newer ones use a cord with a standard IEC connector like a computer or monitor uses.
12.   Check the pickup wiring for breaks in continuity. There is a repeating pattern of connections, and some breaks in the wiring are normal and expected. Check the manual for some diagrams of how this should look. Any dead notes may be caused by failed pickups. Test a pickup by lightly tapping with a metal screwdriver. No noise means dead pickup (or break in the wiring).
13.   Remove the four screws that hold the harp down (two on each end). Raise the harp and look at the hammers, checking for broken or missing hammers. Lift the hammers up and look at the key pedestals. Note any missing felts or other problems. These are usually easy things to correct.

The right Rhodes
If you find a piano that you enjoy playing, you should buy it. You can make a significant difference to the way it sounds by means of adjustments later. The thing that's' harder (but still possible) to correct after you buy it is the feel. Most Rhodes pianos are not in a well-adjusted condition at this point in their lives. Some never were. But with some attention and patience, you can set up most any Rhodes to sound quite good. Some problems that are really hard to correct, and may be better left to the professionals/collectors/techs:
•   Double strike problems that seem to be more common on the early action design.
•   Warped keys or warped keybed
•   Water damage
By no means is this a complete list of serious problems. But stay away from anything like these unless you are confident in your ability to do a restoration (in which case you probably don't really need this guide).

The Rhodes market
At the time that velocity-sensitive keyboards like the DX7 first became popular, Rhodes pianos were considered to have very low value. And it was all down to weight, with just a little help from the idea of having the latest sound available. But given the choice between taking a 100-pound plus Rhodes to the gig or a 30-pound DX7, most people went the light direction. So there was a time when Rhodes pianos were almost free.
Those days are clearly gone. The last few years have seen a resurgence of popularity as people gained a new appreciation for the unique sound of a classic Rhodes piano. And prices had been steadily on the rise for all kinds of retro gear, no less the Rhodes. But the great thing is that this was an instrument that was manufactured and sold in large numbers over a period longer than a decade. Many schools bought them. So they are in no way rare, other than the models at the top that I specifically said weren't covered by this guide.
Your location will influence the selling price greatly, mostly due to the supply of pianos compared to the demand. Outside the US, prices are markedly higher. Inside the US market, pianos will bring more in larger metropolitan areas than in smaller cities. So if you post in the forums asking if you are getting a good deal, it helps a lot to know where you are, because a great bargain in Denmark may be a premium price in Des Moines.
In the US market, almost any Rhodes will bring a minimum price of 350-400 USD regardless of condition, just due to its parts value. There's a lot of fluctuation in what people are willing to pay for a Rhodes in excellent or mint condition. Not as many pianos survive in that condition, so it's harder to be definite with the price, but an excellent condition suitcase could bring 1200 USD almost anywhere, and an excellent stage 1000 USD. Few Rhodes pianos are truly mint.
Generally speaking, refurbishment does not detract from the value of a Rhodes piano. Many parts were designed to be field-replaceable, so repairs and refurbishments are more the rule than the exception. Mods can add somewhat to the value of a piano, but only if done well and in operating condition. A lot of mods are poorly-executed or poorly thought out, and can detract from the value, since you'll potentially have to spend additional money to restore a function of your piano. Sticking with stock is a safer bet for the first time buyer.

Max Brink

Great buyers guide, Rob A! This definitely covers the bases!

I just posted a similar guide to the CEPCo blog with pictures that are intended to help show the first time Rhodes owner what to look for. Hopefully this will be a useful tool as well:
Max Brink
The Chicago Electric Piano Co.

ph: (312)476-9528

tw&ig: @electricpianoco