For several years, I had been quite happily playing my 1979 Rhodes Stage 73. There was a lot to like about that piano. It had the fast, light action of the last Mark I pianos, and it looked like new. But I missed the richer tone of its predecessor: a 1973 Student Rhodes. (See “Formerly in the Collection” page.)
In the fall of 2015, I saw an ad for a 1974 Fender Rhodes Mark I Stage 73. It was built in mid-’74, which put it in the heart of what a lot of Rhodes enthusiasts regard as the “golden era” of the Rhodes: It had sweet-sounding Torrington tines. Wooden harp supports. Hybrid wood and plastic hammers (which were soon to become all plastic). Flat-top plastic key caps. (Some earlier models have rounded tops on the keys, which bothers some players.) It had the “cool” Fender Rhodes badges (a few months later, the Fender name was taken off the piano). It was built at a time when the assembly quality in the Rhodes factory in Fullerton, CA was arguably at its peak. The price was reasonable. And it came with all its accessories: the legs, braces, sustain pedal and sustain rod.
What’s not to like, right?
Well, it needed a lot of help: It needed new sustain grommets. The harp cover was scratched-up. The hardware had some corrosion. The action was desperately heavy. The Tolex in the back was ripped and scuffed. There was lots of residue from someone’s attempt to repair Tolex damage with duct tape. The two lowest bass tines were missing. (Likely harvested and cut down by a past owner to replace broken tines in more heavily trafficked areas of the keyboard.) The large Fender Rhodes logo on the back had lost all its chrome plating, and some of its letters. (I was now the proud owner of a “Fenaer Rhod”).
But it just sounded incredible. That was all the motivation I needed to get to work.
So, I replaced the grommets, screws and washers. Polished all the metal parts, and they ended up looking quite nice. Sourced and replaced the two missing tines. Scrubbed everything clean — inside and out — including the duct tape residue, which seemed to take forever. (Don’t ever put duct tape on Tolex!) Lubed the pedestal felts (silicon spray) and the key pins (with Protek CLP, the gold-standard for lubing acoustic piano actions). Tightened and aligned the tines to the tone bars. Replaced the broken logo with a new replica one. Replaced the scratched harp cover with a near-perfect one from another Stage 73 piano I owned. Leveled a couple of keys, and installed a few tonebar clips to improve the sustain of the highest notes.
The good news about the Tolex was that while there were some rips, there were no missing pieces. Just gluing the Tolex down solved most of the problems, but it was a painstaking job to get all the little pieces glued. Rubbed a little 303 vinyl protectant on the harp cover and Tolex. (It leaves a little shine without making everything greasy like Armor All.)
The lubing helped lighten the action, but lowering the escapement on both sides of the harp really made the difference. I had been planning to add a “bump mod” to the key pedestals to lighten the action, but it’s not necessary now, since the piano plays quite nicely without it.
I checked the strikeline. (It was perfect in its original factory setting.) Voiced it. Adjusted the volume of the notes to make them consistent. It arrived in near-perfect tuning, but I did a little touch-up of that. Added the correct grommets to the sustain pedal and the opening in the bottom of the piano (where the sustain rod goes). Added the proper non-slip vinyl “boots” to the tips of the front legs.
Visually, here’s how it came out:
Aside from some scrapes on the audience side, it looks almost like new. But the real story is what you hear. It has a rich, creamy sound from those wonderful Torrington tines, and the pickups Rhodes in that era. (It really sounds considerably different than the ’79 Stage it replaced.) It has the best dynamic range of any Rhodes I’ve ever played: It can play anything from a whisper to an angry bark, which makes it a very expressive instrument.
I mostly like my Rhodes in its “native state.” I’m not really interested in putting it through all sorts of effects pedals. No wah, phaser, flanger, delay, distortion or chorus for me. But I love the Rhodes through a bit of reverb and some tremolo. For years, I got those effects from my 1977 Twin Reverb, but the Fender tremolo is fairly choppy. A friend suggested getting one of these Boss TR-2 tremolo pedals. The tremolo you get from setting it on a triangle wave is just a thing of beauty. It’s reminiscent of the smooth, optical tremolo on the early Rhodes Suitcase pianos equipped with the Peterson amps. (Although it’s not stereo, like the Suitcase effect.)
Hear the sounds of the Fender Rhodes piano