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Inventor of the Fender Rhodes PianoCopyright © 2001The Scotsman, 2001
Harold Burroughs Rhodes was the inventor of the most most successful electric piano of its day. He designed and developed the famous Fender Rhodes piano which became a trademark sound of the late-60s and early-70s in funk, soul, rock and pop music, and was fundamental to the development of jazz-rock and its offshoots in the music of artists like Miles Davis, Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock.
Rhodes acquired an early interest in jazz through his older brothers record collection. He learned piano at home, and studied music at school, then inherited the students of his music teacher when she moved away in 1929. He flourished as a teacher, and by 1940 was operating a chain of piano studios across the USA. He placed a high priority on teaching students to improvise at an early stage in their training, and also believed that they should understand how the instrument was made in order to master it fully.
He continued to give informal piano lessons to his fellow soldiers while serving in the Army Air Corps, and was invited to involve himself in teaching piano to wounded soldiers, as an aid to rehabilitation. Faced with the problem of finding suitable instruments for injured soldiers confined to bed, Rhodes designed and built a small wooden piano which could be held in the lap. His method was taken up throughout the Army Air Corps hospital network, and became the most popular convalescent activity.
He formed a piano manufacturing company in Los Angeles after the war, but the business failed, and he moved to Texas for a time, where he sold farm machinery and farmed. The idea of developing his own piano remained alive, however, and in 1955 he entered into partnership with Leo Fender, the famous guitar and amplifier maker.
While they developed a hybrid 32-note piano bass (Ray Manzarek of The Doors was probably the best known musician to take the instrument up for a time), the two men could not agree on a design for a full electric piano, and it was not until CBS took over Fender in 1965 that his conception was finally realised.
What had begun as a crude wooden war-time instrument had developed into a richly resonant full-scale piano, using a system in which a hammer hit a metal tine-bar that vibrated like a tuning fork when a key was pressed. The resulting note was then amplified by a pickup and built-in speaker.
The Rhodes piano quickly established dominance. Unlike all other electric pianos of the day, the instrument was responsive to variations in touch on the keyboard, and had a rich, full-bodied sound which lent itself ideally to the fusion experiments of the era.
The emergence of strong Japanese competition eventually led to the demise of the authentic Fender Rhodes piano, although its trademark sound was widely imitated, and production ceased in 1985. Rhodes lost the rights to the brand name for a time, but regained them in 1997, and was said to have been investigating the possibility of relaunching his piano in association with other members of his family. He is survived by his wife, Margit, 11 children, a brother and nine grandchildren.