About the 1981-1984 Late-Model Rhodes Mk II

The last iteration of the Rhodes Mk II, released between 1981 and 1984, is one of our favorites. Despite having more plastic parts than previous models of Rhodes, we find that keyboards of this period tend to have a dynamic, modern feel and excellent timbre. Plastic has a bad reputation these days - which it tends to deserve - but this model of Rhodes is a rare case of plastic manufacture improving a product’s consistency and longevity.

Here’s a list of the details that are unique for the last years of the Mk II.

Flat harp cover. The most obvious change between the Mk I and Mk II Rhodes is the differences in appearances. The Mk I’s harp cover was smooth and slightly domed, while the Mk II’s cover is mostly flat, with a series of ridges on either end. This allowed the player to stack another keyboard on top, without braces or other modification.

The flat top was more than an aesthetic statement: it suggested that the Rhodes was literally the foundation of a keyboardist’s rig, able to perform even while literally supporting the weight of lesser keyboards. This acknowledged the competition that smaller, cheaper synths were beginning to pose, without compromising the fundamental, electro-mechanical nature of the Rhodes. (That would come later, in the Mk III release.)

Swaged tines. In 1978, the Rhodes switched to swaged tines, which they claimed were up to twelve times more durable than previous tines. Swaging is a manufacturing process that shapes a piece of metal by forcing it through smaller discs. The exact durability of Mk II tines is opaque, but they are considered high-quality and largely free from the inconsistencies seen in Rhodes manufactured during the mid-1970s.

Plastic keys. As a material for piano keys, plastic is a lot more stable than wood. It is less susceptible to swelling due to changes in temperature and humidity. It’s also more resistance to water damage and spills, and therefore less likely to become mildewed. This is definitely a plus for all the plastic-key electronic pianos that have languished in storage for decades.

While the manufacturer of a fine grand piano might expect the user to treat the instrument with reverence, it is clear that Fender had no such illusions. (There’s a passage in the service manual explaining what to do if “one or more” of the keys suffers cigarette burns.) The Rhodes was a practical instrument intended for the road, and plastic keys were a solution to the environmental and other abuse that it might suffer.

We spent a lot of time mitigating water damage in electronic pianos that have a lot of wooden parts, and it is time-consuming work. Many require seasonal adjustment as the wood is exposed to different environmental conditions over time. Otherwise, the keys will stick or otherwise play inconsistently. Wooden keys certainly have their benefits, but in many cases they increase the amount of maintenance that the instrument requires. And because it is easier to manufacture plastic than wood today, most of the Rhodes’ plastic pieces have reproduction replacement parts, whereas wooden electronic piano parts are more or less one-of-a-kind. (Try replacing a waterlogged Wurlitzer key bed.)

The keys of the Rhodes Mk II are made from a better-quality plastic that has proven to have good stability over the years. They’re pretty well-built, with a light-yet-satisfying weight and a responsive feel. In fact, by implementing the pedestal bump on the rear of the key, the Mk II’s designers were able to make a conscious improvement over the previous wooden key design.

Factory-installed pedestal bump. The pedestal bump is a small piece of plastic or felt installed on the key pedestal (the flat part at the far end of the key). It is meant to help the key hit the hammer with a more focused impact. Keyboards with the pedestal bump are more touch-responsive and dynamic.

Sparkletop Rhodes from the 1960s had a pedestal bump, but it was phased out in the Mk I release. By 1978, it was re-implemented for the Mk II. Around this time, Fender also released an updated service manual that gave instructions on how to add a pedestal bump to earlier keyboards.

By adding a pedestal bump, any Rhodes can have the faster, dynamic action of a Mk II. However, it is a time-consuming process, since it requires modifying each key and then resetting the escapement for the entire keyboard. The built-in pedestal bump on the Mk II makes it ready-to-play in original condition, without relying on costly modifications.

More information about the Rhodes Mk II pictured above can be found here.

Further Reading

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