What to Look for When Buying a Fender Rhodes Electronic Piano

When we’re thinking about buying a Rhodes, there are a few criteria that we use to judge potential purchases. We’re mostly concerned about how much work the Rhodes needs to become playable - and if you want your Rhodes to be a functional keyboard and not just a moderately inconvenient buffet table, you probably care about the same things we do.

For this reason, we made a list that covers all the major questions you should have when buying a Rhodes. Because every Rhodes and every sale is different, this list isn’t comprehensive. However, it should help you avoid spending too much on a keyboard that isn’t in any condition to be played.

Are there pictures of the actual Rhodes? Sometimes we see vintage keyboard listings that include pictures of a keyboard, but not the keyboard. For instance: “Selling Fender Rhodes. The picture is of a Rhodes I found on Google images. Don’t worry, my Rhodes looks just like it, except mine doesn’t have any legs and my cat peed on it fourteen times.”

This is a huge red flag. Sometimes - rarely - people don’t include photos because they’re not very computer-literate and they don’t know how. But if the seller knows how to save a picture from Google and insert it into the listing, they definitely know how to upload their own photos of their own keyboard. In that case, something else is up, and there’s enough Rhodes in the sea that you shouldn’t have to deal with whatever weird scam they’re pulling.

Bottom line: never meet a seller to buy a Rhodes that you haven’t seen pictures of.

Is there mold, rust, or water damage? Speaking of Rhodes in the sea, water damage is one thing that is really hard to fix. Water makes wood swell, so water-damaged mechanical parts will work unreliably. It also provides a good breeding ground for mold and mildew. If a wooden part is lightly damaged, sanding past the swollen, stained area should be sufficient to restore it. But if the damage is extensive, you’ll need to replace the part entirely. Replacing a couple of hammers isn’t a big deal. Replacing the keys or the case is another story entirely.

Mold and rust don’t have to be a dealbreaker. (In fact, we have some tips for cleaning up mold and rust here.) However, it can indicate that the keyboard suffered water damage at some point. If you see a lot of mold or rust on the outside, you should take a good look at the interior to make sure the case and the keys aren’t irreparably waterlogged.

What year is the Rhodes? Every Rhodes has a date stamp under the lid that communicates the week and the year that it was manufactured. There are subtle differences between Rhodes manufactured from one year to the next, mostly in the composition of the hammers and tines. If you know the year of the Rhodes you are considering, you can research it to determine what characteristics your keyboard will have.

However, the differences between Rhodes are pretty subtle. What year is “best” is completely subjective and depends on the player’s taste. Evaluate the Rhodes in front of you - don’t compare it to some superior but completely theoretical Rhodes that really only exists in a electronic piano forum’s fever dream. Remember that a lot of a Rhodes’ playability depends on its condition. You can wait and wait for a 1970-whatever, but it has to be in pretty decent condition for you to reap the benefits of its supposedly superior tines and hammer tips. A relatively mint Rhodes from a “lesser” year will serve you better than a beat-up Rhodes with bent tines and broken hammers from a “good” year.

Also, you can always buy the decent Rhodes in front of you, while keeping an eye out for another model that has a specific feature you want. If you let us know what you’re looking for, we can even help you find a certain model of Rhodes.

Are the key posts intact? This really only applies to Mk II and later models with plastic keys. Earlier models have metal key posts, which are durable and usually in good shape (although we suppose they could be broken if a previous owner was really focused on mutilating their keyboard). However, the plastic key posts on later models are prone to snapping. In that case, the entire section of key posts must be replaced.

You can tell if the key posts are broken if the key feels very wonky and has significant left-to-right motion. Note that a minute amount of left-to-right motion is normal, and light-to-moderate left-to-right motion means that the key bushings should be replaced.

The best way to diagnose broken key posts (as opposed to worn key bushings) is to take the keys out and examine the keybed. However, broken key posts and worn bushings are both flaws that should be addressed. So if the keys feel sloppy and have noticeable left-to-right motion, the keyboard should be priced accordingly.

A Rhodes Mk II with white tape pickups.

Do the pickups work? Each Rhodes key has its own corresponding magnetic pickup. Like a guitar pickup, a Rhodes pickup is composed of a long strand of thin copper wire wrapped around a bobbin. If the wire is broken or otherwise degraded, the pickup won’t work. However, if the surrounding pickups are working, they will pick up the sound of the key. You’ll still hear the note, but it will be very quiet compared to its neighbors.

Some sellers are not aware of this. (That’s fair: this system of pickups is pretty unique to the Rhodes. For instance, occasional quiet keys in a Wurlitzer is a simple mechanical problem, not an electronics problem.) So, they’ll describe it as “keyboard has some quiet notes” instead of “keyboard has some broken pickups.”

You should note whether the keyboard has broken pickups because they’re kind of a pain to fix. Either you’ll have to buy a new one and replace it, or re-wind the old one. If you enjoy MacGyvering, possess infinite patience and are totally immune to frustration, you’ll love re-winding pickups. If not, we warned you.

Broken pickups are more common in Mk II Rhodes than Mk I Rhodes. One particular generation of Mk II Rhodes has white tape over the pickup wires. This style of pickup is prone to failure. You’ll often find them for sale with multiple broken pickups, and more may fail over time. We’ve had a lot of white-tape Rhodes in the shop that sounded fantastic after a few pickups were re-wound, so this shouldn’t be a dealbreaker. The white tape pickups are just an indicator that you should really closely listen to every key and make sure they are all working before paying top dollar.

Is every mechanical part present and in decent condition? Check for dead or distorted keys. If the key is silent, quiet, distorted or otherwise behaving strangely, part of its action assembly could be missing or broken. This is almost always fixable, but if the source of the issue is mysterious, this should be reflected in the price.

Tines should be straight and largely free of rust. Most Rhodes will have a little rust on their tines, and that's acceptable. Significant rust, however, can affect the intonation and timbre of the note. Rust can be removed by non-abrasive means, such as an Evapo-Rust dip. However, because rust eats metal, significant rust means that a significant amount of the original metal is also gone. If you remove the rust and you're still unhappy with the timbre of the note, the only thing you can do is replace the tine entirely.

Is every other part present? The Rhodes came with a lot of auxiliary parts, and it is very rare for all of them to be present. You can ask the seller if the Rhodes is complete, but some of these instruments have changed hands so many times that the seller might not even be aware of everything that should be included with the instrument. Also, “complete” is in the eye of the beholder. If you’re a collector, “complete” suggests “everything the Rhodes was originally sold with.” If you’re a player, “complete” might end and begin with the keyboard itself - legs and lid optional. If you’re doing some weird art piece that only requires the D above middle C, “complete” might just mean that the assembly for that key works okay, and for all you care the rest of the instrument could be a gerbil cage.

For that reason, we don’t recommend asking a private seller if the instrument is “complete” or “comes with everything,” because there’s a lot of room for miscommunication. On a similar note, don’t assume that because the Rhodes is “in good condition,” all of its parts are present. The previous owner may have kept the Rhodes cleaned, tuned, and dusted, but that doesn’t mean he or she didn’t also lose all its small accessories.

Instead, consider all of the parts that the Rhodes could come with, and decide what is a must-have for your setup. Then, ask the seller if the Rhodes comes with those parts specifically. Don’t assume the keyboard comes with anything that isn’t explicitly pictured (and in some cases, you may want to confirm that everything pictured is included). If the Rhodes is pictured unassembled, confirm that all parts fit together as they should. Some flaws can go undetected until the Rhodes is on its feet.

Final considerations. Remember that reputable sellers don’t mind answering questions. If the seller dodges your questions or seems unwilling to discuss the item, proceed with caution and consider choosing a different Rhodes.


Further Reading

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