Obviously, the Fender Rhodes electric piano is by now a legendary instrument, among the most remarkable instruments invented in the 20th century, and used on so many landmark recordings that everybody knows the sound, even if they don’t know the name of the instrument. The piano solo on “Get Back” by the Beatles, or the raindrop-like sound on the intro of “Riders on the storm” by the Doors, just about any Stevie Wonder song from the ’70s, and so many other tracks in just about any style: Pop, Rock, Soul, Jazz, Latin etc.
An interesting historic fact about the Rhodes piano is that in 1959, when Leo Fender, the highly successful guitar builder, teamed up with Harold Rhodes, the at the time struggling inventor of the Rhodes piano, Leo Fender actually hated the now ubiquitous mid- and top-range of the instrument. He thought that only the bass register could make a marketable instrument. The Fender company released the Fender Rhodes Piano Bass that same year, and until 1965 the Piano Bass was the only Rhodes piano around. Harold Rhodes was assigned to developing other instruments, more in the line of the Hohner Clavinet, while he continued to develop a full-range Rhodes piano in his sparetime. In 1965, CBS bought the Fender company, and this paved the way for a Fender Rhodes full-range 73-note piano with built-in speaker. The rest is history. The Fender name was eventually dropped from the instrument in 1974.
It’s interesting how the in so many other ways visionary Leo Fender missed realising the full potential of the instrument. However, the Piano Bass is a fantastic instrument in its own right; and many of the features later found on the full-range Rhodes pianos were inherited from the Piano Bass – the tolex, the fiberglass top, and the basic structure of the instrument. And the Piano Bass made its own mark on music history, mainly as a fundamental part of the Doors’ innovative sound; the band had no bass player (except on a few studio recordings) – it was keyboardist Ray Manzarek’s left hand that played the band’s bass parts on the Piano Bass.
I’ve had a silvertop Piano Bass for a while now, and while I rarely get to use it (bands almost always have a bass player), it’s always a treat when I have the chance. Below is a video from Nyon in 2008 with Keren Ann. I joined on the last part of her tour, and the musicians were already starting to get other engagements. Consequently the line-up changed a lot depending on who was available on any given date.. Fortunately, this approach works really well with Keren’s repertoire, as everything is based around her songs, guitar and voice. The core material is so strong than it doesn’t really matter whether she’s playing with a full band or just a trumpet player, and the shows stay fresh that way, to say the least. On a few gigs, including the one in Nyon, we had no bass player, so I jumped on the opportunity to break out the Piano Bass.