First Appeared in Keyboard Magazine, August 2016
If someone came up to me and said, “You only have five steps to make Donald Fagen’s Rhodes ready for his recording session tonight,” my initial reaction would be, “That’s hard,” because so many variables determine how a piano sounds and plays. But for the sake of this article, and to inspire players to reach for improvements they can make now, here are five steps to help maximize the playability of your Rhodes.
1. Set up your key bed correctly.
I cannot stress the importance of this first and most important aspect. Before addressing other procedures, a Rhodes key bed must be set to the proper height, key dip must be verified to your liking (usually 3/8" ± 1/16"), and keys must be leveled and squared to the key slip of the case. The feel and performance of the key bed has a direct correlation to how your piano feels and responds. It also forms the foundation to how all other setup procedures are balanced and supported, and how they operate. You will set your key height; level all keys, square to the key slip of case, and check key dip. Once the key bed has been set, you can determine whether you need an action modification known as the “Miracle Mod” for any piano built before 1978. It is at this point when you would install that modification to the piano if needed.
2. Adjust escapement and strike line.
Most Rhodes pianos can be improved by adjusting two specs, the escapement and the strike line. The escapement is the relationship or “blow distance” between the hammer tip and tine. By depressing a key into its farthest point without going into “after touch,” you find the point where you will measure the escapement gap. Proper escapement will allow your piano to respond to a softer touch more evenly across the piano, as well as offer you the optimal hammer “blow” to the tine. There are different ways to achieve escapement: by adding or removing shims to the harp supports (this lowers or raises the harp on each side), by adjusting the rear tone bar screw closest to the keys to a standard height of 3/8", and by utilizing graduated hammer tips. Anytime escapement is changed, hammer tips are changed, tines are replaced, or if you just are not quite sure you are hitting the “sweet spot,” it is likely that a strike line change is needed. This is done by removing the screws on each side of the harp so that you can adjust the harp back and forth while striking notes such as Cs and Fs up and down the keyboard, all the while listening for that sweet “crack” of the tines.
3. Make damper adjustments.
Another important element responsible for the way your Rhodes piano feels and responds are the dampers. Weak and incorrectly adjusted dampers are responsible for many issues—from notes double-striking to after ring and muting. The subtleties of damper adjustments are paramount to setting up a proper Rhodes.
4. Say goodbye to bad tines!
At Vintage Vibe we replace a lot of tines! This makes a huge difference in producing an even scale across the Rhodes piano. Replacing questionable tines also makes voicing (our next step) that much easier. All three sections of the Rhodes have trouble spots; in the lower section they often oscillate poorly causing pitch shift or drift, this is inherent in some longer tines. A remedy is utilizing a heavy spring on the back tone bar spring, and if that does not work, replacement is necessary. In the midsection they can lack clarity and the proper ability to vibrate correctly causing a dull tone. Most always replacement is necessary. In the upper treble section, the shortness allows for a lack of sustain. To remedy this, tone bar clips are added to aid in sustain.
5. Make sure you voice.
While tuning is a given for any instrument, voicing is where the magic happens. Voicing is where you take your time and articulate each and every note over and over until the desired tone is achieved. Use a Phillips head screwdriver to adjust the front tone bar screw, and you can effectively change the tonality of any given tine adding or removing harmonic and fundamental. A ¼-inch nut driver is used to adjust the pickup volume; by loosening the pickup screw and sliding the bracket toward or away from the tine, you effectively change volume. Together these two adjustments form the bulk of basic voicing.