1967 Prototype Fender Rhodes Suitcase/Stage Piano

When we officially launched this website last month with the “Gear Spotlight” page, I had a real stroke of luck with getting to play and document Buddy Holly’s personal tweed amp. After wrapping up that post it dawned on me that it would be very unlikely I’d get to blog about something half that cool ever again.  Thankfully, the powers of the cosmos have smiled upon the Guitar Bar and we stumbled upon another one-of-a-kind piece.  We’ll save you the nittygritty on how this piece came into our possession, but we’re very proud to have a prototype Fender Rhodes piano in our shop.

What makes this piece so fascinating is that it is completely undocumented in any photographs or archival footage, and from what information we’ve been able to gather (and a bit of conjecture), this piano was the factory test bed for just about every change Fender made to the Rhodes in the late 1960’s.  Now, this was a time when Fender was revamping the Rhodes inside and out by devising a new preamp/power amp combo, new pickups and perhaps most importantly the introduction of the “Stage” model piano.

A peek under the hood! Look at those beautiful square tone bars

The basis for this piano is a 73 key “Sparkle Top” Rhodes, like all of the early models made from 1965-1969 (think Billy Preston playing with the Beatles at the rooftop concert or “Bitches Brew”) with the original Jordan model preamp, but that’s about where the similarities to the early Rhodes pianos end.  The case looks more like something you’d see at grandma’s house, with a wood grain veneer over a plywood box.  Now, before you start thinking that we’ve gotten far too excited about a rehoused early Rhodes, give us a sec to drop a few more nuggets of goodness:  The faceplate for the Jordan preamp is an etched gold metal, seen only on two other early Rhodes prototype examples (most notably an early abandoned 88 key model) and the bottom of the piano features a faint, but discernible “Fender Inc. c. 1967.”  Also, the 73 individual pickups on the harp assembly are the earliest documented example of Fender using red wire on the coils and the only example of this wire being used on the full 4″ pickups.  This piano is dated two full years before that change hit the market, and when the red pickups did finally make their way into consumer hands, they were a full 1/2″ shorter than the ones in the prototype.  Pretty cool, eh?

Rare 4″ red wire pickups, with one earlier greeny hanging out for good measure. It’s like Christmas!

Next, we have the aforementioned Jordan preamp with the uber-shiny gold faceplate which features one notable diversion from the original design: an XLR jack and five-pin connector mounted to the side of the preamp.  This was a time when Fender was shifting from a 1/4 input on their piano preamps to a new and proprietary four-pin connection, and this piano was the one to pioneer that change.  It looks as if the folks at Fender were working out the kinks on that idea as well, as the matching Jordan power amp that comes with the piano also features a matching XLR jack.

Now, as many Nord players of today can appreciate, the Fender Rhodes Stage piano was a great upgrade for its time because it allowed the user to just bring his keys with him without hauling around the extra 4×12 speaker cabinet (and sustain pedal system) that Fender had designed for the earliest Rhodes.  What we discovered when we took a gander at the underside of our piano were notes on the placement of the legs for the Stage model and also for the dowel to operate the sustain rod.  The original set of legs and flanges even came with the piano, and while they are cool they are also decidedly rougher than the final product!  And with this discovery it seems like the Fender folks were also dreaming up the Stage piano design a couple years before it hit the market.

Check out the low serial # on the early Jordan preamp

Then again, one of the coolest things about this prototype is that it gives the distinct impression that it was a very useful part of the Fender Rhodes development for a few years (the components inside the Rhodes date it back to ’66) and could have been tinkered with endlessly while Harold Rhodes and Co. figured out the best way to improve their designs.  The collection of cigarette burns on the moderately battered top tell tales of a company which had already created a great product and was working hard to make it even better and more reliable for the working musician.

Perhaps the best thing about this prototype is that it sounds and plays incredibly well.  As far as we can tell it remains completely unmodified from it’s original factory condition and has great action and incredible bell-like chime (not to mention a bit of grit) thanks to the original Raymac tines.  We couldn’t be happier to have this piece in our shop and get to share a few of the details with you!

We’re only able to post a few photos in this blog format, but luckily http://www.FenderRhodes.com has assured us that they will be making a special page for this piano on their site, and we hope we can convince them to archive a few more pics.

Lastly, if you’ve fallen in love with this piano like we have and want to take her home…just browse on over to our Contact page and give us a call!  We’d love to find a good home for this unique piece.

-Mike Ball

Thanks anonymous Rhodes employee for giving us a clue!

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