The Piano Leo Fender Never Made

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In 1942 piano teacher Harold Rhodes, then in the US Army Air Corps, developed a miniature piano for hospitalised soldiers to play. It was made from bits of old planes and became known as the “Xylette” or “Air Corps Piano”.

Old photograph of Harold Rotes holding the Xylette or Air Corps Piano
Harold Rhodes with the Xylette

Some years later (1959) Rhodes and Clarence “Leo” Fender (of electric guitar fame) set up a joint venture to produce an amplified version of this wartime instrument. It now used vibrating metal rods (or tines) as the sound source and eventually evolved into the now legendary Fender Rhodes electric piano.

Fender had originally wanted to build a low-cost piano with vibrating strings. He envisaged an instrument that, like his guitars, could be amplified.

Studio shot of the Neo Bechstein piano with the lid open showing the strings and pickups
The Neo-Bechstein electro-acoustic grand piano, built in 1932

At that time no such electric pianos had been commercially manufactured. Bechstein, in conjunction with Siemens, had released the Neo-Bechstein grand back in the 1930s. Few were made (<100), and they were expensive — they were not intended for the mass-market.

But whilst developing his new piano, Fender discovered a major problem. When a hammer strikes a string its plane of vibration tends to rotate. In simple terms this means that the string doesn’t just vibrate up and down, it also starts to vibrate towards the left and right.

This isn’t so much of a problem in an acoustic piano. But when trying to amplify a string using a fixed electro-magnetic pickup, this rotation causes the note’s volume to vary (a bit like a tremolo). The amplitude is proportional to the distance between the string and the pickup.

Selected pages from the 1963 patent filed by Leo Fender
Pages from Fender’s 1963 US patent

This was troublesome, but Fender developed an ingenious mechanism to keep the string vibrating in one plane, and hence improve the sound quality. This is described in detail in his 1959 and subsequent 1963 patents.

Eventually the projected costs of producing this piano became prohibitive, and Fender abandoned the project to focus on Harold Rhodes’ invention.

Spectral Modelling

The original patents have now elapsed. And music-software house Sampleson has now produced “1959”, a mathematical model based on Fender’s original concept.

A mock-up of Fender's electro-acoustic piano superimposed with an image of Sampleson's 1959 plugin user interface
The simple user interface for Sampleson’s “1959” virtual piano

Sampleson states that Fender’s way of controlling the vibrations of the strings results in a better and cleaner sound. A collection of demo tracks can be heard on Sampleson’s website. Comparisons have been made with the Yamaha CP80, a 1980s electric piano which also uses strings.

“1959” can be downloaded for use both as a standalone and as a plugin for all the major digital audio workstations (DAWs). And it can be purchased from the Sampleson online store for $39 (limited introductory offer), and $59 thereafter.

Specifications: “1959”
88 notes electro-acoustic piano
Spectral modeled (no samples)
Variable Resonance
Variable Hammer Noise
Variable Release Sound amount
Variable Static Noise emulator
Scalable HD interface
No extra software required
Compatible with all major DAWs
Win 32/64 bits and Mac VST/AU/Standalone versions included

MacOS Catalina Ready
Approx. 35MB (download), 65MB (installed).


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