Rhodes Designer Dan Goldman on the Return of the Classic Electric Piano

A seasoned musician and passionate repairer of vintage Rhodes pianos, Dan's journey from tinkering in his kitchen to leading the resurgence of Rhodes alongside a dream team of experts is nothing short of remarkable.

What began as a passion project for Dan has turned into a quest to carry on Harold Rhodes’ legacy and bring it into the 21st century. With meticulous attention to detail and a commitment to quality, the team is creating a new generation of tine-based Rhodes pianos.

Join us as we delve into the process of designing and manufacturing the extraordinary Rhodes MK8, and explore Dan's vision for the future of this legendary brand.

Visit the Official Rhodes Music Shop US and the Official Rhodes Music Shop UK to find the brand's current offerings.

Dan Goldman, creator of the Rhodes MK8, what a title! Can you tell us a bit more about your role at the company and how the Rhodes MK8 came to be?

I've been a touring musician for most of my life. I'm a classically trained pianist and studied jazz at the degree level at Leeds College of Music, just down the road from here, where there's a real great hub of jazz musicians. I've been lucky to be involved in the music scene as a musician, playing and gigging with bands like Morcheeba and Nightmares on Wax, and I've done a lot of sessions for different artists over the last 30 years of my life.

I’ve played with loads of different bands and have been involved in different styles of music, but Rhodes has always underpinned that. I got my first Rhodes in 1993, when it was very cheap and you could still pick them up for around £300. People were throwing them in skips at that point, you know? It was just crazy.

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I always felt a real connection to the Rhodes sound, which I’d heard on records by Herbie Hancock, George Duke, and Toby Smith from Jamiroquai, but I just didn't know what produced the sound at that point. It was this beautiful, warm tone that glued everything together. I was like, "Right, I've got to get my hands on that."

So I got my first Rhodes, and then I started to take it apart to get to know its inner workings. My great-uncle, who was a bit of an engineer, gave me one of these old RadioShack kits when I was little, and I started making little radio transmitters and things like that. I took my first Rhodes apart and started to get to grips with it, and then I ended up touring with Morcheeba for about eight years. We did like three or four world tours, and I toured with the same Rhodes for the majority of that time.

At that point, there were no real places where you could get Rhodes parts. You just had to do dodgy deals on the internet or sort of hear about people selling parts through the grapevine, or you'd make your own parts out of whatever you could find—like bits of carpet, felt, or pencil erasers. Anything to keep the pianos going.

That 1980 MK2 Rhodes, which I still have now, is one of my favorite instruments in my studio. In between tours, I would come home and do sessions, and people would go, "Man, I love the sound of your Rhodes. What did you do to it?’ And I said, "I just sort of set it up and tinker with it to get the sound how I like it." I started doing repairs for friends and local bands and really got into the repairing side of it, repairing them out of my kitchen at home for people and bands, which was cool. It was really nice because it all happened organically, and people started to come to me, asking me to tweak their Rhodes for them.

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Eventually, I opened my own workshop called The RhodesWorks because I was repairing a lot of them. Sometimes I worked on up to two or three a month. People just seemed to generally like the setups that I was doing for them, but it was never a massive money thing for me. It was more about just keeping the instruments going and keeping these pianos alive.

One day, I was in my workshop and got a call from the Rhodes trademark owner because I was already doing official warranty work for Rhodes Music Corporation. He told me I needed to speak to Matt Pelling, whom I actually knew of through some mutual friends and through his ownership of Plugin Boutique and Loopmasters.

Obviously, I just presumed that Matt had a Rhodes and that he's going to want me to repair it for him. I thought that was how the conversation was going to progress. When I called him, he was like, "So I've been offered the Rhodes trademark, and I'm just calling you up to say hello and see what you think and if you might want to be involved." And I just remember literally putting down my tools shakily, locking my workshop up, going home, talking to my wife, and pacing around the kitchen, going, "Is this actually happening? Is this what I think I've just been asked?"

That was around the middle of 2019. An few weeks later, Matt came up to Leeds with Tim Dawson, who's the CFO of Rhodes and is now a very good friend of mine as well. We had an initial planning meeting in Leeds over a few beers and some pizza and were just completely buzzing between the three of us, coming up with ideas and thinking about what a new Rhodes might look like. It all just spiraled from there, really. We had more meetings and the guys secured the exclusive trademark license, so no one else can manufacture under the Rhodes name. We are Rhodes.

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Then, of course, early 2020 was when the pandemic hit, which obviously changed everything for everybody. I had just started scoping out manufacturers after we'd loosely decided that we were going to build a brand-new, tine-based Rhodes in the classic sense. I thought, well, at the moment, the global situation is so fragile that I'll just see what I could actually get manufactured locally. And it was amazing, because I found so many local manufacturers that were up for getting involved and that could actually make the parts based on some loose sketches that I had. That turned out to be really important because, to this day, a lot of the manufacturing is done within a couple of miles of our factory itself.

Well over 90% of the piano is created from UK-made, bespoke parts. Nothing's off the shelf. Literally everything is made from scratch and monitored very closely by us. When Rhodes were originally producing somewhere in the region of 60 pianos per day back in the '70s, it was inevitable that quality control must have been difficult to maintain. With this in mind we really wanted to make sure that the quality of our new pianos was absolutely at the top of the agenda. We didn't set a price; we just wanted to build the best piano. That was an incredible position to be in—to have that support from Matt and Tim to be able to basically just build the dream Rhodes.

Can you walk me through the process of designing and manufacturing the Rhodes MK8?

I went into it with a very open mind and didn't have any sort of preconceived ideas about how it might pan out or what the journey would look like at all. But we did have some sketches from the old Rhodes company, which we used as a basis to springboard off.

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So essentially, we had some outline drawings, which were very helpful, but we had to start from scratch. And one of the biggest things was making sure the materials were correct and the drawings were correct. It took me about four to six months just to weed through the drawings, look at materials, and see what was actually possible in 2020, while also keeping in mind that we wanted to be as ethically and environmentally responsible as possible, too.

I found a really great mechanical engineer near Leeds called James Cope, who came on board to help translate some of the older drawings and draw up some new parts that I'd done sketches of. We basically worked from the ground up, so from the keyboard upwards. Having no constraints or prior manufacturing knowledge, I thought, ‘Who is the dream company to make a keyboard?’ I just thought of Steinway since I've played a lot of Steinway pianos, and I just love them.

So I tried to find out who made the keyboards for them, and I found out about a company called Kluge. I nervously gave them a call, not expecting they would be interested, but I ended up speaking to Chrisitan, who's the head of Kluge, and he was super excited. So we used some initial sketches that we'd done in-house at the old company and springboarded from those to create the first iterations of the MK8 keybed.

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From there, I looked locally to find aluminum extrusion manufacturers to build the frameworks that the piano is built upon. I looked for wooden case manufacturers and people that could cover the cases with Tolex because it was really important to maintain that classic look as well. I've always massively admired Axel Hartmann as an industrial designer and his work for Moog, Arturia, and Waldorf, so I thought, "Right, I'm going to give Axel Hartmann a call as well." When I called him, I was like, "Hey, Axel, I'm designing a new electric piano for Rhodes, and I'd love for you to come on board."

He agreed to join straight away and said it had always been his dream to design a Rhodes, and now it was actually possible. That sort of thing happened so many times on the project—people who just never thought something like this would happen or that they would have that opportunity. It was such a buzz for me to be able to talk to these incredible artists, designers, and people—like Moog’s former CTO, Cyril Lance, who now oversees our electronics—who have all now joined the board and become such great friends. It all happened organically and without any constraints. We are truly building the dream Rhodes team!

What are the day-to-day challenges you face as a small manufacturer, and how do you overcome them?

Maintaining quality is the highest priority on our agenda. We're working with somewhere in the region of 100 different manufacturers across the piano, from one-man operations to companies providing thousands of electronic components for us. Monitoring all of that is a huge task, and we put in a lot of very stringent processes, so we regularly vet all our manufacturers and almost every part that comes in.

It throws up all sorts of challenges, like making sure you invest in the right measuring equipment, because just accepting parts into the factory without checking them can work for a while, and then suddenly you'll get hit with an issue. And if you haven't been measuring things accurately, you can certainly find yourself in a lot of hot water.

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Even if you measure things, if you're not monitoring your manufacturers, things can be changed or someone can interpret a drawing incorrectly, which can lead to all kinds of impacts on the production. If one major part of the piano hits a brick wall, then that can stop production.

So being on top of quality is something that we've had to learn a lot about as we go along and also about how our different partners work. You can't just give a manufacturer a drawing and that's it. It starts a whole process of constant conversations and interactions, developing close relationships with these companies—often with several people within the companies—from engineers to designers to the logistics arms of the companies. I'm proud to say we have very good relationships with all these companies, and it feels like they're all part of the Rhodes family. They all want to be part of it and are proud to be part of it today.

We use predominantly UK manufacturing as well. Like today, I've been working on creating a soft bag for the piano, and the company that's making them for us is just like half an hour down the road. They came into the factory, and they were just saying it's so inspiring to see a company that's going from strength to strength and still maintaining that original ethos of working with smaller manufacturers, staying on top of quality, and producing a new Rhodes. No one else is doing what we're doing in this way or on this scale, you know?

What is your approach to scaling up?

We originally set out to build 500 MK8s per year, and everything is geared towards that. We've got an operations director who's come on board in the last few months and who is very process-driven and has been working in factory operations for about 40 years. He knows that you can't scale up until you've stress-tested your supply chain and your manufacturers. Like I said before, if you come across a part that was working for months and suddenly doesn't, you've got to know the reasons why that part might be failing, and you have to be prepared for that.

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So we are very process-driven now, and everything is under scrutiny at all times, from the goods coming in to be inspected, to where things are stored and how things are labeled so we can track parts from all the different manufacturers. It's a huge challenge. There are only 15 of us in total, plus all the subcontractors and all the manufacturers. So for 15 people at the core, it's a huge undertaking to make 500 pianos a year and maintain that.

We are expanding, though. We're doubling the size of our factory, and we've added more people to the team over the last few months as well. So we're moving very fast for a product like this, that demands such bespoke attention. At the same time, we're having to be measured about it and not rush anything and risk missing anything that could impact us.

I'm curious about the choice of Leeds as the base of operations. You mentioned that the whole project evolved organically around you in a way. Would it be safe to say that the location of the factory became Leeds because of you, or were there specific reasons why it was chosen?

It’s sort of a combination, really. I had my original workshop here, but there's also a lot of good manufacturing in this area. It's also cheaper than being situated down south. Leeds is very central and has good national and international transport links. It’s such a lovely, buzzing city as well as a creative hub so it made sense to stay here on so many levels, and it's worked out really well. We found a great space here that’s not on an industrial estate as such. You could walk into Leeds city center in about 20 minutes from here, and there’s lots on the doorstep.

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Initially, it was myself and one of my oldest friends, Ben Barker, who's a fantastic musician, just rattling around in this huge factory space, setting everything up, decorating it, buying workbenches, and fitting things out. As the MK8 got towards the end of its initial stretch of development, where the product was as fully realized as it could be, we started building up the current team, and everybody that I interviewed originally is still on the team here now, which is a great position to be in. Everyone's stuck with us and is fully invested in the whole project and company. It really feels like we're building an incredible team in the long-term.

Speaking of the long-term, what is the vision for the new Rhodes? If we were to look five or 10 years down the line, how do you see this company and the Rhodes project evolving?

This is all about building some really solid foundations and setting out our stall in terms of quality and the kind of products we want to make. We've invested so much time, money, and effort into the MK8, so we want to build on that as a platform going forward. Now that we have all that technology, we can use it as a platform for other instruments. So there may well be other variants of the MK8.

Obviously, we would like to get Rhodes products into as many different areas and demographics as possible. I'm a big fan of top-down approaches where you make your flagships, and then you can put those into different form factors for different demographics. So right now, it's all about building those foundations and building the best electromechanical piano and the best software-based Rhodes in the world, which we've done in a very short space of time. And the feedback we're getting from all our customers is just amazing. We never take anything for granted and we work really hard and care deeply about our customers and the products equally.

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So, yeah, it's about building strong foundations and carefully listening to what customers want—and then there are no limits to where we feel we can go with things, really. But it's got to always have that Rhodes feeling at heart, which is a beautiful thing. It's hard to put into words what the Rhodes feeling is, but it's something very special, and it's our job to distill that into products. You just know when you've hit upon that Rhodes factor when you see the reactions of customers playing the instruments. That's when you know you've got it right.

How would you go about distilling that essence into other products, like an effect pedal or another version of a Rhodes piano?

It's all about sound and feel, deeply connecting the sound and the touch of the instrument together. Some instruments you can play and feel detached from the sound, but with the Rhodes, it's all about having that kind of intimate connection with the sound through the instrument. Case in point: with the MK8 or older Rhodes, you feel the tines vibrating through your fingers. The way the Rhodes sound permeates through the human body is quite unique, almost like air in a way. You kind of breathe it in.

Having the tine, the pickup, and that whole asymmetrical tuning fork designed in there is the heart that informs everything. The tine itself can be used in so many different ways. That's never going to change in terms of electromechanical pianos, it has to be at the heart of those pianos. That is the sound. Whatever we design, like a pedal for instance, has to give you that same feeling as a tine going through a pickup, whether it's a guitar running through that effect or a Rhodes running through that effect.

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You have to find that undefinable thing in the Rhodes sound, and we know what that is. It's a feeling that we get, and we all know when we've hit that point. If you play something and you’re kind of speechless afterwards, then we know we've hit that. We want to have that wow factor. We want people to feel that spine tingle that you get when you hear an incredible piece of music. It's something that acts on your soul in a really unique way. So whatever we make, it's got to have that almost physical impact on your body when you hear it.

Like with the MK8, you feel like you become part of the instrument, and the instrument becomes part of you in this amazing cycle. The instrument almost disappears in a way, which is what you want when you make your music. You don't want the instrument to be a barrier. You want it to be a facilitator and an enabler. Our mission is to translate those physical moves into sound in a really beautiful, soulful, warm, and connected way. It has to resonate with your soul.

A note from Rhodes: There is a common misconception that we are a large enterprise with hundreds of employees. However, in reality, we are a small yet efficient and talented team. We have established a foundation that allows for expansion and growth in each sector. Currently, our team consists of:

  • Directors: Matt Pelling, CEO; Tim Dawson, CFO; Dan Goldman, CPO
  • Marketing/Customer Service: Christian Dumouchel, Marketing Coordinator; Ronan Peaker, Customer Service Manager
  • Production Team: Ian Peacock, Operations Manager; Ben Barker, Head of Procurement; Olly Harvey-Ball, Production Team Leader; Freya Horsey, Quality Team Leader; Jack Straker, Piano Technician; Joe Byron, Piano Technician; Joe Lumley, Piano Technician; Will Schultz, Piano Technician; Theo Fieldhouse, Piano Technician
  • Electronics: Cyril Lance, Chief Electronics Engineer; James Evans, Electronics Engineering Technician
  • Accounts: Alex Smith, Accounts Manager
  • Sales/Artist Relations: Jamie Bullock, Sales/Artist Relations Manager
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