Classic Keys: The Wurlitzer Electronic Piano
Some instruments are like time machines – as soon as you hear them, they instantly bring you (back) to their specific times when they were used by some of the biggest bands and artists in music history. Instruments that became signature instruments for that same artist or band, and literally set the tone of a musical period. And the iconic Wurlitzer Electronic Piano is undoubtedly one of them.
Adopted by many artists, instruments like the Wurli, as many call the Wurlitzer, had multiple reasons to become so important; they were innovative, they had character and their distinguished sound inspired songwriters and musicians to write hit songs.
“Inspiration has come to me in many different ways. The inspiration for ‘Dreamer’ was born out of excitement and just erupted out of me. I managed to get my hands on a Wurlitzer Piano, and I took it down to my mother’s house. It was the first time being alone with one, and when I started playing it, the song just exploded out of me.” -Supertramp’s Roger Hodgson about their hit song ‘Dreamer’ (source: udiscovermusic.com).
Let’s face it; Supertramp wouldn’t be Supertramp if Roger Hodgson didn’t get his hands on an original Wurli. And ‘I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)’ by Aretha Franklin came about while session musician Spooner Oldham was fiddling with a five-note riff on the Wurlitzer. We tend to believe that the raw power which made her famous was unleashed by the raw power of the Wurli during that particular recording session at the renowned FAME studio. Or when Ray Charles sat behind a Wurlitzer, magic happened. There are many examples of similar events in music history, where the Wurli became a source of inspiration.
And suppose you think you’ve never heard an original Wurli. In that case, there are quite some Spotify playlists dedicated to the Wurlitzer, often played besides other legendary instruments like the Hammond B3 or the Fender Rhodes. You’ll find many classic songs, with the Wurli as the main driver. But what made the Wurlitzer so special? For this article, we dive into the iconic Wurlitzer by exploring how it works, it’s distinguished sound, and the legendary bands that took the ball and ran with it. But first, a bit of history!
History of Wurlitzer
The Wurlitzer Electronic Piano was built by The Rudolph Wurlitzer Company, but the company is often referred to as merely Wurlitzer. The American company started in 1853 by German immigrant (Franz) Rudolph Wurlitzer. At first, Wurlitzer imported instruments from Germany. The company became relatively successful with the resale of stringed, woodwind and brass instruments. In 1880, the company began manufacturing pianos and quickly expanded to make band organs, orchestrions, and player pianos. They also made pipe or theatre organs famous in theatres during the days of silent movies, which were quite impressive because of their enormous size. These were often marketed as “The Mighty Wurlitzers”. The largest Wurlitzer organ originally built (in terms of pipes), was the instrument at Radio City Music Hall in New York City.
Another musical device that gave the Wurlitzer brand international recognition was the jukebox, which they started manufacturing in the 1933’s. The Wurlitzer was the iconic jukebox of the Big Band era, to the extent that Wurlitzer came in some places to be a generic name for any jukebox.
But in this article, we are focussing on their (portable) Electronic Pianos, which the company started making in the mid-50s and continued until the early 1980s. Wurlitzer manufactured several different models of electric pianos, including console models with built-in frames, and standalone stage models with chrome legs. The latter became popular with several R&B and rock musicians in the 1960s and 70s.
How does it work? – Mechanics
It was introduced as the Wurlitzer Electronic Piano. The company had a background in manufacturing acoustic pianos, and Wurlitzer invested quite some research into their electronic piano action. Because of this, Wurlitzers have a more sophisticated mechanical action compared to, for instance, the Fender Rhodes. It had to feel like an upright piano, but then a portable one.
The first instrument entered production in 1954 as the EP-110, EP standing for Electronic Piano. However, the sound is generated electromechanically. The main difference between the acoustic piano and their electronic version is that this electronic piano strikes reeds instead of strings.
When we think of reeds, we probably think first of wind instruments like clarinets or saxophones. Whereas wind instruments use wooden reeds for vibration, Wurlitzer reeds are flat strips of metal. While other electronic piano’s use tines, which are more related to tuning forks, Wurlitzer decided to use reeds.
The reeds in the Wurlitzer come in a variety of lengths to match the desired pitch or note. They have a small weight on one end and are screwed to a bar on the other. The reeds produce vibration when struck with the piano (felt) hammer tips. See the image below for reference.
The reeds are mounted on a long shared reed bar, where the reeds lie within the grooves of a single large pickup plate which functions as an electrostatic pickup or capacitive pickup system.
Check out some great pictures of the inside of a Wurlitzer on Vintage Vibe: link
How does it work? – Electronics
The electrostatic pickup system converts adjacent vibration into an electrical signal, just like a magnetic pickup found in an electric guitar.
However, for an electrostatic pickup to work, it requires a polarizing voltage. For this purpose, the Wurlitzer build-in amplifier sends 180V to the input, which is sufficient for the pickup to reproduce the entire swing of the reed without introducing distortion.
Having a closer look at the interaction between pickup and the reed, it’s basically a capacitor and quite similar to how a condenser microphone works: the pickup and the reed are the conductive plates, and the air between them is the insulator. When the reeds vibrate, the movement changes the capacitance of the pickup and induces a voltage signal across it.
Eventually, the signal from the pickup plate is routed to and onboard preamp, with knobs on the front for volume control and one for vibrato – another key to its tonal signature – a simple one-knob control that has a fixed rate but adjustable depth.
Have a look at the Wurlitzer EP repair timelapse below to get a closer look and see the different parts (through Vintage Vibe):
The sound of the Wurlitzer
The Wurli has many dimensions when it comes to its characteristic sound: think about the bright bell sound in the classic Supertramp song ‘Dreamer’, or smooth and mellow during the intro of Marvin Gaye’s ‘I Heard it Through the Grapevine’, or the raw sound in Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say”. And those of you who are fans of the band Vulfpeck understand why the Wurli is used quite often in their tracks. The Wurli is very sensitive to dynamics. Played softly, the sweet bell-like tones ring true from the heart of the instrument. Attacked with aggression and it produces a characteristic slightly overdriven tone, a saturated ‘bark’ that it’s so famous for.
Difference between the Wurlitzer and the Fender Rhodes.
Many people name the Wurlitzer in the same context as the Rhodes. However, they are quite different from each other. The main difference is that Rhodes uses tines as their tone source, while a Wurlitzer uses reeds.
The sound of a Wurlitzer is sharper and closer to a sawtooth wave, compared to the Rhodes which is closer to a sine wave. This gives the Wurlitzer a sharper and punchier tone.
The Fender Rhodes is often used because it has an all-round sound. They have a jazz vibe (Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea) while the Wurlitzer is more soul or pop (Donny Hathaway, Supertramp). Rhodes has a more expressive action and Wurlitzers a thonky action making them more funkier. They are quite different and need to be approached differently. Basically, you gotta have both.
Watch Julio play our original Wurlitzer 200 in the studio:
Wurlitzer EP Models
The instrument knows several variations and models, of which the ‘200A’ is the most popular. The Wurli was also used a lot at music schools in the ’60s and ’70s. Due to the headphone output, multiple students could play at once. The 106P was made, especially for this purpose at music schools.
The earliest versions (1954) were the ‘100’ series (110 to 120), which had a single loudspeaker mounted at the rear and had a vacuum tube circuitry. The 140, introduced in 1962, was the first solid-state model and featured a tremolo effect (officially “vibrato”). The 145 models had a tube amp and came out at the same time. There was also a solid-state classroom variant called the 146. After multiple revisions of the pianos, designated with “A” and “B” suffixes, these portable electronic pianos were replaced by the 200, with two loudspeakers at the front, later updated as the 200A, until 1983.
The company is now part of guitar builder Gibson Guitar corp, having the rights to build jukeboxes. The electronic pianos are no longer in production. But vintage Wurlitzers are still sought after today by musicians and collectors alike, as well as a variety of companies selling parts and doing maintenance (like Vintage Vibe). Finding an original vintage Wurlitzer can be expensive, going somewhere between $2000 and $3000 on eBay.
Suppose an original Wurlitzer EP is outside your budget. In that case, there are various software instruments available that reproduce the Wurli through physical modellings like the one from Arturia, spectral modellings like the one from Sampelson or fully sampled version like the one from Soniccouture. You can also check the Vintage Electric Piano instrument in Logic Pro X for some Wurlitzer style sounds, including many other iconic electric pianos.
The only thing you need is an excellent masterkeyboard with piano-like action to come close. But in the end, nothing beats the real deal.
Among the many bands and artists who have famously used the original 200A are Supertramp, Elton John, Queen, Donny Hathaway, Joni Mitchell, each of the Beatles in their solo careers, and Steely Dan.
Also bands like Pink Floyd, with Rick Wright on the keys. ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’ and ‘Wish You Were Here’ both offer a perfect example of usage of the Wurlitzer 200 electronic piano as a vital part of the characteristic Pink Floyd sound. And don’t forget The Doors with ‘L.A. Woman‘
More recent bands that use the Wurli as a driving force in their music are Beck, Vulfpeck, Jamie Cullum, Norah Jones and Jamiroquai.
Below you will find a list of songs that use the iconic instrument, including links. Pure listening pleasure guaranteed!
And remember, if you want to add some 60s-70s pop/rock/soul vibes to your music, just give the Wurlitzer a try!
Wurlitzer electric piano songs
● “What’d I Say” — Ray Charles
● “Dreamer” — Supertramp
● “Put It Where You Want It” — The Crusaders
● “Mercy, Mercy, Me” — Cannonball Adderley
● “Mama Told Me Not To Come” — Three Dog Night
● “Pretzel Logic” — Steely Dan
● “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” — Marvin Gaye
● “Stay With Me” — Faces
● “Time” — Pink Floyd
● “Waiting For a Girl Like You” — Foreigner
● “Where It’s At” – Beck
● “Speedwalker” – Vulfpeck
● “The Ghetto” – Donny Hathaway
Links & references:
Learn more: DEMYSTIFYING VOCAL PRODUCTION
Update: In a previous version of this blog article we mentioned ‘Get Back’ by the Beatles as a Wurlitzer song. This is obviously incorrect. It has a guest appearance (and secret weapon) of the legendary Billy Preston on the Fender Rhodes.