The Wild World of Wurlitzer Electric Pianos

What elusive creature is seldom seen in the wild but has both the bark and bite of a feral beast? Forget your werewolf and Bigfoot, we’re talking about the Wurlitzer electric piano.

The Rhodes piano, created in its earliest form by Harold Rhodes in the 1940s and put into wide production by Fender in the '60s and '70s, has always been the most popular electric piano, but the Wurlitzer is the perennial underdog—the electric axe of choice for discerning keyboardists with a penchant for the rougher end of the sonic spectrum.

Where the Rhodes has a clean, smooth sound that made it ubiquitous in pop and jazz, the Wurly was always the rocker, with a dirty, organic vibe providing just the right amount of soulful grit. It was only in production from 1954 through 1984, but in that relatively brief window of time, it made an impact that’s still being felt decades after the last unit left the factory.

Today, Wurlitzers are increasingly thin on the ground, as demand rises and stock dwindles. Musicians who weren’t even born before the Wurly ceased production are eager to emulate the raw, sexy sound Ray Charles achieved on "What’d I Say," or the sub-zero cool of Benmont Tench’s low-riding riffs on Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ "Breakdown."

Behind the Sound

It’s all part of a legacy that began when the first model 100 came off the line in Wurlitzer’s North Tonawanda HQ in upstate New York. The company already had a successful history as makers of organs and acoustic pianos when they branched out with what they marketed as an "electronic piano." However, the piano's sound isn't actually produced electronically in the same way we think of other electronic instruments. The sound of an electric piano, rather, is basically produced by a hammer hitting a metal reed or tine, which is amplified by a pickup system similar in concept to the ones used in electric guitars.

Wurlitzer 120
Wurlitzer 120. Photo by Miles Gear Bazaar.

As proprietor of Doc Wurly, keyboardist Steve Espinola is New York’s only exclusive specialist in Wurlitzer electric piano restoration and repair. "The Wurlitzer has a much more sophisticated action [than a Rhodes]," says Espinola. "You can really do a lot in terms of the hammers coming up and hitting the reeds. It’s less pretty than a Rhodes; there’s a bit more grit to it. There’s something about the hammers hitting those pieces of spring steel that causes an expressive range I’ve never been able to get out of a Rhodes."

Singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Peter Holsapple is best-known as co-frontman for The dB’s and auxiliary member of R.E.M. and Hootie & The Blowfish. "The Rhodes to me feels like a less sensitive instrument," he says. "It feels less expressive to me as a player. I’ve played both Rhodes and Wurlitzer pianos. The action to me is better on a Wurlitzer. The sound is more pleasant to the ear. It’s less sterile. I feel like there’s a sterility to the Rhodes. I would just pick a Wurlitzer for anything that I was recording."

One of the most idiosyncratic aspects of the Wurlitzer’s design is its bizarrely counter-intuitive tuning method. "The tuning on Wurlitzers is insane," explains Espinola. "Tuning these things is one of the most amazing, hilarious nightmares of design. The way you tune these is, it’s a piece of spring steel [the reed] and it’s got a glob of solder on the end. You tune by either filing off that solder or adding solder, and it’s very much a trial-and-error thing. It’s an insanely laborious thing. After doing this for 25-plus years, I’m pretty quick at it. Rhodes came first, so Wurlitzer had to come up with something that could compete with it but didn’t violate Rhodes patents. That may have been how they arrived at this crazy tuning system."

Wurlitzer 140B
Wurlitzer 140B. Photo by Pittsburgh Vintage Keys.

Holsapple remembers coming to terms with the tuning as a part of the initiation rites for a young Wurly player. "I found the 140 that I got as a kid for 50 bucks," he recalls, "and I was like 15 at the time. Big, boxy thing, somebody had stripped all the paint off of it and it desperately needed tuning, but it was mine. I was trying to teach myself Elton John and Nicky Hopkins and Leon Russell, but who’s got a piano to bring to a gig? The Wurlitzer seemed like it was gonna be the answer, but it was so devastatingly out of tune. And that was where I learned about getting inside, unscrewing it, taking the top off, and putting solder on the reeds and trying to file it down."

Being a working Wurly player is what led Espinola to learning about the instrument’s insides. "I would tour with these things, or I’d be in a studio situation, and the reeds would tend to snap. I remember being in a recording session and I lost a reed. I made it a point of always having a reed, at the time the reeds were still cheap. I invested in a complete set of reeds, I always had them on hand, I kept the lid unscrewed and I’d change them out in the middle of a gig. That’s how it started. As I get deeper into it, I get more humbled by what’s involved. There’s always more to learn and some of it’s really esoteric."

This Year's Model

One of the most challenging tasks in navigating the esoterica is keeping track of the differences between the models Wurlitzer introduced over the years. The 100, 110, and 112 were the first Wurlys, introduced between 1954 and ‘55, bearing minor variations.

"They don’t have much sustain," says Espinola. "The action is clunky, you can’t make them feel smooth. There’s very few recordings of the first Wurlys. Duke Ellington did a session very early on, and Sun Ra recorded his 110 a lot on his first few singles and albums." In 1956 came the 120, which changed the game by including a tremolo effect. It’s what Ray Charles used to pound out the sensual riffs of "What’d I Say" in 1959.

Ray Charles - What'd I Say (Official Audio)

Things started ramping up with the 140. Manufactured between 1962 and ‘68, it was the first Wurly to replace the tube amp with solid-state technology. The 140 worked its way into our hearts with Spooner Oldham’s licks on Aretha Franklin’s "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)," Earl Van Dyke’s salacious vamps on Marvin Gaye’s "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," and Joe Zawinul’s simmering riffs on Cannonball Adderley’s "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy."

"There are no compromises," says Espinola of the 140, "the physical design is as good as it ever got. They feel beautiful, they sound beautiful, and they were still making them in sufficiently small numbers that a lot of individual care went into them."

But the model that vintage e-piano lovers bow down to in the greatest numbers is the 200 series, which ran from 1968 all the way to the end of the line in 1984. "They’re compromising the feel a little bit to make everything more compact," allows Espinola. "They still sound good, they’re so much more durable and roadworthy. One person can carry them without hurting themselves."

Supertramp - Dreamer [Official Music Video]

The 200s—especially the 200A introduced in ‘74—have always been catnip to rockers. Ian MacLagan can be heard beating the living daylights out of a 200 on raw, rollicking Faces classics like "Stay With Me." Supertramp’s whole sound was centered on the 200, with both of the band’s frontmen, Roger Hodgson and Rick Davies playing them, sometimes even simultaneously. There are stories about the band renting every Wurly they could lay hands on and stacking them all up in the studio to determine which ones were ideal for their recording.

Pop stars of the ‘70s and ‘80s were all about the late-model Wurlys too. Richard Carpenter played a 140B and a 200 on tons of Carpenters cuts. Of course, hitmakers of his echelon earned a special relationship with the company. "Wurlitzer was sending me every new model of electric piano for free," said Carpenter, "and sending out to California from Illinois the fellow who actually invented the electric piano, Cliff Anderson, who would do special modifications."

School Days

Wurlitzer had a strong sideline in student models for their electric pianos, including the 106P, 146, and 206/207. These worked for both classrooms and home study, as some were individual instruments for home use while setups like the 106P involved multiple pianos mounted on a single mainframe.

"It’s a piano that your child could hear himself or herself practicing and you don’t have to," explains Espinola. "You could play piano in headphones and more or less insulate your family from having to hear your shitty rendition of ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb,’ and that was a big selling point."

Wurlitzer 206a with vibrato

The school models were memorably captured in Arthur Penn’s 1969 film Alice’s Restaurant, where we see a young Arlo Guthrie getting booted from music class for playing his own tune instead of the classical repertoire. "With the teacher models you could have a single teacher teaching up to 24 students at the same time," says Espinola. "You had a switching mechanism, and you could monitor individual students. They started really selling this idea in 1966."

But the student models have been embraced by performers too. Norah Jones swears by her 206. And long after Peter Holsapple’s 140 went by the wayside, he adopted a student Wurly and adapted it to a new rocking life. Momentously, it was when he went to meet Hootie & The Blowfish for the first time in Charlotte, NC. "While I was down there somebody said, ‘Oh, you know, somebody’s getting rid of a bunch of these teaching model Wurlitzers.’ I got one and had the bottom part cut off, and I had that thing for a few years."

End of the Line

Three Dog Night’s "Mama Told Me Not to Come." Steely Dan’s "Do It Again." The Carpenters’ "On Top of the World." Queen’s "You’re My Best Friend." Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ "Breakdown." Supertramp’s "The Logical Song." The ‘70s were not lacking in timeless tunes with ample helpings of Wurlitzer. But by the ‘80s, things had started to shift.

First analog synths started hogging all the attention, although the occasional Wurly hit like Foreigner’s 1981 smash "Waiting for a Girl Like You" did pop out. But once analog electronics were superseded by the next evolutionary leap, the digital bell began tolling for all electric pianos. The Yamaha DX7 digital synthesizer debuted in ‘83, its effect on the e-piano market being something akin to sunlight’s effect on vampires.

Breakdown

"If you were in high school you were gonna buy a DX7 or something like that," says Espinola, "even if it didn’t have the same dynamic range. They were much cheaper and you could get more sounds." Amid all the exotic new synth tones was a patch called E Piano 1, a digital approximation of an electric piano that seemed to become the industry standard almost overnight. It’s been estimated that in its first three years, it was used on 40 percent of U.S. number one pop hits, and even more for R&B.

"Between Casio and the DX7s, things were coming along that could do what people really cared about at that time," says Espinola. "And that’s what was driving the show, not geeks who have a retro fetish." By the time the DX7 celebrated its first birthday, the Wurly was a part of the past.

Reedy Revival

All is cyclical in pop culture, and the Wurlitzer is no exception. After the world had gotten the sterile sounds of digital synthesis out of its system, there was a hunger for the raw, the real, the dirty—all adjectives easily applied to a certain defunct brand of electric piano. "In the ‘90s there was a little revival of interest in them," recalls Espinola. "Beck had a big hit with ‘Where It’s At,’ and then Sheryl Crow had ‘All I Wanna Do,’ with a pretty prominent Wurlitzer."

By the 2000s, artists like Jamie Cullum, Amy Winehouse, and Norah Jones were making the Wurly even more popular. But the phenomenon never reached the point of precipitating a reboot. "Wurlitzers required a real intense assembly line to be made," says Espinola. "I don’t know that we have the economy anymore to support the process they went through to make those.They were making 10,000 a year in some years. They had to employ a lot of people to do that, and they had to make enough of them to make that viable."

Beck - Where It's At (Official Music Video)

Instead, those who wanted the electrified sound of those hammers hitting the tines had to go searching for it—at garage sales, vintage gear stores, pawn shops, anyplace a piece of decades-old technology might turn up. With stock depleting and demand increasing ever since, you don’t need an MBA to guess the effect on the price of vintage Wurlys. "The prices are skyrocketing," confirms Espinola. "I’m about to sell one for an asking price of close to $6,000. Given that it’s mine and I will have worked on it, I may be able to get that, it’s in good shape. We are in a moment where everyone wants one, and in the last year they’ve gotten much harder to get.

"I believe somewhere around 150,000 of these existed at one point. Most of those were student models and most of them were thrown away. However, here in New York I’m able to work full time repairing them, so that tells you something. There’s a lot of them. The Wurlitzers that were the most mass-produced were made from 1968 to 1983. Starting in about 1972 they’re making about 8000 or 10000 a year, tapering off in the last few years. That’s where the majority of instruments come from."

We live in a time when keyboardists are looking longingly back at the gear that got away. "I’ve always enjoyed having one," says Holsapple with a tinge of regret. "I’d love to have one again, but they’re so expensive now." But besides the purchase price, wily Wurly hunters will likely need to factor restoration and upkeep into their budget when they adopt a decades-old mechanical device.

Bringing It Back

"Often it’s never been taken in for a tune up," says Espinola of the Wurlitzers new owners bring to him. "These instruments are kind of miracles of failed planned obsolescence. No one was even thinking that these things would be around for 50 years. It’s a little like having a 50-year-old Porsche; you wouldn’t even think of putting a Porsche out on a highway, you would still take it to an auto body shop before trying to drive it on a highway again. Just sitting there, just gravity and humidity acting on it, it’s gonna need to be recalibrated and lubricated and stuff. Then they usually need to be retuned even if the reeds aren’t broken."

Fully restored Wurlitzer 200
Fully restored Wurlitzer 200. Photo by rx.

And what if you need replacement reeds or something else? Breathe easy, you’re not doomed to trawling the Net in search of ancient items. "There’s a few companies that are making replacement parts," says Espinola. "The two biggies are Warneck Research and Vintage Vibe. The new old stock of these parts is gone, so we’re dependent on people to manufacture new ones. There have been others who’ve made good things: Ken Rich, RetroLinear in Pennsylvania, and a company called Custom Vintage Keys in California that makes legs."

Overall, it’s best to go into a Wurly purchase with your eyes open. "It’s a great idea to research your particular instrument before you get it," advises Espinola. "They’re temperamental, and what is temperamental about them is part and parcel with what’s delightful about them; they are real, organic things. But you’ve also got to expect that you’re going to have to invest in maintaining them. If someone is considering buying their first Wurlitzer, I would steer people away from instruments that were made before 1964. People sometimes pay a lot of money for a 1950s instrument without having any idea what’s gonna go into making it playable."

Vintage vs. Virtual

Today, players who don’t want the expense and inconvenience that come with owning a real Wurly have opted for virtual reproductions of the sound, which are much more convincing with current tech than they were in the days of the DX7. Though Holsapple has hammered the real thing on records by The dB’s, The Continental Drifters, and Hootie & The Blowfish lead guitarist Mark Bryan, but he currently goes the modern route, as on his last solo album, Game Day.

"These days I have a little old Nord," says Holsapple, "and it’s got a completely usable Wurly tab on it, and it’s a lot lighter. That’s what I’ve been using for probably the last 15, 17 years—whenever they first came out with those Nords. It’s easy enough to dial up a decent tremolo effect and anything else you might want to put on it, so that’s been very handy. But if I had the space and the financial wherewithal, I’d hunt down another Wurly and have one around, and I’d learn how to perfect the solder-and-filing technique for tuning."

Wurlitzer 200
Wurlitzer 200. Photo by Marvin's Shop.

How do today’s digital emulations stack up against the real thing? "The Nord will give you digital distortion," says Holsapple, "which is different from churning up something that isn’t digital. There’s a lot of good stuff about the Nord. The best adjective is "portable," and the fact that you don’t end up with a hernia trotting stuff around. I’ve been able to do some B-3 overdubs that, where it sits in the mix, you’d be hard pressed to tell it wasn’t an actual Hammond. Same thing with the Wurly stuff. But it doesn’t fight back, it doesn’t have the action that a Wurlitzer has, the hammer action is always nice with a Wurly."

"The Nord emulator is too perfect," echoes Espinola. "Every Wurlitzer, every reed sounds different than the one next to it. Every degree that you hit it harder or lighter gives you a different character. There are infinite tonal variances every single time you play a note on them, and you can’t get them absolutely perfectly in tune. And that imperfection is a big plus. We’re hungering for stuff that’s a little more organic, that’s not quite so perfect.

"You are listening to a hammer actually hitting a piece of metal that is vibrating and making the other notes in this thing sympathetically vibrate. You will never get a synthetic emulation that will adequately convey all of that. So, the notes aren’t just playing themselves, they’re playing the instrument and they’re playing each other. It would be folly to try to program something to do all that."

The Special Sauce

It’s that gritty, organic quality that gives the Wurly a sonic fingerprint that can never be completely duplicated. When Ian McLagan perpetrates assault and battery on his keys in The Faces’ "Stay With Me," or John Deacon bangs out the intro to Queen’s "You’re My Best Friend," they’re tapping into something that vibrates not just throughout the instrument, but in our own bones, muscles, and nerves.

"I had neighbors in my old apartment who’d complain if I played it with the sound off too late at night," says Espinola. "Because the vibrations would go through the legs into the floor, and the floor would act like a soundboard, and they were hearing it louder than I was."

Stay with Me (2004 Remaster)

It’s something that you feel as much as hear, both in the physical sense and the way it hits your heartstrings. "They just have a special touch," says Holsapple, "and they have that nice distortion that you can get from the speakers internally or just turning it up past the point of no return and it gets that grit, I love that. If I sit at a Wurly, the first thing I’ll play is ‘Stay With Me.’ It’s just what I do."

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