The Rudolph Wurlitzer Company, usually referred to as Wurlitzer, was an American company that produced stringed instruments, woodwinds, brass instruments, pipe organs, band organs, orchestrions, electronic organs, electric pianos and jukeboxes. Over time Wurlitzer changed to producing only organs, pianos, and jukeboxes. The Wurlitzer piano is usually a 64-note instrument with a keyboard range from A an octave above the lowest note of a standard 88-note piano to the C an octave below the top note of an 88-note piano. Tone production in all models comprises a single steel reed for each key, activated by a miniature version of a conventional grand piano action and forming part of an electrostatic pickup system using a DC voltage of 170v. A mechanical sustain pedal similar to that of a conventional piano is fitted.
Inventor Benjamin Miessner had designed an amplified conventional upright piano in the 1930s, and Wurlitzer used his electrostatic pickup design, but replaced the strings with struck steel reeds. The instrument entered production in 1955 as the EP-110, followed by the 111 and 112 of the same year, and continued to be produced in various forms until about 1982 when production of the EP-200A ceased.
Most Wurlitzer electric pianos are portable models with removable legs and the sustain pedal attached via a Bowden cable; console, "grand" and "spinet" models were also produced with a permanently attached pedal. The early models sustain pedals actually attached through the side of the instrument, with the pedal eventually being connected directly under the unit in the late 50s. The earliest versions were the "100" series; these had a case made from painted fibreboard or wood and were fitted with a single loudspeaker mounted in the rear of the case.
Apart from the very first models, the portable Wurlitzer pianos featured a tremolo effect with fixed rate but adjustable depth. Models produced until the early 1960s used vacuum tube circuitry; the 140B was the first solid-state model, introduced in 1962. The model 145 was tube and came out around the same time as the 140 solid state pianos. Ultimately both were replaced in 1968 by the plastic-bodied 200, a much lighter instrument (56 lbs, without the legs or pedal) with two loudspeakers facing the player. This model was updated as the 200A in 1972 and continued in production into 1980. The 200 was available in black, dark "Forest Green", red or beige. The 200A was only available in black and avocado green. The white Wurlitzer sometimes seen being used by bands such as The Beach Boys, The Carpenters and Supertramp was a custom painted finish not made by the manufacturer. The last version to be introduced was the 200B in 1978; this was visually identical to the 200A but was designed to be powered by a pair of medium-tension (85v) rechargeable batteries; it had no internal speakers or amplifier.
One important role for the Wurlitzer piano was as a student instrument in school and college music labs, and non-portable console versions were made for this purpose. The teacher had a headphone and microphone to be able to listen into each student individually and talk to them without others hearing them. All students listened to each of their instruments through headphones. Those usually seen resemble a beige or light green Model 200 mounted on a matching pedestal containing a loudspeaker, headphone niche and sustain pedal. On these models there is no tremolo (although later models simply have the facility disabled). Some of these models were given the designation 206/206A. Many console models have recently been modified to 200/200A specification for use on stage. Rarer than the student models are the teacher consoles, featuring multiple monitor/mute switches and, in some cases the facility to add a large illuminated display panel operated via the keyboard.
Since production began, small numbers of wood-cased spinet-style instruments were made for domestic use. These usually had an upright-piano style soft pedal (actually an electronic attenuator) as well as the sustain pedal. The mechanism of these pianos is identical to that of the contemporary portable version. The model 700 was the same amplifier and action as the portable model 120.The model 700 was produced circa 1959-1962. The model 720 was the spinet version of the 140 series, (140B,145) piano. The model 720 was produced circa 1962-1965.
The rarest of all Wurlitzers was the European only model 300, which was a spinet type piano based on the model 200A. This was the very last model produced and is even rarer than the model 270, butterfly grand. The model 300 looked similar to a modern digital piano.
The 200 uniquely had a domestic sister model 270 called the "Butterfly Baby Grand", a semicircular, walnut finish wooden-cased piano with twin quadrant-shaped lids angled above horizontally-mounted 8" loudspeakers. This was among the last Wurlitzers produced, and is very difficult to find. It is also the heaviest Wurlitzer ever produced.
Compared with its erstwhile rival, the (Fender) Rhodes electric piano, the Wurlitzer has a brighter, more hollow sound. When played gently the sound can be quite sweet and vibraphone-like, becoming more aggressive with harder playing, producing a characteristic slightly overdriven tone usually described as a "bark". In a pop or rock band setting with guitar(s), bass and drums the Wurlitzer has a distinctive and clear sound where a Rhodes would tend to blend in.