Wurlitzer Electric Piano - Oh, THAT Sound!

Steve Allen looks pretty funny in this ad, but he always sat that way. He had a kind of funny posture. Sort of hunched inward, like he was about to collapse in on himself. For those who don't know, he was the first host of The Tonight Show. That's right. Someone was alive before Johnny Carson.

Well, he was also a composer. that explains why we see him here, promoting Wurlitzer electric pianos. At first, the cheesyness of the photo had me all ready to make fun of it: "Buy a Wurlitzer piano today and we'll send you a free man!" Look how pleased Mr. and Mrs. Nonmusician are with their new man!

Then I realized it was Steve Allen. Then I realized this is the same Wurlitzer piano that my synthesizer mimics, to my perpetual delight. If you listen to any kind of popular music at all, you're familiar with the sound of a Wurlitzer. It looks corny in this ad, but the sound is 100% badass.

At the time, Wurlitzer liked to call them "electronic" pianos, because that was a relatively new technology and it sounded exciting. Now everyone calls them "electric" pianos. Why? It's because the sound you are hearing is created by a little hammer whacking a metal tine, like on a fork (but they're called "reeds" officially). That sound is then amplified by a pickup and speaker system. This makes it really an acoustic electric instrument, like an electric guitar. Today, an electronic piano would mean that the sound is stored on a chip and just sent out through the "audio out" jack. No moving parts, except for the keyboard.

Wurlitzer was a direct competitor to the Fender Rhodes piano. I prefer the sound of a Wurlitzer. Played softly, the sound is warm, like a Rhodes. But when you hit it hard, the sound overdrives and you get a wonderful distorted "bark" or farty sound that I don't associate with a Rhodes. A Wurlitzer can sound like it wants to kill you, and that's something that I value in a musical instrument.


Anonymous said...

Actually, the Wurlitzer piano does use "reeds", unlike the Rhodes, which actually uses tines, round steel rods similar to a tuning fork. That's why a Rhodes sounds more bell-like. The reeds of the Whurly are flat steel reeds, which are tuned by applying just the right amount of solder (yes, molten lead and tin) to damp the vibration. Tuning the thing involves a soldering iron and a very delicate hand.

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