The Wurlitzer electric piano is my favorite vintage keyboard. I own and maintain one, and like to lug it across countries playing music and hammering out solos. They are great instruments with a great tone and a great look.
Many folks who use them, don’t know very much about the Wurlitzer piano, so in this guide, we’re going to go over the history of the Wurlitzer, who was using it when it came out, who is using it today, what it sounds like, what it costs, and more.
The History Of The Wurlitzer
The Wurlitzer was invented by radio engineer and inventor Benjamin Miessner. Originally, the design was an amplified, conventional upright piano. The Wurlitzer company took that design, but replaced the strings of the piano with struck steel reeds.
The earliest versions for sale were the Wurlitzer 100 series. These were heavy pieces that had a case made from fiberboard and were fitted with a single speaker. Despite their weight, these are all portable models of Wurlitzer pianos. They have legs which can be removed and put back in at will.
Throughout the 1950s, the 100 series were produced; 110, 111, 112, 112A, and 120. All of these models featurs a tremolo effect and were exclusively using vacuum tube circuitry.
In the early 1960s, the 140 model was released. It was the first solid-state Wurlitzer. Wurlitzer also produced a 145 and 145B model, which has tubes.
In 1968, all of these models were replaced with the Wurlitzer 200 model, which is the model most of us are familiar with today. These pianos had plastic lids, solid state electronics, and internal speakers.
The Wurlitzer 200 and 200A are the most common types of Wurlitzer available today. You can find them in black, dark green, red, or beige. If you see a white Wurlitzer, it is either an earlier model (in the 100 series) or is a 200 model that has been painted white.
It is important to note, that the Wurlitzer electric piano was a popular student instrument in schools and colleges. Wurlitzer made non-portable, console versions of their electric pianos for this purpose.
Interestingly, these console Wurlitzers were designed so that the music teacher could have a headphone and a microphone, and could talk to each student playing their instrument, without other students hearing them. Apparently, up to 48 individual Wurlitzers could be played at the same time!
For the rest of the guide, we will be focusing primarily on the Wurlitzer 200A, because this is the most enduring model. Most Wurlitzers for sale today will be the 200A Model.
What Does The Wurlitzer Piano Sound Like And Who Plays Them?
If you are not familiar with the sound of the Wurlitzer, I would like to introduce it to you via three songs; one from the past, one from the present, and another example that blends the two uses of the instrument.
First off, take a listen to the intro to this song, “Bloody Well Right” by Supertramp.
Supertramp made heavy use of the Wurlitzer. In this case, you are hearing a Wurlitzer 200A. Supertramp used a 200A that was painted white for much of their live set as well. This is a pretty straight up example of the Wurli in action, with little more than reverb on it as an effect.
The bitey, reed-y sound of the Wurlitzer is so satisfying in this context!
Next, check out a completely different vibe.
This is Leif Vollebekk’s song “All Night Sedans” off his beautiful 2017 LP Twin Solitude.
Here, you can hear the Wurlitzer in a very neutral setting. This is the closest thing I’ve heard to how my Wurlitzer sounds when I play it in my room or in a venue. The gentle vibrato, light overdrive, and the reverb are all big parts of this sound.
Lastly, I would like to present the song “Fugue State” by Vulfpeck.
This song accurately demonstrates the sound of the Wurlitzer with less vibrato and a more classic approach to playing the instrument.
There are some effects being used in this example; they have the Wurlitzer running through the Vulf Compressor which gives a subtle “Wow” or flutter effect to the sound, that is not a part of the instrument’s natural sound.
Either way, it is a clear example of the sound. Through these three examples, you should have an idea of the classic Wurli tone. You can hear it in hundreds of songs throughout the history of pop music.
The Sound Of Other Wurlitzer Models
Before we move on, I wanted to show you some more music that features the Wurlitzer. I think it is interesting to hear how different artists were using the instrument, and maybe it will inspire you to learn some new tunes!
Ray Charles – “What’d I Say”
Oh man! What a great keyboard tone! This was the Wurlitzer 120. These pianos were beautiful – often seen in a white finish, but sometimes in a wooden finish as well. This is one of the classic Wurlitzer models, but you do not see many of them today, because they sell for over $5000!
Sun Ra And His Arkestra – “Medicine For A Nightmare”
This is some pretty wild jazz music, so get your ears ready. The legendary Sun Ra was one of the first artists to put a Wurlitzer on a recording back in 1960. You can hear the Wurlitzer solo come in around the 55 second mark.
It took a bit of searching, but I found some evidence that the model he was using on this recording was a Wurlitzer 110. This model is very rare. It was sold for only a few months before being replaced by the Wurlitzer 111.
Steve Allen – “Sweet Lorraine”
Steve Allen is probably the first person to ever record a Wurlitzer, and this song is a perfect example! This is a beautiful recording of some of the first Wurlitzers ever made. Treat your ears and give it a listen.
How Much Does A Wurlitzer Cost And What Is Mine Worth?
Now that you’ve heard the sound of the Wurlitzer, you probably want one – I know I did! Or maybe you have ended up reading this guide because you have a Wurlitzer and want to know what it is worth.
Well, if you have a Wurlitzer, I have good news. If you want to buy a Wurlitzer, I have bad news.
Wurlitzer 200A – Pricing
Let’s start with the most common and most popular model of Wurlitzer electric piano. The 200A model can go for as little as $800 for a unit in poor condition or a unit in the hands of someone who isn’t sure what it is.
That said, a perfectly restored Wurlitzer 200A in a rare color will sell for up to $6,000. Which is kind of crazy, but that’s the market!
Most Wurlitzers will be black and in okay condition. Many units require constant tuning and maintenance, because they are old, often poorly taken care of, and sometimes poorly built.
The average, black, decent Wurlitzer 200A will go from $1,500 to $2,500. I bought mine for $2,500, and I probably overpaid a little bit, because it needed some work, but I wanted it.
However, if you have a beige, green, or red Wurlitzer 200A on your hands, you can expect to sell that on the internet for over $2,500, if it is in decent condition.
Wurlitzer 200 – Pricing
Wurlitzer 200 models can still be found on the web and on local classified listings, although they are less common. The 200 model is more finicky and is notorious for electrical problems, which is why the Wurlitzer company replaced it with the 200A model – it has an improved amplifier circuit and better speaker.
These pianos go for anywhere from $800 to $4,000. Typically, they will be less expensive than a 200A model, although if it is in perfect condition or a rare color, you can expect a high price. The average price would be around $1,500 to $2,000.
Note that you can fix many of the issues with the Wurlitzer 200 by replacing some of the electrical circuitry. Vintage Vibe offers Wurlitzer 200 amplifier rebuild kits that will kill the hum and solve many other problems with these instruments.
Wurlitzer 140/140B – Pricing
The Wurlitzer 140/140B was a total redesign for the Wurlitzer. It has better action, a different cabinet, and a solid-state amp. These are cool keyboards!
Typically, the 140 model will go from $2,000 to $4,000 depending on the condition. They are rare and usually poorly taken care of. Do not be surprised if you see a high price tag on a fully restored model!
That said, I found a Wurlitzer 140 for $1,200 in my small hometown. The owner didn’t really know what it was! This can still happen, but it is less common due to the internet, and articles like this one.
Wurlitzer 120 – Pricing
These keyboards were made back in the mid-50s. This is what Ray Charles played on “What’d I Say”. They have a more bell-like tone and are bigger and heavier than the later series, although the legs are still detachable.
These keyboards are expensive. I could only find one for sale on the internet right now for $5,500. They will go for anywhere between $3,000 and $6,000.
Early Wurlitzer Piano Models
Anything earlier than the Wurlitzer 120 is a bit hard to judge. These early models are rare and they are basically antiques. You can expect to see them selling for anywhere from $2,000 to $6,000 if they are in good shape.
You can also find them for super cheap sometimes. As mentioned earlier, these pianos were used in universities and colleges and they were also used by churches and private piano studios.
Sometimes, these organizations have these old keyboards sitting in basements for years, unused. I have heard tales of people discovering perfectly good Wurlitzers behind churches or in alleyways or at garage sales.
I have a friend who bought a Wurlitzer for $80 at a garage sale – all it was missing was a power cord!
Keep your eyes peeled, you may be able to find a good deal. If not, be prepared to shell out some cash for these instruments.
Maintaining A Wurlitzer Keyboard
One thing I have learned after several years of owning and touring a vintage Wurlitzer keyboard, is that they need regular maintenance. It is not constant, but it is a common occurrence.
For this reason, I suggest you get comfortable maintaining your keyboard or be prepared to shell out cash every year to perform maintenance on your keyboard. For many, that is not a problem. Guitarists pay to have their guitars set up a few times a year!
Some common problems include:
Out Of Tune
The most common problem you will have with your keyboard is out of tune notes. This happens with age, temperature change, and use. Tuning your Wurlitzer requires filing down the reeds to make notes sharper, or adding solder to the reed to make it flat.
This requires a soldering iron, solder, a couple simple tools, and patience. You can do it yourself, and I find it to be enjoyable.
If your keys are sticky, the piano requires regulation. This is a problem that usually occurs with pianos that have been moved recently, had its environment changed, or had something spilled into it (God forbid).
Fixing this issue would include cleaning the Wurlitzer, lubricating the action, and potentially changing the regulating screws. None of this is terribly difficult.
There are all sorts of electrical problems that can occur. Loud hums, buzz, or hiss. Popping and crackling. No noise or low and distorted noise.
I have had problems over the years with electrical issues, and this year I am replacing the entire amplifier in my Wurlitzer. Frankly, it is not terribly difficult, but for those who are worried about damaging their instrument, it can be intimidating.
You need a few basic tools, but all of the tools can be acquired for under $100. You need to be careful, but you shouldn’t be afraid of working on the instrument. The skills you need are not hard to acquire, you just need to be patient!
Final Thoughts On Wurlitzer Pianos
I am a major Wurlitzer fan. Even though they are expensive and require frequent maintenance, there is no replacement for the way the instrument feels and sounds.
Many software instruments come close – I use the Arturia Wurlitzer and the Nord Wurlitzer often – but they don’t have the vibe and they don’t have the touch.
If you get a chance to play one of these classic instruments, do it! If you get the chance to buy one, check your bank account first, and then do it!