How to Rock Out on the Wurly Electric Piano

A lesson from the December 2014 issue of KEYBOARD.
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The Wurlitzer electric piano or “Wurly” is a classic. Though it has a relatively simple timbre and not as much pitch or dynamic range as an acoustic piano, it is nevertheless quite versatile. Much as the grand piano is often used in classical music as a stand-in for a whole orchestra (as in a “piano reduction” of an orchestral score), the Wurly can also play roles associated with other instruments. In this lesson, we’ll use the simple four-chord progression of G, Dmin7, Amin, and F to illustrate five different ways we can use the Wurly as part of a pop, rock, or R&B arrangement.

1. Horn Section

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The Wurly’s barking, biting qualities can mimic brass, as seen in Ex. 1. While it doesn’t really sound like brass, a Wurly part can do the same kind of “answering the vocal” function that a section of trumpets, saxes and trombones might do in a rock or R&B arrangement. A good example of this is the Wurly part on “Any Major Dude Will Tell You” by Steely Dan.

2. Guitar Riffs

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Ex. 2 illustrates how the Wurly is a great riffing machine. Its warm, distorted tones can fire off a gnarly blues riff to rival anything an electric guitar can do. (Okay, you can’t bend notes, but power chords in fifths sound delicious on a Wurly.) And if you add a touch of blue notes or pentatonic “sliding,” the results can be quite effective. Listen to “Miss You” by the Rolling Stones for an example of this in action.

3. Guitar-Like Tremolos

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The Wurly has a wonderful tremolo built in, demonstrated in Ex. 3 and similar to that of a tremolo’ed electric guitar. Fewer notes are needed, as the shimmering effect gets you into a dreamlike space just on the strength of some spare, sustained notes or chords. Tom Petty’s “Breakdown” is a great example of this put to use.

4. Gospel Piano

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Ex. 4 takes your Wurly to church. Many pioneering electric pianists (especially Mr. Ray Charles Robinson) cut their teeth playing gospel piano, and it works well on the Wurly, which adds a little extra ferocity due to the distortion and more primitive waveform of the amplified reed, as compared to a piano string. The action of a Wurlitzer is very similar to that of an acoustic piano, which helps explain why it effectively translates to gospel piano playing. Check out Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved A Man the Way I Loved You” to hear the Wurly used in this way.

5. Stomp Piano

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Ex. 5 uses the Wurly in a way that parallels an acoustic piano in a shuffled, “stomp” kind of groove, like those on middle to late-period Beatles tracks. In this context, the piano is essentially approximating the feel of a marching band, so the tones and phrasing have both brass-like and percussive qualities. Listen to Queen’s “You’re My Best Friend” to hear this kind of stomp piano effect.