Electronic Music from the Aether

The Electro-Theremin

There is a story that after seeing a struggling thereminist trying to get his instrument to work, Dr. Paul Tanner said to himself, "There has to be a better way!". The Electro-Theremin was born.

Paul Tanner is best known for his trombone work, from Glenn Miller, to the top studios of Hollywood. He also wrote one of the most used jazz method books. However, his contribution to electronic music is not so well known. It was actually this instrument that was used in the Beach Boys hit record 'Good Vibrations', on 'Music for Heavenly Bodies', and in numerous TV and film scores.One of the first TV show themes to use the instrument was The D.A.'s Man, a 1959 drama. The composer of this particular score was Frank Comstock, a colleague from the big band era.

The electro-theremin is not a traditional theremin at all. It is not played "in space" with the hands in front of antennas. It is a mechanical controller of an audio generator (oscillator). A hand device controls pitch by moving back and forth along a keyboard diagram, and on that hand device switch that controls articulation. The left hand riding the knob of an amplifier controls volume. However, at a time when decent theremin players were a rarity, the Electro-Theremin was an instrument capable of producing that familiar theremin sound.

Tanner has said he regrets the fact that people may have thought he was playing a real theremin all those years. Paul knows the difficulty involved with playing the theremin and has the highest respect for players such as the late Clara Rockmore. Mrs. Rockmore's recording, "The Art of the Theremin" is one such recording Tanner holds in high regard. He said, "Compared to her, I am a complete fraud". Well, the truth is Paul never pretended to be playing a real theremin. Even the name, electro-theremin was not his term for his instrument.

Construction of the instrument was completed at 2 in the morning, the day of its debute! Bob Whitsell and Joe Rozar stood by with an ample supply of tools and components just in case the instrument failed. The producers eventually settled on the name 'Electro-Theremin', a name which acknowledged both the similarities and differences of this instrument and the theremin.

The author of the liner notes of this first album, Music For Heavenly Bodies, goes out of his way to point out the differences between Tanner's new musical instrument and the real theremin. Comparisons are drawn between Sam Hoffman's RCA and Tanner's "Electro-Theremin". They point out how the Electro-Theremin uses a sine wave for sound and how the RCA tone is rich in harmonic content. The notes go further to state how the Electro-Theremin has a complete frequency range (something not found in too many instruments). And most importantly, the liner notes state how unlike the theremin, the Electro-Theremin is mechanical, using words such as "Works on a slide".

Soon after the sessions took place for "Heavenly Bodies", Tanner began to receive many calls from musical contractors working for the motion picture and TV industries. Their procedure was to hire Tanner and his Electro-Theremin anytime the soundtrack music accompanied someone who was drunk, or if the scenes were either space scenes or ghost scenes.

TV and film credits (all uncredited)

  • Lost in Space (1965) TV Series
  • Strait-Jacket (1964)
  • My Favorite Martian (1963) TV Series
  • Giant Gila Monster, The (1959)
  • D.A.'s Man, The (1959) TV Series

With many thanks to David Miller for supplying this material.
For more information, see his research at The Paul Tanner Electro-Theremin Page

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