The Paul Tanner Electro-Theremin Page

Paul O.W. Tanner

Oct. 15, 1917 - Feb. 5, 2013

Dr. Paul Tanner and the "Electro-Theremin"

Hello, and welcome to the Paul Tanner Electro-Theremin Page. You may be asking yourself, "What is an 'Electro-Theremin'?". Well, stick around and I'll explain.

Where to go...


Frequently asked questions about the Electro-Theremin

The Electro-Theremin
Everything you wanted to know about the Electro-Theremin

An Interview with Dr. Paul Tanner
Dr. Tanner discusses the Electro-Theremin, and its use

SIDEMAN: Stories about THE Band
A brand new book by Dr. Tanner, featuring numerous articles and interviews and many never before seen photos.

Conversations with a Musician
Tanner's book of memoirs. Truly a wonderful book. Yes, he mentions the Electro-Theremin - several pages worth!

Paul Tanner Biographical Sketch
A brief outline of Tanner's musical career

Paul Tanner Electro-Theremin Discography
A discography of Tanner's Electro-Theremin recordings

Electro-Theremin mp3 Sound Library
Listen to the Electro-Theremin. October's download - theme to the 1959 TV show, "The D.A.'s Man"

Listen to samples of the Electro-Theremin

A Special Thank You
Special thanks to the three gentlemen who made this website possible.

The Tannerin
The Tannerin, our new musical instrument based on the original Electro-Theremin- now being used by Brian Wilson!

Tannerin '99
Tom Polk's page about the Tannerin he built for the Brian Wilson Tour.

Be sure to stop by and sign the guestbook. Thanks for your visit!

Feel like dropping me a line?

Who Is Paul Tanner?

Paul Tanner is well known for his trombone work, from Glenn Miller, to the top studios of Hollywood. Tanner's career has spanned over 60 years, and he's not slowing now!

Paul also wrote one of the most used jazz method books and taught at UCLA. Of course all this, while still on staff of the ABC Orchestra.

The Other Paul Tanner

Ah, now here's where we connect Tanner to electronic music, rock and roll, theremins, and the Beach Boys.

What has been overlooked through the years is Paul's contribution to electronic music. Once, after seeing a struggling thereminist trying to get his instrument to work, Tanner said to himself, "There has to be a better way!" There was a "better way", the Electro-Theremin.

Building the Electro-Theremin

Tanner went to Bob Whitsell, an actor who also had an interest in electronics. Whitsell had made "real" theremins prior to Tanner's instrument, even back when he was in highschool. Whitsell told Tanner he could come up with an instrument that would have specific note placement, yet while retaining the sliding, glissando effect the theremin is so well known for. He said he could make it quick enough where you could "triple tongue" if you so desired.

Actor and inventor, Bob Whitsell, late 1950's

Tanner recording Music for Heavenly Bodies on the first (prototype) Electro-Theremin

Is it a Theremin or What?

An interesting result of the Electro-Theremin is the crowd it draws to the theremin. First, let me say the Electro-Theremin is not a traditional theremin. 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 amp controls volume.

"OK, that's fine and dandy", you say, "But what about the theremin. Is the Electro-Theremin a theremin or what?"

Well, by definition of the sound it makes, I guess some would say "YES". However, when one considers the heterodyning principles of the theremin, along with its "played in space" uniqueness, you really couldn't call it a real theremin.

What's in a Name?

Tanner has told me 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.

The story behind the naming of Tanner's instrument can be found on my interview of him, but here is a short version-

Construction of the instrument was completed at 2 in the morning, the day of its debute! Tanner told me it still had a few bugs, but just as with show biz (this IS show biz, you know) the show went on. Bob Whitsell and assistant, Joe Rozar stood by with an ample supply of tools and components just in case the instrument failed.

Life-long friends, Joe Rozar and Dr. Robert Whitsell (Photo taken Summer of 2002)

The engineers and producers were wanting a name for the instrument as soon as possible. It quickly had the nickname, Paul's Box, but I'm sure the record people felt that name was a bit below their tastes, so the name, Electro-Theremin, was given at the time of the recording session by the producers . "Electro", I suppose to imply the physical nature of controlling the pitch. "Theremin", of course, for the sound it made. I might add, Paul had no say so in the naming of the instrument, others named it for him. The record company people made their decision- "Electro-Theremin". So it was!

I'd like to take this opportunity to make a point, if I may. 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 Paul'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".

So, what's in a name? A lot, if you want history to be correct and the right people to be given credit for their contributions!

Music for Heavenly Bodies, The first recording featuring the "Electro-Theremin"

A New Instrument is Presented to the World

As mentioned above, the instrument made its debut on the album, Music For Heavenly Bodies. Soon after (or should I say, immediately after) the sessions took place for "Heavenly Bodies", Paul started receiving many calls from musical contractors working for the motion picture and TV industries. Their procedure was to hire Paul and his Electro-Theremin anytime the soundtrack music accompanied someone who was drunk, or if the scenes were either space scenes or ghost scenes.

Maybe the next event to happen is what has caused all the confusion through the years. Not knowing what else to call it, the powers that be at the Hollywood Musician's Union listed the instrument as "Theremin". This one simple act would cause much confusion for the years to come. I'm even beginning to think that when Brian Wilson called the Local for a theremin player he didn't know the difference, or was at least pleased with the results of Tanner's instrument. (That is obvious, is it not, when you consider the numerous sessions Tanner did with the Beach Boys?)

Show Time!

Paul's "Box" soon became a hit for those needing that certain "ooOOoo" sound. One of the first TV show themes to use the instrument was The D.A.'s Man, a 1959 drama. The composer of this score was none other than Frank Comstock, a colleague from the big band era. The electro-theremin soars above the driving rhythm of drums and big band horn section in this theme. Very effective writing to say the least.

Music From Outer Space, Project: Comstock, featuring Paul Tanner

More TV Themes and Background Tracks

When you play lead trombone for the ABC Orchestra, the likelihood of being called other projects is quite high, particularly if you happen to be the only one around with a theremin-like instrument. So the word got out, and Tanner was being used on more and more projects. One such project was the new TV show, My Favorite Martian.

Tanner recalls having to be flown in just to do that one show. He was the only one with the instrument. Not only is the instrument featured on the theme tune, it was used every time Ray Walston (the Martian) would levitate items, extend his antennae or meditate. Tanner recounts that pitch had to be exact, because of the chord structure under him. If you want to hear the Electro-Theremin really put through the paces, tune into re-runs of this show. It's amazing just how much the instrument was used.

Another TV show that used Tanner was one called Ford's Startime Theater. Tanner was featured in a short sketch of sorts, spanning about every type of musical style. Most interesting are the human-like qualities Tanner got from his instrument. The "Hi Honey, I'm home!" phrase coming from the Electro-Theremin is sound to behold. In those several minutes, Tanner gives the instrument a workout. I'm sure it was something too that took considerable practice and rehearsal on Tanner's part.

The Paul Tanner Electro-Theremin Page

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