Dave's Theremin Home Page presents...


The Paul Tanner Electro-Theremin Page



An Interview with Dr. Paul Tanner




Dr. Paul O. W. Tanner playing the Electro-Theremin




Click here for Biographical Sketch


David Miller:
In your name,"Paul O. W. Tanner", you have the distinction of two middle initials, "O" and "W". Can you tell me what they stand for?

Paul Tanner:
"Old Weather-beaten". Some people say, "Out of Work", but no, it's really "Old Weather-beaten". I was named after a couple of irate uncles who were sorry that the first two sons didn't represent them, that's all.

D.M.:
You were a charter member of the Glenn Miller Orchestra, where you played trombone, what was that like?

P.T.:
Oh now, you've only got a half an hour here. It was a good job, a very good job. I was very happy there.

D.M.:
Do you recall any all-electric orchestras back when you were in the dance bands?

P.T.:
No, they didn't have such things.

D.M.:
You don't recall any that used a theremin?

P.T.:
Oh no, huh uh.

D.M.:
You also played with Les Brown, Tex Beneke, and others. When did you first become interested in the theremin?

P.T.:
When I was doing a date, and saw that some guy was having a tough time doing his job.

D.M.:
That was the session we had talked about, wasn't it?

P.T.:
Yes.

D.M.:
I guess that was Sam Hoffman?

P.T.:
I guess so.

D.M.:
You told me before that you had no experience with electronics. How did you come up the idea for your Electro-Theremin?

P.T.:
Well, I wanted something that would be exact, so that every note would be what is was you wanted. That's all. So I figured out a way to measure a spot, and on that spot I would get such and such a note.

D.M.:
Right.

Were you familiar with the instrument called a Trautonium?

P.T.:
No, never heard of it.

D.M.:
So you had never seen an instrument like yours before?

P.T.:
No, huh uh.

D.M.:
Did you build it from any existing plans?

P.T.:
No.

D.M.:
How long did it take to build?

P.T.:
Oh gosh, I guess maybe a week. But I was busy doing other things.

D.M.:
So, in your spare time, which I know was limited.

P.T.:
(Laughs) Sure was.

D.M.:
What was the first project you used the Electro-Theremin on?

P.T.:
That recording session I sent you a tape of, the one called, "Music for Heavenly Bodies" [Omega Disk OSL-4; date, 1959].

D.M.:
You completed building your instrument at 2 in the morning and played that session later that day.

P.T.:
That's right.

D.M.:
So you debuted your instrument on a recording.

P.T.:
Yes.

D.M.:
Did your instrument require much practicing?

P.T.:
No, I never practiced it.

D.M.:
I'll be.

Do you recall what year it was you made your instrument?

P.T.:
Hmmm, boy. No I don't, I'm sorry. It had to be in the early 50s or mid 50s.

D.M.:
Can you describe your instrument? I know you have told me it used a stretch of piano wire to control the pitch. I'm still confused. Did the finger make direct contact with that wire, or was something in between the finger and the wire?

P.T.:
There was a contact switch under my index finger of my right hand. A wire went from the contact switch on down through this little peg, or tube, and it went on down inside the box. The wire then was attached to the oscillator.

Now, if I touched the contact switch, you got sound. If not, you didn't get any sound.

The left hand operated the volume, which went into an amplifier.

D.M.:
You controlled the volume then, by turning a knob, right?

P.T.:
That's exactly right.

D.M.:
At the time you made your Electro-Theremin, you were already a very busy studio musician. How long did it take for the word to get out about your new instrument?

P.T.:
Oh, not very long. After a couple of people heard that particular recording, I started getting calls for anything where the person in the story would either be a ghost, or was from outer space, or that the person was drunk, or anything like that. Where they wanted some kind of eerie sound, they thought this would be eerie.

D.M.:
You did many TV show recordings with your instrument. "The D.A.'s Man" [1959], "My Favorite Martian" and many others. Can you recall a few?

P.T.:
There was Ford's "Startime", and then there was another thing that was sponsored by Burgee Beer. I did some "I Love Lucy" shows.

D.M.:
You don't recall doing "Lost in Space"? It sounds like you playing. You don't recall that?

P.T.:
No, I don't recall it. It's possible, but I don't recall it.

D.M.:
Did you do any sound tracks to any movies?

P.T.:
Yes, I sure did.

D.M.:
What were they?

P.T.:
Well, the main one I remember is where Joan Crawford did a thing called, "Strait-Jacket" [1964] where she was accused of chopping off everybody's heads.

D.M.:
Oh, goodness!

P.T.:
So she was a psycho, they thought. There was one spot in the picture where she was to go up the wall, and they put her in a little small room, and then she got more and more and more excited and then she gradually got limp and passed out. And all through that, I'm the only thing playing.

So I told the guy who was going to conduct me, I said, "Just raise your hand up when you want more intensity, and lower it when you want less intensity, that's all you got to do", which was mainly a case of widening the vibrato. There was no music for that, I was just to make an effect, that's all.

D.M.:
You really didn't use any electronically processed effects, did you? It was basically just the sound coming out of the instrument, is that right?

P.T.:
Yes, that's right, but of course if you go through an amplifier you can do anything you want to do, but I didn't fool with that. I left that to the guitar players,

D.M.:
(Laughs)

P.T.:
and later, the synthesizers.

D.M.:
How many albums were recorded featuring your instrument?

P.T.:
I think there were only two that really featured the instrument.

D.M.:
Those two that we have talked about, "Music for Heavenly Bodies" [Omega Disk OSL-4; date, 1959], and Frank Comstock's "Music From Outer Space" [Warner Bros. W 1463; date, 1962].

P.T:
Yes.

D.M.:
I have heard both albums. You have told me before that there were still bugs in the instrument when you made the first recording. One can definitely hear an improvement on the second album. What did you do?

P.T.:
Well, I made it so I could handle the pitch a lot better on the second one. The first one, there was... I had to move an indicator around a curve and that's too chancy. So, I straightened that out.

D.M.:
And you ended up drawing out a keyboard, is that correct?

P.T.:
Yeah, and coming off of this tube that had the wire inside it, I had a small wire that went over the top of a drawn out keyboard that I had actually drawn there. And incidentally anytime they wanted me to transpose, I could just move the keyboard.

D.M.:
Oh, OK. Neat, very neat!

Let me compliment you on your playing on both albums. Your technique is right on, and your phrasing and vibrato are incredible. You are quite a gifted musician.

P.T.:
Oh, thank you. Actually, I was a much better trombone player. (Laughs)

D.M.:
And I've heard those recordings too!

When we talked the last time, you told me how busy you kept during the time you took up the theremin. You were teaching at UCLA, and recording, concertising, and doing clinics on the trombone. How did you manage to do it all?

P.T.:
I don't know. What you didn't say was I was also staff on the American Broadcast Company, for 16 years. (Laughs)

Now, that's a good job for a lead trombone player who wants to take off every now and then. Because they paid me a full salary whether I blew a note or not. Which means they were paying for the privilege of first choice of my time.

D.M.:
And we talked before about the show, "My Favorite Martian" that flew you back and forth to do the show.

P.T.:
That's right.

D.M.:
So you really didn't have to practice the instrument (Electro-Theremin) then?

P.T.:
No, there really wasn't time for it.

D.M.:
Did you ever play a traditional two-antenna type theremin?

P.T.:
No.

D.M.:
In the mid 1960s, you, or should I say, your wife, got a call from Brian Wilson (of the Beach Boys). What did he want?

P.T.:
He wanted a theremin on "Good Vibrations".

D.M.:
And you took him up on the offer, right?

P.T.:
Yeah, sure.

D.M.:
And what were the sessions like with the Beach Boys?

P.T.:
They were usually very late at night, and very long, and very good pay.

D.M.:
Very good pay? OK.

P.T.:
Oh yeah, because when you go past midnight it doubles, after you go past three hours, it doubles again.

D.M.:
Oh, so they would start recording at midnight?

P.T.:
Well, there was a session I was doing that I got through at 11 PM, and he (Wilson) said he'd start his at 11:30. At night!

D.M.:
And that was the first session, wasn't it?

P.T.:
Yes, that's right.

[Actually, Tanner's first Beach Boys session was for the tune, "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times". This session occurred on Feb. 14, 1966. The first "Good Vibrations" session occurred three days later, Feb. 17, 1966]

D.M.:
Do you recall doing any other tunes for them besides "Good Vibrations"? Because I believe they used a theremin on one other tune.

P.T.:
I can't think of it. But one of the other cousins got a group together in a pretty high-priced studio, and we'd stand around for a couple of hours while he waited for something to occur to him, and nothing did, and so we were eventually dismissed, and had to be paid.

D.M.:
And your opinion of the tune after it was finished?

P.T.:
"Good Vibrations"?

I thought it was an excellent record. Showed real versatility.

[Tanner recorded three tunes with the Beach Boys: "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times", "Good Vibrations", and "Wild Honey"]

D.M.:
Did Brian Wilson ever try your instrument?

P.T.:
No.

D.M.:
The Beach Boys wanted you to go on the road with them too. What were your feelings about that?

P.T.:
Well, I was teaching at UCLA, I was on the staff at ABC, and I was doing a lot of free lance. There wasn't any way I could do that. But he told me what I would come back with, and it sounded awfully good.

D.M.:
An interested Bob Moog called you around this time. What did he have to say about your Electro-Theremin?

P.T.:
He agreed with me, it was "tinker toy".

D.M.:
Tinker toy?

P.M.:
Yeah. See I told him, I said, "To you this is just tinker toy", and he said "Well explain it", so I explained it and he said, "You're right, it is tinker toy".

D.M.:
Yet, in its simplicity, it makes an outstanding sound.

P.T.:
Well, it worked out for me.

D.M.:
It was a very precise instrument.

P.T.:
That was the idea, to make it much more precise than the regular theremin. But, it didn't sound like a regular theremin, and I would suppose that would be a turn off to a fellow like Moog.

D.M.:
Did you ever play any of his instruments?

P.T.:
No.

D.M.:
This was your only theremin, is that correct?

P.T.:
Absolutely.

D.M.:
Did the Beach Boys ever express any interest in buying your theremin?

P.T.:
Well, other than they wanted me to come on the road with them and play it. That's what they were interested in.

D.M.:
They wanted you to join them more than buy your instrument.

P.T.:
That's right.

D.M.:
Do any schematics of your instrument exit?

P.T.:
No, and I'm very sorry about that. I really am. Because I would be happy to turn it over to you.

D.M.:
Oh, I appreciate that.

Where any pictures made of your instrument?

P.T.:
No. Engineers would come take a look at it and laugh.

D.M.:
Oh! Gosh!

P.T.:
Because they would ask me if I would open up the lid and show it to them. So I did, and they'd crack up because it was so simple.

D.M.:
You ended up putting it in an elaborate box to compensate.

P.T.:
Yes, that's right. So it would look nicer. Otherwise, it would look like an oatmeal box.(Laughs)

D.M.:
Can you recall your last session with your Electro-Theremin?

P.T.:
No I don't remember, David. You have to remember I'm 80! (Laughs)

D.M.:
Why did you give up playing the instrument?

P.T.:
Oh, because the synthesizer came in! And I could hear that it would do a lot more than I would. It would do the same thing I did and a lot more.

D.M.:
What became of your instrument?

P.T.:
I sold it to a hospital.

D.M.:
And what did they use it for?

P.T.:
Well, one thing I know they use it for is measuring hearing. They said they were going to use it for therapy, but I don't know how they would do that. That's up to them.

D.M.:
You don't know the whereabouts of it now? That's been what, maybe 25 years ago?

P.T.:
Oh, probably more than that.

D.M.:
Did you ever make another one?

P.T.:
No.

D.M.:
Did you ever play any other electronic instruments?

P.T.:
Only attachments on the trombone. Things they used to call a divider or something, and different things that go with the amplifier. But I just used them a few times for fun and then I'd turn them back in to the Yamaha people. I said no one ever asked me to use this on a work call, so I don't need it.

D.M.:
Obviously your career spanned a lot of musical styles, from early big band swing to far out space music. Do you have a preference for any particular style?

P.T.:
No. Anything at all, as long as it is played well is fine with me.

D.M.:
That's an answer I would expect from a studio musician like yourself who kept busy for so many years.

P.T.:
Well, people have a tendency to knock studio musicians and boy, some of the greatest guys in the world are playing in the studios.

D.M.:
Absolutely!

How many years did you teach at UCLA?

P.T.:
23.

D.M.:
Are you retired from active performing?

P.T.:
Yeah, but I do a lot of writing.

D.M.:
Books?

P.T.:
Yes, I've published about 30.

D.M.:
Are they curriculum books?

P.T.:
Yes, the most used jazz book in the country is mine. It's in its 8th edition.

D.M.:
Right!

P.T.:
It's being used at over 400 colleges.

D.M.:
And it's on the Internet too.

P.T.:
Oh, is it? I didn't know that.

I know the 8th edition is on CD-ROM.

D.M.:
Are you planning an autobiography?

P.T.:
Yes, I've just done that, and the publisher has it now.

D.M.:
Any mention about your involvement with your Electro-Theremin in it?

P.T.:
Yeah, I guess so.

D.M.:
Do you still get calls to play the theremin?

P.T.:
(Chuckles) Yeah, every now and then.

D.M.:
When I first called, were you surprised to get a call about your theremin?

P.T.:
It happens every now and then. But no one has gone into it like you have.

D.M.:
Well, there were a lot of unanswered questions.

Are you surprised at today's interest in the theremin?

P.T.
Oh, definitely!!

D.M.:
Have any articles ever been published about your involvement with theremins?

P.T.:
Not that I can recall. I suppose there was something in the trade papers, but that's all.

D.M.:
Would you like to add any last comments to this interview?

P.T.:
Yes! I'm doing fine. (Laughs)

D.M.:
Well, Dr. Tanner, I'd like to thank you for taking the time to answer these questions...

P.T.:
Oh, David. Gee, you sound very formal. (Laughs) You can call me Paul.

D.M.:
OK, Paul. (both laugh)

It has been a real pleasure meeting you and listening and learning about you and your instrument.

P.T.:
Well, good!

D.M.:
I appreciate your time.

P.T.:
My pleasure, David.





Text, 1997 David S. Miller

The Paul Tanner Electro-Theremin Page