The ‘Electronic Keyboard Oboe’, ‘the Elastic Tuning Organ’ and ‘Electronic Keyboard Drum’. Ivor Darreg. USA 1936.

Darreg’s Electronic Keyboard Oboe of 1936

The Electronic Keyboard Oboe was a one-off experimental vacuum-tube based instrument made by the US microtonal composer and prolific instrument designer, Ivor Darreg in 1935. Darreg was a contemporary of Harry Partch and other US composers of the 1930s and 40s who pursued a vision of microtonal music free from the restrictions of equal temperament and the classical instrumentarium. Darreg designed and built numerous electronic and electro-acoustic instruments based around microtonal controllers such as the Amplified Cello, Amplified Clavichord, Electric Organ, Electric Keyboard Oboe and the Electric Keyboard Drum. Darreg coined the term ‘Xenharmonic’ – roughly translatable as “unfamiliar modes” – to describe microtonal tuning beyond the twelve tone system : “intended to include just intonation and such temperaments as the 5-, 7-, and 11-tone, along with the higher-numbered really-microtonal systems as far as one wishes to go.” 1Xenharmonic music retrieved 09-12-21


Aged 19 (in 1936), Darreg designed his first electronic instrument, the Electronic Keyboard Oboe which he intended to be a ‘generalised reed instrument’ imitating the oboe, bagpipe, saxophone, basson etc. The instrument was monophonic, generating a rough sine tone from a single vacuum tube based on a design of a of a telegraph oscillator circuit Darreg found in a radio hobbyist magazine. The oboe and horn sounds were created by passing the basic sine tones through a series of five formant filters and the notes could be further modulated using a series of pitch buttons to drop or raise the pitch by specified intervals. Although the Keyboard Oboe lacked any sound shaping capabilities – resulting a rather basic harsh tone and timbre – the pitch buttons gave it the tonal flexibility to be used in microtonal compositions. In the early 1960s, Darreg extended his original design to create the ‘Elastic Tuning Organ’ which consisted of sixty vacuum tube oscillators that were individually tunable via potentiometers allowing for every note of the instrument to be set at any pitch.2McLaren, Brian. (1990) Ivor darreg – a tour of his studio, video interview.

Excerpt from Brian Mc Laren’s 1990 interview of Ivor Darreg showing Darreg demonstrating the Electronic Keyboard Oboe and Keyboard Drum.

Jonathan Glasier described his life and work circa 1988:3Glasier, J. (1997) Ivor Darreg and Xenharmonics, Biography by Jonathan Glasier, Perfect Sound Forever, retrieved 03-12-21 ‘

“Ivor Darreg was born Kenneth Vincent Gerard O’Hara in Portland Oregon. His father John was editor of a weekly Catholic newspaper and his mother was an artist. Ivor dropped out of school as a teenager because he had a series of illnesses that left him without teeth and with very little energy. He did have energy to learn. He was self-taught in at least ten languages that he read and spoke. He had a basic understanding of all the sciences. His real love was music and electronics. Because of his choice of music, his father cast him out and he and his mother set out on their own with little help from anyone. At that point he took on the name “Ivor,” which means “man with bow” (from his cello-playing talents) and “Drareg” (the retrograde inversion of “Gerard”), soon changed to Darreg.

Ivor’s life with his mother was a huge struggle, and Ivor’s health was poor until his mother died in 1972. Part of the reason was that they lived on canned soup, and the salt kept his blood pressure sky-high. Being poor in health and wealth, Ivor became resourceful. He picked up stray wires that were cut off telephone poles and other things on the street and from friends. He said he learned to “pinch a penny so hard, it would say ouch.” Ivor created his first instrument, the Electronic Keyboard Oboe, in 1937. Following the current history of electronics and reading from the journals of the day, he learned circuitry. He made the instrument, which still runs today, because the orchestra he was playing in needed an oboe and Ivor took the challenge. The Electronic Keyboard Oboe is not only one of the first synthesizers, but a microtonal one at that. It plays the regular twelve tones, but there are eight buttons that move the tone in gradation from a few cents for a tremolo effect to a full quarter-tone.

In the forties, Ivor built the Amplified Cello, Amplified Clavichord and the Electric Keyboard Drum. The Amplified Clavichord no longer exists, but the Electric Keyboard Drum, which uses the buzzer-like relays, and the Amplified Cello are still working.

In the sixties Ivor created an organ with elastic tuning. The circuitry would justify thirds and fifths. In the early sixties, Ivor met Ervin Wilson and Harry Partch. Upon conversing with Wilson and seeing his refretted guitars and metal tubulongs (3/4″ electric conduit), Ivor took the plunge into non-quartertone microtonality or Xenharmony. He began refretting guitars and making tubulongs and metallophones in 10, 14, 15, 16, 17, 19, 21, 22, 24, 31 and 34 tone equal temperaments. He shared his new beginning with others through his Xenharmonic Bulletin and other writings. The Xenharmonic Alliance [a network of people interested in alternative tuning systems] was created. When we met Ivor in 1977, through John Chalmers, I saw a need to give Ivor and others a more public forum, so I started the journal Interval/Journal of Music Research and Development. Then in 1981, Johnny Reinhard created the American Microtonal Festival in New York, and in 1984 the 1/1 just intonation group started in San Francisco. Recently the South East Just Intonation Center has been created by Denny Genovese.

In the seventies, Ivor created his Megalyra family of instruments, the Megalyra itself being the tour de force of Ivor instrumental creations (featured in EMI Vol. II #2). This six to eight foot long contrabass slide guitar is strung on both sides to solo (I-I-V-I) and bass (I-V-I) configurations. This instrument sounds like tuned thunder and is waiting for some heavy metal or slide guitar pro to make it a celebrity. Other instruments in the Megalyra family are the Drone, Kosmolyra, and the Hobnailed Newel Post, which is a 6″ by 6″ beam strung with over seventy strings. Ivor called this instrument his harmonic laboratory.

Those of you who knew Ivor or read his writings knew that he had a special outlook on music, and a comprehensive mind that explored many subjects. His compositions, of which all are either on tape or written down, date from 1935. Many of his piano compositions are available on cassette, played by Ivor. Detwelvulate! contains a selection of his tapes Beyond the Xenharmonic Frontier, Vols. 1, 2 and 3 as well as earlier acoustic recordings Ivor made on his reel-to-reel machine.

Elizabeth and I brought Ivor to San Diego in 1985, and he seemed to get younger every year. He was in the best health of his life for those years. We were very happy to be there to share time with this great man and friend, and see him spend the most productive and stable years of his life here in San Diego.

We miss you Ivor.”


  • 1
    Xenharmonic music retrieved 09-12-21
  • 2
    McLaren, Brian. (1990) Ivor darreg – a tour of his studio, video interview.
  • 3
    Glasier, J. (1997) Ivor Darreg and Xenharmonics, Biography by Jonathan Glasier, Perfect Sound Forever, retrieved 03-12-21 ‘

Further reading:

Xenharmonic Wiki:

Xenharmonic Alliance: Microtonal Music Forum:

3 thoughts on “The ‘Electronic Keyboard Oboe’, ‘the Elastic Tuning Organ’ and ‘Electronic Keyboard Drum’. Ivor Darreg. USA 1936.”

  1. Note that Darreg’s “Electric Keyboard Drum” is _not_ “Electronic” — it used relays and not vacuum tubes. The Electronic Keyboard Oboe is indeed electronic, and one of the earliest musical instruments to use vacuum tubes; Darreg was 19 years old when he built it.

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