Paul Plays a Buttonbox

Types of Accordions & Where to Buy

by Paul F. Watson

The article 'Aren't Accordions Just for Grandpa' pointed out that accordions are unique among musical instruments. Unlike other portable instruments, they can handle the melody, chords & rythm while leaving the musician free to sing. This makes the instrument equally at home in the hands of a professional, traveling performer or the back yard musician. There are a range of sizes & types that could baffle a plumber, so an explanation follows. For each type, I have provided u-tube links to excellent performers. While I cannot say that accordions can handle every type of music, they do participate in a wide variety. If the selections I picked don't match your taste, search around a bit on the Internet.

Accordion vs. Concertina

The accordion has treble keys played by the right hand & chords on the left. The chord buttons are interspersed with base notes convenient for playing the "um-pa-pa" sound often heard in European music (see the numerous utube tutorials). The combination of left hand chords & right hand melody produces a very complete music with a strong beat. Multiple reeds activated by a single key makes the sound rich & interesting. By contrast, the smaller Concertina is primarily a melody producing instrument; but some varieties of concertina can produce chords & counter melody. The various types and features of both instruments are discussed below.

Accordions

Each button of an Accordion plays two or more reads. The reads may be tuned an octive apart, thus producing a full, rich sound. When three or more reads are slaved to the same key, a pair of them are often tuned to to same pitch, but with one slighly higher. The effect is the "reedy" sound uniquely associated with accordions. When tuned in this fashion, an accordion is said to be "wet tuned". The particulars of "wet tuning" are a little different in France, Germany and the Bakans. More expensive accordions have 3 or more "registers". These are mechanical "slide switches" that select which reed banks are played. The musician can thus choose between "high pitched" music, a "wet tunned music" or the fullest sound produced by playing through all reed banks at once.

Piano Keyed Accordions

I searched the Internet for links to outstanding examples of accordion music. I have tried to find different kinds of music, from all over the world. The music is organized by origin - you if you don't like a song, skip down to a different region & play something really different! Most are u-tube links & you are free to wonder; but, I encourage you to come back to www.dionysus.biz to find the the best!

The piano keyed accordion provides the musician's right hand with a keyboard of black & white keys much like a piano. Whether the bellows is expanded or compressed, a key always produces the same pitch. Keyboard inclusion of the full scale (naturals, sharps & flats) allows the musician to play almost any melody regardless of key. The result is an instrument equally capable of playing classical music or country western at the whim of the musician.

The piano keyed accordion provides the musician's left hand with a bank of buttons. Each button produces either a chord, or an associated base note. Much folk music is played using the combination of C, G & F chords. Obligingly, the accordion is designed with the C, G & F chords closely grouped with complmentary base notes. While the "sea of buttons" on a large accordion looks daughtening, the base notes are clustered in small islands of complementary chords, thus simplifying the musician's work.

Last, the piano keyed accordion comes in a variety of sizes. A 120 base accordion has 120 base buttons whereas a 32 base accordion has 32 base buttons. Common sizes for accordions are 12, 32, 40, 48, 72 & 120 base. As the number of chord buttons increases, the size & weight increases. A 32 base accordion is likely to weigh 12 pounds while a 120 base may weigh 22 pounds.

As an amateur, back yard musician, I want an instrument with a variety of major & minor chords in the left hand & a reasonable octive range in the right hand which includes the piano "black keys". So provided, I am able to play both major & minor key songs that sound rich & full. Because I play "solo", a 40 base or 48 base accordion provides an adequate capability. I also find the light weight of a 40 base easy on my 50+ year old back. For my goals, a 40 to 48 base accordion is ideal. Were I young & trying to integrate with a musical group, the greater chord combinations of a larger instrument would be desirable.

Button Chromatic Accordions

The button chromatic has all the white notes & black notes of the piano, but they are "tied" to buttons. These instruments are popular in Germany, Russia & Scandanavia. These instruments play the same note on "push" and on "pull" cycles of the bellows. They look much like the German Alpine accordion - but are not. See below for German Alpine Accordion.

Chromatic Button Accordions are played by many fine musicians. The instrument provides a complete scale (with all sharps & flats) arranged in a dense block of right hand keys (ordered on the diagnal). Each key plays the same note irrespective of whether the bellows is expanded on compressed. In the hands of a great musician, they sound wonderful just as piano keyed accordions do. Interestingly, I have seen duets where one performer had a piano keyed & the other a chromatic button accordion. Both instruments performed well; but, I can not comment on their relative merits or difficulty.

German Alpine Accordions (Diatonic)

The German Alpine Accordion is diatonic and equipped with "Helicon" base reeds - those make the "tuba" like sound (Tuba Like Sound: Helicon example). These kinds of instruments make some really cool music. Examples of music produced with Alpine Steirische Harmonikas follow:

The Diatonic Button Box Accordion

The diatonic (2 tone) button box is a lot of fun & ideal for "playing by ear". That said, it lacks the versatility of the piano keyed accordion or the chromatic button accordion (both of which have the "black" piano keys). Nevertheless, In the hands of a master, this can be a lovely instrument. Try listing to the music by Massimo Craveri to hear the sweetness that can be squeezed out of this instrument. Hector Awol offers traditional fun and rollicing music. Mark Sohngen's original compositions are excel.ent, but sound a bit medieval. 21 Buttons also produces a lot of ancient sounding music. I think you will enjoy most of the selections below.

A single button on a diatonic accordion plays two notes, depending on whether the bellows is compressed or stretched. In order to play a scale, the musician thus alternates between compressing and stretching the bellows. The button box has buttons for the left hand that play chords ( different chords for stretch vs. compress of the bellows). The right hand is provided with one, two or three rows of buttons. Commonly, the first row of buttons plays in the key of C but without sharps or flats. The second row of buttons plays in the key of G but without sharps or flats. etc. Because each button handles 2 notes (or chords in the left hand), there are fewer buttons than on the piano keyed accordion & yet, a sufficient number of notes are available to play major keyed songs.

While it sounds confusing, the diatonic (push/pull) arrangement of the button box is easy to learn, & produces pleasant sounding music. Normally, the diatonic instrument plays only "major keyed" music. If the music is too high for a singler's voice, he/she simply moves his fingers to the other row of keys & plays in a lower key. The two frustrations are: 1) Absence of sharps & flats making minor keyed Russian, Jewish & Gypsy music difficult/impossible to play (the B/C tuned double row instrument addresses this). 2) There are challenges to making the diatonic chord system work with a particular song. (on my Weltmeister, "Plasir D'amour" integrates easily into the diatonic system, but "Lord of the Dance" has alluded my best efforts. This is an inherent limitation of the diatonic system -- not of the Weltmeister ). To address the absence of half tones, Musicians sometimes play on both rows of keys, borrowing from here & there. While challenging, this enables them to "coble together" some minor key flexibility. The 2 row diatonic accordion may be easily purchased in either of two arrangements & one of these addressess the "half tone" issue. The B/C variety (one row in key of B & the other in key of C) has scales a half tone apart, thus providing the full chromatic scale. (Click herehere for an example.

In conclusion, the Diatonic Button Box is light, convenient & affordable. It is ideal for the "back yard" musician or for those playing Irish or Country Western music. It works well with a waltz beat & it sounds good. It does not provide the ultimate in versatility. Many songs are easily played, while others are confounded by the somewhat excentric "push-pull" nature of the diatonic system. Absence of piano keys renders minor keyed Russian, Gypsy or Jewish music impossible to play.

Concertinas

The concertina is much smaller than an accordion. The concertina normally produces a high pitched, somewhat thin sound when compared to the accordion. The concertina is a simple instrument, lacking in registers.

The most common concertina is 20 button instrument, with two rows of 5 for the right hand and likewise for the left. Some concertinas are diatonic (i.e. play a different note on the push vs. pull stroke). My personal instrument is a Hohner Anglo accordion, and thus plays a different tone when compressed vs. stretched. Learning to play the Anglo Concertina is surprisingly easy, & like any diatonic instrument it tends to produce pleasing sounds. The other two types of concertinas are 'English' and 'duet'. Each of the three has its strengths & weaknesses.

The English accordion plays the scale by alternating between left & right hand. Allegedly, this facilitates playing fast & lively tunes that would be difficult on a diatonic instrument. The disadvantage of the Englished keyed concertina is that simultaneous playing of melody & accompanyment is virtually impossible. The English accordion is thus reduced to playing the melody, without supporting base.

The Duet accordion, like the English plays the same note on bellows stretch & bellows compress (i.e. it is not diatonic). For the Duet, base notes are played with the left hand & treble with the right. The result is an instrument capable of playing simultaneous melody & accompanyment.

Buying an Instrument

Instrument Cost: The cost of a new accordion can range from $350 to $10000 depending on the size, number of base notes, swtiches, quality & country of manufacture. Good European made diatonic button box accordions can be bought new for $800 and up. European made piano keyed accordions can be bought new for $1100 and up. As expected, Chinese made instruments can be much cheaper; but, care is advised to ensure you are getting a high quality instrument that will last.

If you would like to buy an accordion or concertina & live in a major city, you doubtless have good local merchants with access to accordions. In addition the following web page identifies several merchants who can provide new or used instruments. I have personal experience only Deftner (good experience) & the links provided are based on Internet research alone.

Buying an Accordion- Internet Sources


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© 2012 All Rights Reserved
Paul F. Watson

Updated May 2015


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