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ALAN ZISMAN ON TECHNOLOGY

So you think you want to buy an accordion  
pt 1: Types of Accordions
 
By Alan Zisman      2020-02-28



Deidre posted in a Facebook accordion group: I'm in the US, & looking to learn accordion. I play piano, organ & guitar, but have NO exp w/accordion. Any advice, plz? I want to buy but want to be wise in the process. Thank you all!


I replied... here's what I said with some elaboration (and images)... there's a broader range of types, models, and styles of accordions than most non-accordion players think and it's easy to end up with something that isn't  what you really want. Many accordions are very ornate and novice buyers get 'seduced' by a pretty appearance and end up buying something that's actually not in very good playing condition ; repairs are expensive (and technicians can be hard to find) and older models - even in good shape - can be musically limited.

Some suggestions:

1) Don't be in a hurry to buy...

2) Don't buy online or without trying - unless you know what you want and can see/hear it being played. Philadelphia's Liberty Bellows for instance, posts video clips of each of their used models being played and discussed, which can be a valuable tool to see and hear the differences in various models

(Liberty Bellows also has a very good set of online lesson videos, covering a wide range of musical styles. Great resource!).

3) Store prices are higher than person-to-person 2nd hand prices, but have the possibility of a warranty or return. Hopefully you'll be assured that the accordion is in good condition.

4) New instrument prices can be very high - lovely new models from Italian accordion factories can easily cost €4000-10000. By comparison, there are lots of used accordions listed on my local (Vancouver, BC, Canada) Craigslist around CDN$300 (US$250 or so).

5) Chinese-made instruments are generally thought less of than European-made models.

6) Many people go through multiple accordions before finding the one(s) they are comfortable with - you can short-circuit this process if you're able to rent for a while before buying. (I refer to this as being 'accordion promiscuous'). If you're quickly buying/trying/re-selling low-priced 2nd hand instruments this may be a relatively fun way to determine your needs or wants, but if you're spending a lot of time and money, maybe not.

7) There are multiple different sorts of accordions; think about what style(s) music you want to play and what sort of accordion is commonly used with that style - for instance:

- Mexican musicians often play 3-row diatonic button accordions. (Diatonic accordion buttons play different notes depending on whether the bellows are being pushed in or pulled out). The rows are tuned to specific musical keys, with multiple-row models typically having keys that are separated by 5ths - F-C-G for instance. That gives them more flexibility, but doesn't give access to all the musical notes.
Mexican accordion
Irish musicians often play 2-row diatonic button accordions tuned differently from many other 2-row models. The 2 rows are typically a semi-tone apart: C and B for instance - this let's them play all the notes in a musical scale. Accordionists for Morris dancers and other English folk traditions may use a similar-looking D-G melodeon - also a 2-row diatonic button accordion. Irish accordion
Cajun and many zydeco players use 1-row diatonic button models. They often have 4 'stops' on top for different tones, though many players simply pull all 4 up for maximum volume.

There are a variety of other diatonic models, popular in traditional English music ('melodeons'), various Central European folk and polka styles, and more.
Cajun accordion
- French musette players and many classical and jazz players prefer chromatic button accordions (CBA) - which are totally different from the various diatonic button models. Russian/Finnish/Serbian players prefer chromatic button models with keyboards that are mirror images of the French models. Unlike diatonic button models, these play the same note regardless of bellows direction - and play all the chromatic notes or every musical scale. Compared to more common 'piano accordions', players can reach more notes at a time and play faster. The French CBA button layout is sometimes referred to as C-system; the Russian layout is B-system.
Chromatic button accordion
- 'Piano keyboard' accordions are most common in North America, but aren't necessarily the best choice if you're wanting to play one of the above styles. But (at least in North America) you'll find the most choice - models vary in size and weight, in number of tone switches (ranging from none to 11 or more on the keyboard side), and in the number of bass buttons - ranging from 12 (for 'student' models designed as starter accordions for children) through 48 and 72 bass models, to full-sized 120 bass models. Full-sized accordions will have keyboards that measure 18" or more, with 41 keys; smaller models may have fewer full-sized keys or may have smaller keys (so-called 'lady's sized' keyboards). A full-sized 120-bass model can weigh 22-28 lbs - a 120-bass lady's sized model may look smaller but be about as heavy. A 48 or 72 bass model with fewer treble keys may weigh 15-17 lbs.

People who have played piano or other keyboards may find it easiest to learn piano-accordion but the left hand is a whole other thing! In North America, you're most likely to find this type of accordion - and most likely to find teachers or people who already play it who can help.
Piano accordion
- There are still other varieties of 'squeezeboxes': tiny concertinas, larger Argentinean bandoneons (popular in tango music) and more. bandoneon
- Finally, there are various generations of 'electronic' accordions - ranging from old and heavy models like Cordovox, to modern 'synth' accordions like Roland's V-accordions. All have their fans.

The 1970s-era Cordovox (and others) are accordion versions of the electric organs of the era. On their own, they're heavy standard accordions - the electronic part requires additional (also heavy) modules for organ-like sounds.

The modern V-accordion models pack an entire modern synthesizer into a piano or chromatic button body - drum sounds, and more, letting a player be a band in a box. You can play them through headphones - an advantage for practicing in an apartment with thin walls or a shared household!
Roland V-accordion
   
Look at the switches. If you're looking to buy a piano-accordion or a chromatic button accordion, the question of how many switches becomes relevant. You'll find multiple tone switches on many or most of the accordions you look at - on the treble (keyboard) side and sometimes on the bass button side as well. (You may see these referred to as 'registers' or with other names).

These may have labels - perhaps names of musical instruments - or may have symbols. The names are not entirely standardized; the symbols are more so. The number of treble switches can range from zero to 3 (on lower-end models) to 5-9 (on mid-range models) to 11 or more on higher-end models. (I have a professional model with 15 switches).

(Accordion geek alert) - Accordions have multiple banks of steel reeds inside, which make the sounds as air is blown through them - they look sort of like large harmonicas. The tone switches enable or disable different reed banks, combining various sets of tones.

Here's a peek inside an accordion with four reed banks:

Accordion reed banks

An entry level piano accordion (or CBA) might have two reed banks, one tuned to a lower octave and the other to a middle octave. This may be referred to as an LM (Low/Mid) model. It might have 3 switches - one to play just the low sound, one to play the mid sound, the other to combine the two. These might have words labelling them - perhaps Bassoon for the low sound, Clarinet for the middle sound, and Master for the combination. Or they might have symbols (from Wikipedia):

Bassoon reed symbol
Bassoon reed symbol
Clarinet reed symbol
Clarinet reed symbol
Master reed symbol
Master reed symbol
 
Another entry level accordion might also have two treble reed banks - but in this case, they are both middle octave reeds (MM). Why two? One of them is slightly detuned (on purpose!) from the main one - when they are played together, there will be a tremolo sound - you can hear a quivering, slower on the low notes. Sometimes this is referred to as 'musette' sound, characteristic of French musette songs. (Others will correctly say this is not the 'true' musette sound).

Some two-reed 'musette' models will have no switches - you get musette sound or nothing (I had a nice Hohner Verdi 1A like that). Others will have two switches - a Clarinet switch for the single middle reed, and a second one combining the two middle reeds -sometimes labelled Violin, other times 'Musette' or 'Tremolo' or 'Celeste' something else. Some others may have three switches, but the first and the third are both Clarinet switches. 
(Little is standardized in the wonderful, often wacky world or the accordion). You may see symbols:

Clarinet symbol
Clarinet symbol
Musette symbol
Musette symbol

The amount of detuning on the second mid reed bank may vary - different styles of music prefer more or less tremolo - more tremolo is referred to as a 'wetter' sound, less as a  more 'dry' sound. Dry tuning refers to no detuning at all - you may still have two mid reed banks, tuned to the same pitch, for a somewhat thicker sound. 

Mid-range models typically will have three treble reeds. These can be low-mid-high reed banks (LMH) - the high banks may be referred to as the piccolo reed. These don't have a tremolo/musette sound. These models may have 7 switches for the 3 main sounds and various combinations:

Bassoon
Bassoon
Clarinet
Clarinet
Piccolo
Piccolo
Bandoneon
Bandoneon
Organ
Organ
Oboe
Oboe
Harmonium
Harmonium or Master

Other mid-range, three reed models will be LMM - Low/Middle/Middle - with the second mid reed bank offering a detuned tremolo/musette sound. Since you generally don't want to hear the detuned mid reed bank on its own, you only need five switches:

Bassoon
Bassoon
Clarinet
Clarinet
Bandoneon
Bandoneon
Violin
Violin
Master
Accordion or Master

Some LMM or LMH accordions may have 9 switches, with some copied to the right of the master switch, perhaps in reverse order. This may be to make it easier to change tones when your right hand is in different positions on the keyboard - or to just make this model look more expensive, since higher-end models generally have more switches.

Here's a photo of the  9 switches on an LMM accordion - note how the four on the right repeat the first four:

5 pretend to be 9

In contrast, here's a photo of the switches on a Scandalli accordion from the 1960s - it's also got 9 switches, but notice that only the last two repeat the first two. This one has seven different tone settings - and from that, and from the symbols on the switches we can see that it's an LMH (Low/Mid/High) model - no musette.

LMH accordion but 9 switches!

Higher-end models have four reed banks. Again, there are two variations. One adds a high (piccolo) reed bank to an LMM model resulting in LMMH (Low/mid/mid/high) - this offers eleven tone combinations - the five of the LMM model (above), plus the piccolo, organ, oboe, and harmonium of the LMH model (above) plus two more:

????Master
Master

Notice how the label 'Master' refers to different things on different accordions - in general, it's used to mean 'all the reed banks on this accordion'.

The other often-found four-reed banks configuration is what is sometimes referred to as a 'true-musette' model - it lacks a piccolo reed, instead adding a third mid-octave reed. Here, one middle reed is tuned to the correct pitch, the second a bit sharp, the third a bit flat. Together, these give a very thick sound. These models are especially popular in Scotland - perhaps the sound reminds folks of bagpipes.

These offer the five sounds of the LMM models, adding MMM (Musette) and LMMM (Master) sounds.

There are also five-reed LMMMH accordions, offering all the above combinations and a few more. These are not common and are expensive and heavy.

Note that along with the various switches, generally in a row above the keyboard, many models will also have a 'palm master' switch - pressing that with the palm of your right hand will engage all the reed banks.

But that's not all!

Professional level accordions - typically costing $5000 or more - will often be described as having one or two of their four reed banks as being in 'tone chambers' (or 'cassotto') - perhaps the low and first middle bank. These reed banks will be placed perpendicular to the others inside the body of the accordion, producing a mellower sound favoured by some players - willing to pay more for it. A Victoria Poeta LMMH 2-cassotto model has 15 switches - its two middle reed banks are dry-tuned, so it has options to hear the M1 reed (in tone chamber) alone or in combination with other reeds or to hear the M2 reed (not in tone chamber), again on its own or in combination. About $10,000 new.

Some thoughts about prices:

I'm active on the Facebook Accordion Appraisal group where there's a steady stream of people posting photos of an accordion - in many cases something they've inherited from a relative - they're wondering about its value.

-- There are a lot of used accordions out there. More used accordions than accordion players. There aren't a lot of accordion collectors driving up prices.

-- Unlike some instruments, accordions don't increase in value with age. Accordions that aren't played are most in danger of deteriorating - if they're stored in hot/dry settings, the wax and leather inside will dry out and crack, requiring replacement. If they're stored in damp settings they will develop an unpleasant mildewy smell.
This is often a sign that they're developing rust spots on the steel reeds - and rusty reeds don't stay in tune and may break if played loud. Reed replacement is prohibitively expensive and even wax/leather updates can cost more than the value of an older instrument.

-- Accordions from the 1920s and 30s are often visually very attractive. They are usually not especially valuable, however - they almost always need expensive work to make them playable, and even when that's done, they lack features (like multiple tone settings) found on more modern instruments - and they tend to have a boomy tone that's not popular with modern players. If you have one, keep it for its beauty on display, or for its sentimental value to remember your aunt or grandfather.

-- There are literally thousands of accordion makes and models out there. For most of them, you can't find any information online. That's because during the 'golden age of the accordion' (more or less 1945-75), there were hundreds of manufacturers, most in Italy. They produced many, many models and sold them under multiple brand names - often the names of music stores or even music teachers who had contracted to get accordions under their 'house brand'. When the accordion market went bust, post-Beatles, many of these manufacturers closed shop or merged. Record keeping was spotty at best, and when factories shut down, records were often simply thrown out. So none of this went online.

So most of the accordions you're going to find are generic mass-market models. That doesn't mean that they can't be used to make music or to have fun, however.

All of this put together means that prices for playable accordions are generally low... I'll give some estimates (in US$) for categories of piano-accordions - these are based on the person-to-person used market local to me (Vancouver, BC, Canada). Note that prices are higher if you're buying in stores; prices will be higher for a handful of well-known name brand models. I'm assuming that the accordions are in good playing condition: all keys/buttons work without sticking, bellows have good compression, notes and chords sound (reasonably) in tune, and there are not bad smells.

As well, note that accordion prices vary with location. My local Craigslist typically has quite a few used accordions - as a result, selling prices may be lower than a place with fewer accordions available for sale. (So don't blame me if you end up paying more!)

-- Student models: small accordions with 12-32 bass buttons. Light weight, small size, limited by the lack of commonly used bass notes and chords. Reasonable price: US$100

-- Low-end models: mid-sized 120-bass models, full-sized or lady's sized keys, 2 reed banks (typically 2-3 treble-side switches): US$200-250

-- Mid-range models: mid to full-sized 120-bass models, full-sized or lady's sized keys, 3 reed banks (LMM or LMH): US$250-400

-- Higher-end models: full-sized 120 bass models, full-sized or lady's sized keys, 4 reed banks (LMMH or LMMM): US$400-600

Smaller/lighter weight accordions may come at a price premium as many people are looking for an accordion that's easier to play. This can make models with fewer bass buttons more valuable than models with the full complement of buttons (120). 72/80/90 bass models fall into the - in my opinion - sweet spot of having enough bass buttons to allow users to play a wide range of music while not being as cumbersome as a full-sized instrument.

Note that while I'm a fan of my local Craigslist and buying in person from used sellers, not everyone disagrees. For instance, Steve G. Martin commented on this blog (in the Facebook Accordion Appraisal group): "I looked at Craigslist near Phoenix and at Facebook Marketplace. I saw nothing but over priced accordions. If it were me, I would get familar with the eBay market. Safer if the listing is from some accordion player and a seller with a good rating.... Many ebay sellers allow returns. ANY ebay item listed as "used" means it is ready to play - the seller may not know this, but ebay does and they will protect you."

-- Part 2 of this blog post will be about how you can access the playability of an accordion - whether one you've gotten or one you're thinking of getting.

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About This Blog...

I've been writing about computers, software, Internet and the rest of technology since 1992, including a 17 year (1995-2012) stint as 'High Tech Office' columnist for Business in Vancouver. This blog includes thoughts on technology, society, and anything else that might interest me. Comments, emailed to alan@zisman.ca are welcome - and may be published in whole or part. You can follow me on Facebook for notice of new blog postings.
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