• The best concertina for traditional Irish music - McNeela Swan concertina & rosewood flute

The Best Concertina for Traditional Irish Music

Posted by McNeela May 7, 2019 0 Comments 5412 Views

Buying a concertina can be a daunting task, especially if you’re new to the world of Irish concertina playing. We get all types of customers here at McNeela Instruments, from beginner concertina players to professional musicians. They all share a common goal however: to find the best concertina.

So, whether you’re looking for your very first concertina or a more advanced model, I’m here to help you in your quest. I’ve put together this handy concertina buying guide, to help you choose the best concertina for you, no matter what stage of your musical journey you may find yourself on.

I promise to leave no stone unturned in your search for the right concertina. I’ll answer any concertina-related questions you may have. By the time you’re done you’ll be equipped with all the knowledge you need to start your traditional Irish music adventure.

All the concertinas recommended below are guaranteed to serve you well and help transform you into a master concertina player.

So let’s get started, shall we?

What is the Best Concertina for playing Traditional Irish Music?

The best concertina for playing traditional Irish music is a 30 buttton Anglo concertina in the key of C/G.

Why 30 buttons?

Well, a 20 button concertina, while fine for an absolute beginner, doesn’t have all the notes you need to play Irish music. An Anglo concertina with more than 30 buttons is more suited to the needs of an advanced concertina player. You’ll most likely find it has superfluous notes that you just don’t need for playing most Irish dance tunes. So, as Goldilocks herself said, a 30 button concertina is just right.

20 button concertinas are fine for beginners, especially small children, but they’re not cost effective in the long run as you’ll need to upgrade to a more capable instrument. This is why I recommend starting out with a 30 button Anglo style concertina.

Why the key of C/G?

It provides all the notes you need to play traditional Irish music.

The Anglo is a diatonic concertina. This means the concertina contains all the notes required to play in the key of C or the key of G. If you have a three row or 30 button model however, your Anglo concertina is also fully chromatic meaning it provides all the notes you need to play your favourite Irish tunes.

The tuning system for the Anglo Concertina is ideal for playing traditional Irish music because it offers a two octave range, producing both the low and high octaves of the most popular Irish music keys – D major, G major, A major, C major and E major.

Why an Anglo concertina?

The Anglo concertina is a bisonoric musical instrument, meaning each button plays a different note depending on whether you push or pull the bellows. This makes it more popular for traditional Irish music due to the ability to switch quickly between notes with limited finger movement or button travel.

Read on to find out more…

Paraic McNeela concertina workshop

Anglo Concertina vs English Concertina

What’s the difference between English and Anglo concertinas?

The English concertina is a unisonoric instrument which means that each button plays the same note on both the push and pull (like a piano accordion). It’s most commonly used for playing English folk music, though some musicians use it to play traditional Irish music to great effect.

Like the Anglo style concertina, English concertinas are also fully chromatic. The two centre rows on each side are in the key of C and the accidentals (sharps and flats) are distributed between the outside rows. English concertinas typically come in either a 30 button or 40 button model.

You can play traditional Irish music using the English concertina system, but you might struggle to keep up with he speed typically required for Irish concertina music.

Duet Concertinas

During your search for your ideal concertina you may also encounter the lesser spotted of the three concertina types. The Duet concertina is a fully chromatic unisonoric concertina that plays the same note on the push and pull, like the English concertina.

The right side of the instrument contains the treble notes, while the left contains the bass notes. The middle octave is duplicated on both sides. It typically spans a minimum of a two octave range. The tune is played with the right hand and the accompaniment with the left, hence the name duet.

These bulky concertinas are usually much larger than English or Anglo concertinas as they feature fare more buttons than either the English or the Anglo concertina.

You can learn more about the difference between the Anglo concertina, Duet concertina and English Concertina in my handy blog post: Concertina FAQ – The Difference Between the English concertina, Duet concertina and Anglo Concertina.

30 Button Anglo Concertina Layout

The two most common setups for Anglo concertinas are the Jeffries layout or Wheatstone/Lachenal layout.

Both layouts feature 15 buttons on each side of the 30 key concertina, plus an air release button on the right hand side. However, each layout features a slightly different positioning of the notes played by the buttons on the right hand side of the concertina.

What’s the difference between Jefferies and Wheatstone layouts?

As you can see from the diagram below, the difference is slight. The main observation for Irish concertina players is that with Jeffeies layout, the C# in the right hand is played on the pull, while with Wheatstone layout, it’s played on the push.

See our handy diagram below for further differences:

McNeela concertinas - 30 button Anglo concertina layout - Wheatstone vs Jeffries diagram

Which layout is best?

It’s important to note that one system is neither inherently better nor more difficult than the other. It comes down to personal preference. Either layout is equally appropriate for a beginner concertina player.

That being said, the Jeffries layout is sometimes preferred by Irish concertina players. So if traditional Irish music is your preferred genre, and you have the choice, you may well opt for the Jeffries system.

Some Anglo style concertinas are only available with Wheatstone layout. In fact, the Wheatstone system is actually the more common of the two. This in no way excludes the playing of traditional Irish music using this layout however.

As far as learning goes, any teacher worth their salt will be able to instruct you without issue regardless of which concertina layout you choose.

Selection of McNeela concertinas, English concertinas and Anglo concertinas

How to Find the Right Concertina for You

There are a number of factors to consider when choosing the right concertina. Most importantly, your choice of instrument will depend on your level of concertina playing. Price and budget also play an important role in influencing your decision however.

How much does a concertina cost?

Concertinas, like all musical instruments, can vary wildly in terms of cost.

Beginner concertinas start at around €200, while vintage concertinas can reach prices of well over €7,000.

A good quality starter concertina will cost upwards of €400. Be careful when looking for a concertina for sale. Don’t be fooled by overly cheap instruments. Often, the price is a reflection of the poor quality of the concertina. Paying more now will save you money longterm.

Good quality intermediate concertinas will come in over €1,000 while advanced concertinas will continue to grow in price from there.

The most important questions to ask:

Here are some questions to keep in mind when buying a concertina for traditional Irish music:

  1. How much does it cost? If it’s suspiciously cheap or out of your price range, cross it off your list.

  2. Is it a 30 key Anglo C/G concertina? If you want to play Irish concertina music this is the best type of concertina to buy.

  3. Does it feature good quality steel reeds? The reeds control the sound your concertina produces. You want top quality Czech or Italian reeds to guarantee the best sound. Keep reading to learn more.

  4. Is there an after sale service? Concertinas are complex musical instruments with many working parts. You want to buy from a seller who will offer a minimum one year guarantee and who you can return to for any repairs that may be needed in the future.

  5. Do you like how it sounds? You’d be surprised how many people will overlook a gem of an instrument because it’s not from the ‘right’ concertina maker. If you like the sound the concertina produces and it plays well then buy it! It really is that simple.

Another thing to note in your search, especially when searching online for concertinas for sale, is that you may notice references to ‘concertina accordions’. Don’t worry, it’s not some sort of hybrid instrument you’ve never heard of before. This is just another term for the concertina (though not one that’s widely used in Irish music circles) that appears to be most commonly found in the USA.

Now, let’s get started with some of my personal recommendations for the best beginner concertinas

The Best Concertinas For Beginners (Under £400/€500)

The Wren 2 concertina is the best beginner concertina on the market.

The Wren Concertina

The Wren is an affordable Anglo concertina designed to cater to the needs of beginner concertina players. It offers superb value for money and I fully believe it’s one of the best beginner concertinas on the market today.

In a market flooded with cheap unreliable instruments, The Wren is a sturdy well-crafted concertina that offers durability and longevity. I know you want to reach the next stage of your playing as quickly as possible, and The Wren will help you reach that goal.

McNeela Instruments also offers a generous trade-in programme. So, once you’re ready to upgrade to a new concertina, we’ll happily take back your current instrument and offer you a very fair credit towards your next purchase.

What makes The Wren the ideal beginner concertina?

  • The large black concertina buttons make it easy to navigate the concertina and tackle tricky concertina fingering.
  • The quality steel reeds produce a strong, crisp tone. The better your concertina sounds, the happier you will be to play it and the more you’ll want to practice.
  • The 8 fold bellows allow for ease of movement making the concertina a breeze to play.
  • It features comfortable, durable adjustable straps for long bouts of concertina playing.
  • Finished to a high standard, The Wren’s stylish appearance complements its impressive sound. In other words, it looks good.
  • Comes with a free foam-lined hard case to safely store your instrument and protect it from unwanted knocks and bumps.

Watch the video below to hear The Wren in action in the hands of the great concertina player Cáitlín Nic Gabhann, or click here to learn more about this top-rated student concertina.

Premium Beginner Concertinas (Under £900/€1000)

If you’re certain that the concertina is the instrument for you and want to make a longterm commitment right from the start, then it might be worth investing in a premium instrument. Realistically you save yourself money in the long run by investing in a higher quality instrument at the beginning of your musical journey. It saves the expense of additional upgrades in the future.

If you’re looking for a concertina that will happily take you through to the next stage of playing, and beyond, then look no further…

McNeela - the best Irish concertina

The Swan Concertina

The Swan Concertina is a 30 button Anglo style concertina in the key of C G. It features a rivet action system which offers an excellent, quick response. Featuring Czech reeds made from Swedish sound steel, it also produce a strong, bright, clear tone with a hint of sweetness.

With reinforced adjustable hand straps and 6 fold black leather bellows it’s a player-friendly instrument, offering great ease of playability, complemented by a high end Jeffries-style finish.

Click here to learn more about this quality mid-range concertina suitable for both beginner and intermediate players alike:

The Best Concertinas for Intermediate Players (£1800/€2000 Plus)

If you’ve progressed to the intermediate level of concertina playing then it ‘s time to look for a new instrument that will showcase your skill. At this stage of your playing, you’re only as good as your concertina. That’s why it’s important to choose the right one.

The good news is there’s no shortage of beautiful instruments available, handcrafted by talented concertina makers. And yes, it’s possible to have a high-quality, responsive instrument that creates a beautiful tone, at an affordable price.

Morse & Co, Bob Tedrow, AP James, Concertina Connection, Marcus and Jose Claro are some highly recommended names producing top quality affordable instruments.

In fact, some of their concertinas have made my list of Top 5 Concertinas Under $2500 featuring my recommendations of the best intermediate concertinas currently available on the market. Each concertina listed is a mid-range Anglo concertina in the key of C/G.

At the intermediate level you may want to start paying a little more attention to two important factors that dictate the sound and playability of your concertina. When graduating from a basic beginner’s anglo concertina it’s important to consider the concertina reeds and the instrument’s action.

Concertina Reeds:

The quality of the reeds is one of the factors that has the greatest impact on the sound the concertina produces. The playability, sound and quality of a concertina all depend on the reeds that it’s fitted with.

Concertina reeds come in four different quality levels: handmade, tipo a mano, hand finished and commercial.

  • Commercial reeds are the least expensive and are manufactured almost entirely by machine. They are smaller than other reeds and the aluminium reed plate is usually of a lesser quality.

  • Hand finished reeds are made by a similar process with the exception that the manufacturer mounts/fits the steel reed tongue by hand. These machine made reeds can produce excellent tone qualities depending on the materials they are built with.

  • Tipo a Mano means imitation ‘hand made type’. Well made tipo a mano reeds, crafted with superior steel, can be similar in quality to hand made reeds.

  • Handmade reeds are usually the best cut of reed and offer the greatest responsiveness from an accordion. The reed plates are hand cut and made of highest quality aluminium. Some players claim that handmade reeds will lose their tuning more rapidly, but this is a small price to pay for quality of sound.

Any well made reed, regardless of type (especially one made of quality steel), will produce a good sound. Most modern concertinas come with high quality reeds. A trusted maker will always use the most suitable reeds available to craft their instruments.

Some concertinas are fitted with accordion reeds which can create a different tone. While these can sometimes be a little stiffer, well made accordion reeds will still offer good sound and playability.

Steel Reeds vs Brass Reeds:

Brass reeds typically offer a sweeter, warmer, more mellow tone and produce less volume than steel reeds.

Steel reeds are typically brighter and louder than brass reeds. They also offer a greater dynamic and harmonic range and are more durable in the longterm.

Brass reeds are not designed for long bouts of fast session playing at a loud volume however. Overly forceful playing will usually compromise the instrument’s tuning over time. While some Wheatstone and Lachenal concertinas are fitted with brass reeds that can rival steel reeds for volume and responsiveness, these are the exception rather than the rule.

Quality brass reeds will still produce a good sound, but make sure you are buying from a trusted buyer as they usually don’t withstand wear and tear as well as their steel counterparts.

Action & Response:

Concertinas are typically built using one of two systems – ‘rivet action’ or ‘hook and lever’.

Riveted action typically offers a better response allowing for a lighter touch and faster, smoother playing. Many vintage concertinas feature a spring hook system (hook and lever) however. While some concertina players prefer rivet action, a strong, well-built hook and lever system will still offer great playability.

Both systems will influence how the instrument responds to your touch. Irish concertina playing requires fast action and a quick response to facilitate the fast speeds and rapid ornamentation of Traditional Irish music.

A high quality intermediate or advanced concertina will offer a good overall response from the buttons, the bellows and the reeds.

Click here to learn more about how we repair damaged reeds or reed pans.

McNeela Best Selling Phoenix Concertina

The Phoenix Concertina

For both affordability and playability it’s tough to beat the McNeela Phoenix Concertina.

A remarkable all-rounder, The Phoenix is a great fit for the intermediate to advanced concertina player. Crafted to the highest standard it’s perfect for students who are ready master their instrument.

The Phoenix Concertina is a fast, highly responsive 30 button Anglo style concertina in C/G tuning. The durable domed buttons are made of black Delrin which is an incredibly robust polymer. This gives them great longevity, as they’ll survive daily wear and tear.

The Phoenix has been crafted using premium quality materials, including premium Czech steel reeds. These hand-finished reeds, made from high quality Swedish sound steel, produce a bright, sweet, melodious tone. Like all good reeds, they open out and improve with more playing.

Its strength of volume and brightness of tone makes the Phoenix concertina the perfect choice of instrument for when you need to be heard but not to dominate. Why not have a listen for yourself?

The Best Concertinas for Advanced Players (£1800/€2000 Plus)

Jeffries Anglo Concertina from McNeela Instruments.

The search for the perfect concertina can be a long and arduous one.

You may find a concertina has the exact bright sound you are looking for, but doesn’t offer the right action, or you may find one that is a dream to play but is out of reach in terms of price. You may be searching for a concertina that looks and sounds just right (we’re all guilty of choosing an instrument for its beautiful aesthetics at one stage or another), or perhaps the tone is your number one priority.

For an advanced player, choosing a concertina really comes down to personal preference and budget. Advanced or professional level concertinas come with a hefty price tag, so my main advice is to always try before you buy as a quality concertina can cost upwards of €5,000.

If you’re unsure what you’re looking for then my advice would be to listen to some of your favourite Irish concertina players and see what instruments they play.

The legendary Noel Hill for example owns an array of exquisite Anglo style concertinas, including models by Wheatstone, Lachenal and John Dipper.

Noel has previously stated that he owns three Wheatstone Linota concertinas (as though owning one wasn’t enviable enough!). Wheatstone concertinas are the most popular concertinas of their time, and are still hugely in demand today – especially the vintage models – offering seamless action and superb response.

In addition to these three beauties he also plays a Lachenal Anglo Concertina and a County Clare miniature by concertina maker John Dipper.

Noel’s concertinas are in a variety of keys including the standard C/G but also A/D and Ab/Eb. His Ab/Eb concertina in particular produces a beautiful clear, sweet tone which you can hear in the video below:

Vintage Concertinas

Many Irish concertina players often turn to vintage concertinas when they are upgrading to advanced performance level concertinas.

Here at McNeela Instruments we offer one of the best selections of vintage concertinas for sale including a range of quality concertinas by Suttner, Morse, Wheatstone, Lachenal, Jeffries, and many more top concertina makers. Each of our quality concertinas has been hand selected for its superb condition, quality and sound.

One maker in particular might be jumping out at you from that list. The name Jeffries is of course known worldwide by every concertina player on the planet. The renowned concertina maker is lauded as one of the finest craftsmen in the world.

In fact, Chris Algar of Barleycorn Concertinas (specialists in vintage concertinas) would rate the Jeffries Concertina as the greatest concertina ever made. You can read our full interview with Chris here to learn exactly why he rates this concertina so highly.

You can find our full range of vintage and antique concertinas listed in our online concertina store. Be warned though, these beauties fly off the shelves and are usually snapped up in record time, so it’s best to act fast if something catches your eye.

If you’re in Dublin, call into our workshop in Baldoyle to try out any of our concertinas for yourself. If you’re a little further afield, then you can contact us at info@mcneelamusic.com. We’re happy to answer any of your concertina-related questions.

Caring For Your New Concertina

The concertina storage tips below, courtesy of Chris Algar, will ensure your concertina stays in top condition for longer and will help maintain smooth action and playability.

Storage

  • When not playing your concertina, always store your concertina in its hard case or gig bag with the lid fastened to prevent dust or grit getting in and affecting the intricate internal mechanism.

Temperature

  • Concertinas hate extremes of temperature and humidity, we recommend storing your concertina in its hard case, in a room with an ambient temperature of at least 18C but no more than 25C.
  • Extremes of temperature or extreme fluctuations of temperature, may cause key functioning and moveable parts of the concertina to warp, sometimes to an irreparable extent.

Humidity

  • Humidity must also be kept constant, anything under 40% humidity will cause the concertina to react and will likely affect the reed pan and cause other issues that may make the concertina harder to play or may prevent it from playing at all
  • In winter keep a tray of water near the radiator in the room where you store your concertina to prevent the air from drying out.
  • Those of you on the East Coast of the US, be particularly careful as your low humidity during winter may lead to internal damage to the concertina.

Bellows

  • When storing your concertina, make sure that you keep the bellows compressed. Firstly, ensure that you have the bellows compressed by placing a tight elastic band around the concertina, secondly, keep the concertina tightly packed in its hard case.

  • Keeping the bellows compressed in this way prevents them from expanding and losing elasticity and means you won’t lose action on the concertina.

To learn more about the Irish concertina, check out my Irish music blog.

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