A Discussion With Chris Algar of Barleycorn Concertinas
Chris Algar of Barleycorn Concertinas, the largest stockist of concertinas in the world, has been restoring and selling antique concertinas, an instrument he finds both “beautiful and fascinating”, since 1974.
It’s a lucky person who gets to work and play in the same industry for most of their life!
A long-time friend and business associate of Paraic McNeela, we thought it was time we picked his brains and heard his story.
- You’ve been in this business since the 1970s, how did you get into concertina restoration?
- What’s the oldest concertina you’ve ever sold?
- What’s the most expensive concertina you’ve sold?
- Can you name any famous musician buyers?
- Have you noticed a growing trend of concertina playing around the world or has business been relatively steady since the 70s?
- Do you have a favourite antique concertina maker and if so which one?
- Who are your favourite Irish concertina players?
- Do you have a favourite traditional Irish music album?
- Do you play? Which concertinas do you own?
- What should a buyer look for when choosing an antique or vintage concertina?
- How easy or difficult do you think it is to learn the concertina compared to other traditional Irish instruments?
- What are the biggest challenges facing a complete beginner on the concertina?
- How did you first meet Paraic McNeela? Any funny stories?
- How to Care for Your Concertina
You’ve been in this business since the 1970s, how did you get into concertina restoration?
I got married on 10th August 1974 and as a primary school teacher I couldn’t really provide the money for a honeymoon so we went to a local antique fair instead. The first thing I saw on the stall by the door was a Lachenal 20 key Anglo, the first concertina I had ever seen for sale, it was love at first sight. I remember that the guy wanted £7 for it but my wife pointed out to me that we each had only £2.50 a week spare spending money which meant no drink or cigarettes for three weeks (I was stupid in those days!). I walked all around the fair but the concertina had got under my skin.
“In the end I tried to barter him down to £5 but he wasn’t having it and to my eternal shame I paid him the £7. He wouldn’t find me so easy nowadays!”
I bought a few more concertinas shortly afterwards but I was in a folk group at the time and I wanted to learn a 48 key English concertina so I thought I would try and sell the surplus ones. My dad had an antique shop and volunteered to put one in his window. I had paid £5 for it but to my amazement he came home at lunchtime and gave me £18. It had sold in two hours! The others went the same way in a matter of days and I guess the thought must have stuck in my mind that there are things out there that you can buy and then sell on for a profit. Slowly but surely I advertised in ever increasing areas and built up a small business.
In the early days I had most of the concertinas restored by Colin Dipper but when people got to know about him it took longer and longer to get them back so I began to work on the cheapest myself. I guess I ruined the first five or six that I worked on. Gradually, I got better. I think I am still improving every year, however, I realise that I don’t have the skills to do certain things such as woodwork or bellows-making so most of my concertinas go to someone who does the jobs that I can’t do first, and then I finish them off and tune them up. If I find a concertina in great external condition I will probably do the whole job but I also have a couple of restorers on hand who can do it for me to keep up with demand.
What’s the oldest concertina you’ve ever sold?
I don’t exactly remember the oldest concertina I ever had but it probably would have been an early Wheatstone English concertina made around 1830. The reason that I don’t recall is because while those early concertinas were works of art they played like a wet lettuce and I have only ever been really interested in good playing instruments! You have to get to the 1860’s for good instruments at the earliest – the very best concertinas are actually from 1890’s to 1930’s.
What’s the most expensive concertina you’ve sold?
The most expensive concertina I have ever sold was a 38 key Jeffries. It was in the boom time before the economic crash and I had a phone call from a Scottish guy who asked me if I would be interested in buying, “the best Jeffries in the world”. I had about thirty to forty Jeffries in stock (I tend to specialise in them, and still do) so I was somewhat annoyed by the statement that his was “the best”. I asked him what he wanted for it and he said £6,000. I wasn’t selling any concertina for more than that at the time so I replied that there was no profit in it for me. He said, “Nevermind then, I will just take it to …”, and mentioned a rival. That got me going so we arranged to meet in the Lake District for me to examine it.
It was beautiful and had just come back from being restored by Steve Dickinson, who is very expensive but as good as you’ll get. It played and looked like a dream so I bought it and sold it about a week later to the first person who played it, for £7,500. I have never got past that although there are a few top English concertinas with tortoiseshell, amboyna and gold ends, top presentation models for special people, which cost 30 guineas when they were made while at the time a Jeffries cost 7 guineas!
Can you name any famous musician buyers?
I have now sold many, many thousands of concertinas over the last forty five years so I’ve a lot of famous players who use instruments which I have supplied, too many to mention. When it comes to Ireland, where I have sold directly for about twenty five years, there are so many that I would hate to make a list in case I missed someone out and annoyed them.
What I do know is that the young women that I sold to twenty odd years ago are now teachers of a huge number of young players currently learning. My starting point back then was Bernie Geraghty’s group in Mayo which included Ernestine Healey, the Geraghty girls, Grainne and Roisin Hambly and the Scahill’s, Maeve and Ferghal, and a young Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin who went on to other great things besides just being a concertina player!
I am probably safest mentioning one of my favourite non-Irish people and players, Mohsen Amini, who has bought a load of concertinas from me in his rise to fame. If someone who reads this hasn’t heard of him just look at this video.
Whatever you think about the style of music he plays, he is an unbelievable technician, a virtuoso who does things that I have never seen anyone else do on an Anglo concertina plus he is a lovely guy.
Have you noticed a growing trend of concertina playing around the world or has business been relatively steady since the 70s?
Concertina sales have changed direction many times in the past forty five years. In the early days, all my business was in England, mainly folk musicians and Morris Dancers, with just a few Irish sales which were mainly through my good friend and ace banjo maker, Tom Cussen. It was around the late 1980s when the concertina boom really started in Ireland and Ireland then took over a greater proportion of my business. The crash of 2008 changed all that.
For a couple of years I struggled to find customers and everyone held their breath to see how bad it was going to get. Gradually things have improved but we now have to compete with the new budget instruments being made, which certainly get people playing, and the rise of the modern makers of quality instruments, which are very good and popular with the new generation.
“The only thing I will say is that none of the new makers seems to have made a concertina that sounds like a decent Jeffries!”
I’m currently on a year that is likely to match my best ever year before the economic meltdown, but the difference now is the increasingly large numbers of instruments going overseas to some very unusual countries. The English market is still buoyant even though it is, like me, ageing! The other change is the popularity of duet concertinas, virtually unknown in Ireland but big in Europe and the States.
Do you have a favourite antique concertina maker and if so which one?
All well known concertina makers in the past had a forte; Jones made quite decent learners instruments, Lachenal produced hundreds of thousands of concertinas of which a lot were cheap starter instruments. The mid-level Lachenal instruments of all varieties are the workhorses of the concertina world and their top instruments are very good but personally, I don’t think even their top instruments get to the height of my favourite makers. Crabb made relatively small numbers of really decent instruments but what I always love to own are the best concertinas by Jeffries and Wheatstone.
Jeffries really only made Anglos and Jeffries Duets. Their top Anglos are pretty unique and brilliant but don’t suit everyone. They are, for some reason, almost always the most messed around with concertinas and often arrive in very poor condition. I have seen people spend as much as £2,500 to get them restored. It is almost certain that a large number of them will have a lot of restoration work done on them. Not all the reeds will be original as often the old guys changed the accidentals, and in order to change them back so that people can play, the other reeds have to be used, because no one I have ever met has scrapped a Jeffries for parts, you just restore them.
It is possible to find a perfect original Jeffries but it is very rare. You just have to play the ones you see and if you like one buy it as an instrument. Just don’t assume that everything is totally original. I now put a simple report in the case with my Jeffries mentioning any changes that I have noted. One of those changes is that a large number have been repitched from Bb/F up to C as about four out of ten arrive in Bb but that key doesn’t sell very easily. Actually re-pitched Jeffries are often the first ones to sell because they play with much less work as the top of the reeds are more flexible. Again, we mention these things now to buyers but I must stress that it is an instrument you are buying not a museum piece.
“Buy what you like the look, feel and sound of and don’t worry too much about total originality.”
Wheatstone were probably the best all round makers. They produced concertinas in all fingering systems and they had the highest standards of quality and for some reason they usually arrive in original condition. I love Jeffries best but Wheatstone made the best English and Duet concertinas which are fantastic quality and usually a pleasure to work on.
Who are your favourite Irish concertina players?
It is a bit like saying which of your children you like best. I have CDs of virtually all the Irish concertina players and they each show a distinctive style or sound which is just as it should be, I enjoy them all. If I had to choose though, I’d go back to my roots in Ireland and say that in the early years I was always blown away by the playing of Bernie Geraghty who I think has hardly ever been recorded. She was a great influence on me at the time and on her many pupils.
Do you have a favourite traditional Irish music album?
My shelves are stacked with CDs and albums of Irish music, all of which is great and shows many facets by different musicians but I am of an age where I was blown away, first by the Bothy Band but even more so by Planxty, who will always be my favourite. I think that is because I sing (badly), and I love the fact that they had so many great songs beautifully accompanied to add to the wonderful tune sets. Andy Irvine has always been my hero and in the last few years I have really gotten into John Doyle who I’ve just been to see in concert in Northwich Folk Club.
Do you play? Which concertinas do you own?
Sadly, I don’t play the concertina that much anymore as I am a better guitar player but when I do I play mainly English concertinas including a wonderful Wheatstone tenor-treble with a tone like silk. I also own a Wheatstone amboyna and gold tenor-treble Aeola for special occasions, and a similar treble.
I have kept back one Jeffries which is in mint original condition and has some history. I give it a play now and then but I am hoping to hand it down to my son who is planning to come into the business and maybe he will learn to play it; he’s a great fiddler and professional folk musician.
What should a buyer look for when choosing an antique or vintage concertina?
You should always try and buy the best instrument that you can afford because a poor concertina may hold back a talented player. Everyone tends to start with a budget concertina to see if they can manage to play thereby not risking too much money if it doesn’t work out. There are a number of good starter instruments available but genuine 30 key anglos with concertina reeds are always expensive so you have to try a lot of them and make your decision on how it feels, plays and sounds.
Obviously, you have to consider the condition of an antique instrument, especially the bellows, but best go to a good seller who can show you a range of models that you can try out and pick the one in your price range that you feel lets you play easily.
How easy or difficult do you think it is to learn the concertina compared to other traditional Irish instruments?
I can’t really answer that as everyone finds certain types of instrument difficult. I could never play anything that I have to blow-but strings make sense to me.
“Irish kids just seem to take to the anglo system in a way that most English ones don’t, I have no idea why.”
What are the biggest challenges facing a complete beginner on the concertina?
I play Anglo in the English style which I find very easy but I can’t even begin to play it in the Irish style. I find it extremely difficult although I have always listened to Irish music.
I think the greatest challenge for any young player in Ireland is to get together the money that they need to buy a concertina which will allow them to progress to the highest levels.
Very few kids start with a top instrument. Most parents will spend the money to give their child the best they can but it is almost always done by degrees. When they see that the child is getting better and is committed to the concertina, they will find the money for an upgrade.
That is why dealers like McNeela Instruments are so important, they can sell instruments at continually higher levels as the child progresses and will allow partial-exchange on the previous instrument they sold for an upgraded model.
How did you first meet Paraic McNeela? Any funny stories?
I first met Paraic at the All Ireland Fleadh in Listowel. I can’t remember exactly when it was but at least 20 years ago I would guess. He was selling bodhráns and I was sharing a stall with Tom Cussen who is a good friend of his. I’ve been to several fleadhs over the years but you’ll never forget your first fleadh.
Before instrument selling was an official part of the festivals you’d be selling out of the back of your car so street space was at a premium amongst sellers and you’d have to get there very early to reserve your spot. One particular gentleman who shall remain nameless once actually physically lay down on a space in order to prevent another seller who, in his Opel Astra, was attempting to steal his spot by edging the car in on top of him – there was a tense standoff but he kept his spot!
Another gentleman, three sheets to the wind at 11am in the morning, got a little over-familiar with one of Tom’s banjos and was promptly thrown across the bonnet of my car whence the Gardaí came and arrested him. I’ve thousands more stories but they are probably best reserved for fireside chats – I promise you though you’ll love my concertina story about Princess Margaret!
How to Care for Your Concertina
When not playing, always store your concertina in its hard case with the lid fastened to prevent dust or grit getting in and affecting the intricate internal mechanism.
Concertinas hate extremes of temperature and humidity, I 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 must also be kept constant, anything under 40% humidity will cause the concertina to react and will likely shrink the reed pan and cause other issues that will make the concertina harder to play or may prevent it from playing at all.
In winter keep a tray of water near the radiator 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 can cause terrible problems.
When storing your concertina, especially if the bellows are new (I would add new bellows to nearly 30% of my restored Anglo Concertinas), make sure that you keep them 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.
Many thanks to Chris Algar for his time in helping compile this article and allowing us to pick his Barleycorn concertina brain so thoroughly – Paraic & the McNeela Music Blog Team.
Photos courtesy of Chris Algar and Barleycorn Concertinas.