The Irish Button Accordion
The button accordion is an instrument that spans many genres and cultures. So, understandably, I frequently find myself fielding a variety questions about this multifunctional instrument.
I’ve put together this brief guide to answer some of the most frequently asked questions. Which accordion is best for playing traditional music? What do you need to know before buying an Irish button accordion? Keep reading and I’ll tell you everything you need to know.
- What do you call an Irish accordion?
- How do you play the Irish accordion?
- Which button accordion is best for beginners?
- What is the difference between an accordion and a concertina?
- How much does a button accordion cost?
- What key is best for an Irish accordion?
- Notable Accordion Players of Traditional Irish Music
What do you call an Irish accordion?
The accordion is sometimes nicknamed a squeezebox. In the world of traditional Irish music however, it’s often simply called a box.
In the Irish language we call it a ‘bosca ceoil’ [buska key-OLE] which means ‘music box’.
How do you play the Irish accordion?
The most common accordion that you’ll find in traditional Irish music is the two row button accordion. Though the piano accordion is also played, it’s not as popular as the button box.
You play the button accordion with your right hand on the fingerboard, playing the buttons or keys, while the left hand plays the bass notes and controls the bellows – pushing and pulling as needed.
Due to the heavy nature of the instrument, you usually hold the accordion in place with an accordion strap on one or both shoulders.
The most popular accordion for beginners is a 21 button 2 row layout on one side, with 8 bass buttons on the opposite side.
Irish button accordions are usually played in the key of B/C, as this caters to most traditional Irish music tunes.
To learn more about all the ins and outs you should know before buying an accordion, have a read of my blog The Irish Accordion – A Complete Beginner Buyer’s Guide.
What is the difference between an accordion and a concertina?
The most obvious differences between a concertina and an accordion relate to size, sound and button position.
Accordions are usually large and heavy. Concertinas are smaller than accordions and are in fact the smallest of the squeezebox family.
The accordion produces a much bigger sound and larger musical groups such as céilí bands prefer it to the smaller quieter concertina. The concertina produces a more mellow tone and is suited for intimate performances and small traditional Irish music sessions.
Concertinas have keys operating parallel to the bellows travel and accordions have keys operating perpendicular to the bellows travel. Concertinas feature buttons at both ends of the instrument whereas accordion buttons are on the front.
If you are looking for a button accordion for sale online or in a music store you will inevitably come across a wide level of pricing. A good beginner button accordion can cost upwards of €500.
Popular accordions from the Paolo Soprani or Hohner range will cost more. Prices start at around €1,000 and can reach up to €30,000 for these instruments.
Handcrafted accordions by independent makers like Bertrand Gaillard can also be expensive but have the advantage of being customisable and tailor made for the musician.
What key is best for an Irish accordion?
In Ireland, the most popular key for accordions is B/C tuning. This simply means that one row of buttons is in the key of B and the other in C.
Another popular key among accordion players in Ireland is C#/D.
Notable Accordion Players of Traditional Irish Music
Which Irish Button Accordion players should I be listening to?
The late Paddy O’Brien and Finbarr Dwyer are very important players of the the B/C Irish button accordion. Joe Burke, a peer of both these Irish men, still plays today.
The late Joe Cooley is a revered player of the C#/D accordion as is Charlie Harris and Tony McMahon.
Sharon Shannon also plays the button accordion and has been credited with bringing traditional Irish music to a new international audience.puamelia, CC BY-SA 2.0]