The Concertina Explained – Anglo Concertina, English Concertina & Duet Concertina
The world of concertinas can feel very intimidating to the uninitiated! Like what’s the difference between an English and an Anglo Concertina – don’t they both mean the same thing? Or what is a diatonic concertina? What key should I buy? What does C / G mean?
Let’s start at the beginning.
- Who invented the concertina?
- How Do You Play the Concertina?
- What is an Anglo Concertina?
- What is an English Concertina?
- What is a Duet Concertina?
- What Are the Most Common Concertina Keys?
- Is it Easy to Learn the Concertina?
- What is the Best Concertina for a Beginner?
- How Many Buttons Do I need?
- How Much Does a Concertina Cost?
Who invented the concertina?
The first concertina was crafted by English scientist and inventor, Charles Wheatstone in 1829. It bears resemblance to the current day so-called English concertina system. It was an expensive instrument and only the very rich could afford it. This prompted the Germans to make a more cost-effective concertina. The first German concertina was crafted by Carl Uhlig of Chemnitz, Saxony in 1834. Originally called the Anglo-German concertina its name was shortened to just Anglo and it is the forerunner of the modern Anglo system.
How Do You Play the Concertina?
The concertina is a squeezebox with two ends. Pressing a button or key on each end whilst simultaneously squeezing and pulling the bellows causes a note to sound. Usually the left hand plays the lower notes and the right hand plays the higher notes.
You can rest it on your lap or your left or right knee. You can tell which a player favours if you notice more wear and tear on one leg of their trousers!
What is an Anglo Concertina?
The Anglo concertina plays a full chromatic scale (if you have a three row model or plus 30 buttons) but is diatonic, meaning each button plays a different note on the push and the pull. It is arguably harder to master than the English concertina but is more popular for traditional Irish music due to the ability to switch quickly between notes.
Alex Wade plays the English Concertina
What is an English Concertina?
The English concertina is also chromatic meaning it plays all the notes on a twelve note scale including accidentals (sharps and flats), like a piano where you play the white and black notes. It’s unisonoric which means each button plays the same note on the push and pull. It is most commonly used for playing English folk music.
Hayden Duet Concertina by Beaumont
What is a Duet Concertina?
The Duet is the lesser spotted of the three concertinas. It plays chromatically with the same note on the push and pull like the English. The tune is played with the right hand and the accompaniment with the left hand hence the name Duet. It usually features more buttons, sometimes up to 80 and is therefore larger than standard concertina size.
What Are the Most Common Concertina Keys?
You’ll find two keys in most Anglo concertinas. The most common key in the Anglo Concertina is the key of C G. This means that one row of buttons plays a full scale in the key of C and another row plays a full scale in the key of G.
You will also come across other keys such as Bb (B flat) F or CC# (C sharp). Artisan concertina makers will be able to customise your anglo concertina in the keys you require.
The English concertina is usually found in the key of C. The two innermost rows of the layout constitute a diatonic C scale, distributed alternately between the two sides of the instrument. The two outer rows consist of the sharps and flats required to complete the chromatic scale.
Duet concertinas have the widest range of keys of all the types of concertinas and at their most complex can play nearly all the keys a piano can.
Is it Easy to Learn the Concertina?
Of all the traditional Irish instruments, the concertina is one of the easier instruments to get a decent sound from straight away. You can learn to play a scale very quickly and sounding a note is immediate. Unlike other trickier Irish instruments such as the violin, the uilleann pipes or even the Irish flute, the concertina notes on a well-made concertina are already in tune and achievable with a press of a button and a squeeze of the bellows.
Mastering the concertina, however, takes plenty of practice and musical skill. Players may find the Anglo system easier than the English and vice versa. If you can play the piano, you will probably find the Duet concertina layout quite logical.
What is the Best Concertina for a Beginner?
For traditional Irish music the Anglo concertina is the most popular choice. Look for a 30 button three row concertina in the key of C G. Two rows play the keys of C and G while the third row plays lots of sharps and flats, handy for Irish music.
For the best quality beginner Anglo concertina experience consider the McNeela Swan Concertina. It will take a player from novice up to accomplished very easily.
For English folk music you should probably choose an English Concertina. A simple 30 button treble model or tenor-treble concertina will do the job. You will also find baritone and bass concertinas that play one or more octaves down but treble or tenor-treble is the best one to start with.
Check out the Sparrow English Concertina by McNeela Music.
If it’s a Duet concertina you’re hoping to buy take a look at Italian makers Stagi for their Hayden Duet concertina. Its layout is preferred by most beginners and the price is more affordable than other Duet makes.
How Many Buttons Do I need?
It’s best to get a concertina with at least 30 buttons if you’re in any way serious about learning Irish traditional music or indeed English folk music. You can find concertinas with upwards of 80 buttons but for starter instruments a 30 button will cover most musical bases. A 20 button concertina may seem cost effective in the short term but the player will eventually become frustrated with restricted musical keys and look to upgrade fairly quickly.
How Much Does a Concertina Cost?
Concertinas start at around €200 and vintage instruments can reach prices of well over €7,000. A good starter concertina will cost upwards of €400. Good intermediate and advanced concertinas will come in over €1,000.