The Irish Accordion – A Complete Buyer’s Guide
The Irish accordion first found its way into Irish traditional music in the late 19th century and has continued to evolve in style and popularity since. This much-loved instrument has captured the hearts of many.
So where to start if you’re in the market to buy an accordion?
There’s a lot of confusing and conflicting advice online. The accordion is a popular instrument within many cultures and musical genres. As a result, there’s an oversaturation of information. Not all of it is relevant however and it can be particularly intimidating for a novice to try to decipher it all.
That’s why I’ve written this blog. Consider it your map in this vast and daunting land.
I’m going to provide you with all the information you need to be an expert on the traditional Irish accordion.
You’ll learn the difference between a button accordion, a piano accordion and a melodeon. I’ll teach you the mechanics of the instrument and how it works.
As well as this useful knowledge, I’ll give you some handy tips for buying an accordion and choosing the right instrument for you. You’ll learn the features of a good quality instrument and I’ll even recommend the best brands and makers to buy from. Plus that all important question: how much does a beginner accordion cost?
So what are you waiting for, pilgrim? Let’s get started on our journey.
- The Quick Answer
- The Irish Accordion
- Button Accordion vs Piano Accordion
- What’s the Difference Between the Accordion and the Melodeon?
- Irish Button Accordion Tuning: B/C vs C#/D
- The Mechanics of the Accordion
- Dry Tuning vs Wet Tuning
- Price: What to Expect
- Tips for Buying a Beginner Irish Accordion
- Where to Next?
The Quick Answer
If you don’t have time to spare and you really want to get your hands on a brand new accordion straight away, then keep the following in mind. Here’s a speedy FAQ for anyone looking to buy the best beginner accordion:
- What kind of accordion is best for Irish music? A button accordion
- What size? A lightweight, 21 button accordion.
- What key? B/C tuning is best for beginners.
- What other features are important? You’ll want an accordion with a flat fingerboard, 8 basses, and adjustable straps.
- How much will it cost? A good beginner accordion will cost upwards of €500.
The Irish Accordion
The Irish accordion is a member of the reed family which includes the Anglo concertina, the 10 button single row melodeon, the two row button accordion and the piano accordion.
The most popular accordion played in Irish traditional music is the button accordion or the box. The most commonly found model is a 21 or 23 button box with a two row layout on one side and 8 bass buttons on the opposite side.
Button Accordion vs Piano Accordion
When starting out on the accordion you are faced with two options – piano accordion or button accordion. Both beautiful instruments respectively, the main difference lies in the style of the keyboard or fingerboard.
Piano accordions feature piano-style keys that play just one note each. The button accordion uses small round keys that can play two different notes depending on whether you push or pull the bellows.
Many beginners, particularly younger players, find the button accordion an attractive starting option due to its more compact size and weight.
Experienced piano players may find the transition easier on a piano accordion however. To help you make your decision, why not listen to these two maestros in action? Martin Tourish on piano accordion and Dermot Dunne on button accordion. A magical combination!
Due to its overwhelming popularity within the world of traditional Irish music however, for the purpose of this guide, I’m going to focus on the button accordion.
What’s the Difference Between the Accordion and the Melodeon?
This is a question I’m asked frequently and one it’s important to know the answer to.
In the context of Irish music, a melodeon is a single row instrument featuring just ten buttons on the fingerboard. It usually comes with just two bass keys, though some models will have four:
Single row melodeons are diatonic instruments, meaning they only contain the notes relevant to the key in which they are tuned. No extras! This limits both the keys they can play in, and the repertoire of tunes they can play.
Some melodeons come with an additional inner row of just three buttons, to provide the accidentals, or extra notes needed to play in additional keys.
A two row Irish button accordion is a chromatic instrument, meaning it can play all the notes and accidentals within its given range. This in turn means that the player can play in more than one key. The ability to play in a range of keys is important for any accordion player who wants to play alongside other musicians.
Irish Button Accordion Tuning: B/C vs C#/D
In Ireland, the most popular tuning for button accordions is usually B/C. This simply means that the outer row of buttons is in the key of B, and the inner row is in C.
This configuration makes all the notes of the chromatic scale available.
C#/D tuning has seen a resurgence in popularity in more recent times. Both systems are now in widespread use, though the C♯/D ‘push and draw’ system is still somewhat less common.
What’s the difference?
The quick and simplified answer is that on a traditional B/C button accordion you’ll move your fingers more, but the bellows less. On a C#/D box you’ll move your fingers less, but the bellows more.
Which key is best for playing traditional Irish music?
Personally I would recommend that any beginner accordion player start out with B/C tuning. Not only is it the more popular and accessible option with more resources and material available online, you’ll also find a much larger range of affordable instruments tuned to B/C.
The Mechanics of the Accordion
The three most important components of the accordion are the bellows, the keys or buttons and the reeds.
The Source of the Sound
Accordions produce sound through the use of reeds. These reeds are housed inside the casings of the accordion. The playability, sound and quality of an accordion all depend on the reeds that it’s fitted with.
Reeds aren’t something you need to worry too much about at the beginner stage though. Most modern accordions come with high quality reeds. A trusted maker will always use the most suitable reeds available to craft their instruments.
All About That Bass
Traditionally, two row Irish button accordions have eight bass keys, situated on the opposite side to the fingerboard. They are played with the left hand and used to accompany the melody played in the right.
Bass arrangements can vary, but again, won’t require your attention at the beginner level. It takes a while before you introduce the left hand to your playing.
Look for an accordion where the basses have been tuned specifically for Irish traditional music and you’ll be good to go.
Dry Tuning vs Wet Tuning
Most accordions have more than one reed per note. If these reeds are tuned in unison, producing exactly the same identical pitch, the accordion is dry tuned.
If the reeds are tuned differently however, with one or more tuned slightly sharp (higher) or flat (lower), the accordion is wet tuned.
Swing tuning, midway between dry and wet, is a good compromise for beginners who may be uncertain of the sound they want.
Price: What to Expect
Price is one of the most important factors to consider when buying any musical instrument.
Accordions are one of the more expensive traditional Irish instruments however.
Most accordions, even the most basic models, are built by hand. The complex nature of the production process, the different components that are painstakingly fitted, and the time commitment are all reflected in the price of the instruments.
If you’re looking for an Irish button accordion for sale either online or in a music shop, these are the prices you should expect to pay.
Beginner Button Accordions
A good quality beginner accordion can set you back over €500.
The Hohner Black Dot Double Ray is perhaps the most popular and iconic beginner accordion to have ever graced the world of traditional Irish music. It won’t steer you wrong. You can frequently find second hand models for sale online.
Its modern day counterpart, the Hohner Erica, is a little pricier and perhaps less budget friendly for those just starting out on the accordion.
Failing that, the McNeela 21 Key B/C Irish Accordion is an attractive and affordable option that’s ideal for any beginner accordion player.
With either a celluloid grey or red finish, it’s a sleek looking accordion, designed with ease of playing in mind. The pearlescent buttons have a smooth finish allowing your fingers to travel over them easily. They also offer a great response, making them easy to push and therefore easy to play.
The Czech reeds provide a clear, crisp tone and plenty of volume. So once you’re feeling confident enough, you won’t struggle to be heard at a music session!
Intermediate Button Accordions
There’s nothing wrong with making a long term investment in your playing, even in the early stages. Many beginner accordion players prefer to invest in a more advanced instrument that will meet their future needs.
Intermediate accordions can range in price from €750 to €1950 with popular models from the Paolo Soprani or Hohner range costing upwards of €1,000. Weltmeister and Excelsior are two other reliable brands offering high quality instruments in this range.
In addition to these brilliant makers, I can also highly recommend the McNeela Wooden B/C Accordion. This accordion comes with the option of either 21 or 23 buttons.
Alternatively, the slightly more advanced McNeela 2 Voice B/C Accordion is a beautiful 23 button instrument featuring two voices and swing tuning.
A 23 button accordion will give you a greater range of notes without adding too much weight to the box. With more notes you can play more repertoire. While this may not appeal to a beginner right now, it will give you more options once your playing reaches the next level.
Tips for Buying a Beginner Irish Accordion
There’s a wide variety of beginner accordions available on the market. If you don’t know the right things to look for you might get a little bit lost.
There are several factors that should be kept in mind while choosing an accordion. The right box for you will vary according to your needs.
Some of the main factors to consider include the following:
Ease of Playability
Some accordions are easier to get started with than others. You want an accordion that’s easy to play and comfortable to hold.
For beginners, I recommend a lightweight 21 button model with a flat fingerboard and adjustable straps for maximum comfort and ease of movement.
The speed and response of the instrument will greatly affect its playability and is generally related to the price.
Cheap accordions, made with cheap materials are more difficult to play. The tone and build of a cheap accordion will have you seeking a new instrument within a year. They’re not a worthy investment of your hard earned cash.
Another consideration to bear in mind when choosing an instrument is size. You’ll want to find a box that’s comfortable to play and not too heavy.
Unfortunately no accordion is a truly lightweight or compact instrument. There is however a wide range of different sizes and weights available. A good light to mid-weight for a beginner accordion would be around 3kg
Current trends tend to lean toward smaller and more compact accordions. As a result, many of the larger manufacturers are now producing compact models. Well, as compact as an accordion can be.
If you’re looking for an accordion for a younger player, you’ll probably want to look for one that’s on the smaller and lighter side. As with Goldilocks and her bears, the instrument should neither be too big nor too small, but should be just right for the particular player.
In the correct playing position, the instrument should rest comfortably on the legs of the player, and not hang from the straps. This allows the weight to be evenly distributed on the player’s legs. It also reduces the load carried by the straps, which in turn reduces their general wear and tear.
Where to Next?
With a high-quality, reliable instrument in your hands and some inspiration from the greats, you’ll be playing in no time!