One of the most frequent questions I receive from Irish accordion enthusiasts is regarding tuning. Which accordion key is better for playing traditional Irish music – B/C or C#/D?

So I decided it was time to write a few lines on the matter, to offer a little guidance on this often confusing and sometimes controversial subject.

Before I begin it’s important to know that both B/C and C#/D button accordion tunings are suitable for traditional Irish music. The difference lies in the physical playing of the instrument.

Therefore, choice of tuning is ultimately a personal preference.

Read on however, and I’ll give you all the information you need to make an informed decision for yourself.

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.

What does this mean?

As you know, the button accordion has a bisonoric two row keyboard. This means that each button you press plays two separate notes, depending on whether you are pushing or pulling the bellows.

Let’s look at the common D major scale on both accordions and see where the difference lies:

D Major Scale: Fingering & Bellows for B/C Accordion

B/C Accordion Scale Fingering

As you can see, B/C tuning requires seven buttons to be played in total. As a result, you’ll have to give a little more thought to fingering. The bellows movement is quite limited however.

D Major Scale: Fingering & Bellows for C#/D Accordion

C#/D accordion tuning

On a C#/D accordion you only need 4 buttons (3′, 4′, 5′, 6′) to play the same scale. This means you can conveniently use one finger per button or every two notes. The bellows have to work far more than on the B/C accordion however. The movement has to change to produce each individual note.

Difference in Sound

The bellows action can affect the flow of the sound. B/C accordions typically have a smoother, more fluid sound, while C#/D accordions are associated with a much more choppy, rhythmic sound.

Many modern button accordion players favour a more smooth flowing sound, particularly for jigs and reels. This would be where the B/C accordion excels.

C#/D accordions are commonly used in the dance music of the Sliabh Luachra style of playing, where the emphasis lies on punchy rhythms. Its edgy sound and rhythmic drive is perfect for playing lively slides and polkas.

Which Accordion is Right for Me?

One of the biggest arguments in favour of B/C tuning is that it’s more popular than C#/D. It will be easier to find a teacher and learning resources. B/C tuning does require more cross row playing, but with practice and experience, this won’t be an issue.

B/C instruments also lend themselves well to the styles of ornamentation used in Irish traditional music.

If you already own a B/C and are wondering about making the change to a C#/D model, you can try the relevant fingering out on your current model to know if it’s right for you. Simply play any tune in the key of C major and this will give you an accurate feel of the required combination of finger and bellows movement for the C#/D accordion.

If you already play the melodeon, anglo concertina, or even the harmonica however, and are looking to transition to the button accordion, then you’ll probably find C#/D tuning easier to start with. The fingering and bellows action are more closely related to these free reed instruments.

How To Decide?

Simple. Listen to as many Irish music recordings as possible and ask yourself which button accordion players you most like the sound of! Try to listen to the sound of the instrument itself rather than solely to the individual’s playing style.

If you’re a fan of the accordion playing of the legendary Finbarr Dwyer, Joe Burke, Paddy O’Brien, Bobby Gardiner, PJ Hernon, James Keane, Josephine Marsh or John Williams (to name but a few mighty musicians), then B/C tuning might be your preferred system.

Why not have a listen to the master of the traditional Irish button accordion himself in action? Let the iconic playing of Finbarr Dwyer inspire you:

One of the most well known players of C#/D tuning in traditional Irish music is the magnificent Benny McCarthy of Danú.

Benny first discovered the C#/D ‘press and draw’ style of accordion in the hands of the great Sliabh Luachra accordion player Jackie Daly. As this older style is based on the 10 key one row melodeon system, which Benny also played, he felt it was definitely for him.

If you’re a fan of Benny’s playing, in addition to the likes of Sharon Shannon, Joe Cooley, Aidan Coffey, Tony McMahon, Jackie Daly or Máirtín O’Connor then C#/D tuning might be for you.

You should note however that, despite its popularity, it can be more difficult to find a teacher for C#/D tuning. Online Irish accordion resources also tend to favour B/C tuning.

Expert Advice

Don’t worry if you’re still undecided. Both tuning systems can be played in any key and both will give you an authentic Irish sound. Neither is the wrong choice.

That being said, 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, you’ll also find a much larger range of affordable instruments tuned to B/C. If you find after a while that you really want to play a C#/D, you can always graduate to a new instrument at a later stage. Simple.

So, why not take a look at some of the fine B/C button accordions I have on offer in my Online Accordion Store. We have one to suit every budget and level of playing.

If you need a little help deciding on the right instrument, I have two handy blog posts that will help. Check out my Complete Buyer’s Guide to the Irish Button Accordion and my own personal recommendations for the Top 5 Best Button Accordions for Irish Music.

If your heart is set on learning the iconic C#/D press and draw style of playing however, then the McNeela C#/D Button Accordion is just the instrument for you. This responsive, lightweight accordion is carefully crafted with ease of play in mind, allowing you play lively polkas up to speed.

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  1. Hello,
    this is very informative.
    I am used to play traditional Breton Music with a two rows button accordion (keys G/C). I have got also a A/D accordion. I would like to start playing Irish Music. I’m planning to convert a 19 buttons G/D accordion (which is no use because I have another 21 buttons G/C one) into C#/D or B/C. What would be your advice ?
    best regards

  2. I already play piano accordion for reels. Why would I want to play a B/C accordion for smoothness?
    I love Jackie Daly’s playing. I think it’s the best. It’s a c#/d for me. I am currently play c#/d for jigs and polkas.

    1. Apples and oranges as you know yourself Dennis! If you’re flying on the piano accordion for your reels I wouldn’t be switching. I’m sure you know yourself that any fine player can achieve fluency and a nice fluid sound on either style but some swear by the B/C for a smoother playing style. You can’t beat C#/D for an auld polka or two though!

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