The following information was taken from the web site
http://users.skynet.be/jan.doumen/BAND/INDEX.HTM and explains everything you ever wanted to know, and then some, about the Diatonic Button Accordion. Some of our own comments have been added where we think it applies specifically to the Accordions our club use.
What is a "Button Box?
Or, to give it it's posh name - Diatonic Button Accordion.
The diatonic accordion (or melodeon) resembles a small piano accordion, except where the piano-accordion has piano-style keys, the diatonic has one or more vertical rows of buttons - hence the title "button box". Each of these rows of buttons plays a major scale in one key only - so to play in more than one key means that more than one row of buttons is required if all the notes of the scale are to be available. Another characteristic is that each button plays two different notes - one when the bellows are closed, and another, usually the next in the scale, when the bellows are opened. Similarly the bass buttons play one note or chord in one bellows direction and a different one in the other.
This system may appear a little strange at first sight, but it is what gives the instrument its character and is actually extremely logical. It is the same system as used by the harmonica, Anglo system concertinas and other instruments such as the Bandoneon and Chemnitzer. Although it limits the keys the 'box can play in, it keeps the physical size of the instrument down, and allows for very fast playing of arpeggios and short scales - just the kind of thing found in a lot of traditional music.
A Brief History.
The diatonic accordion was developed in Germany in the middle years of the 19th century, taking on pretty much its modern form in the 1890's. The development of a range of harmonica-type instruments and the concertina from the 1820s onwards clearly played a part in the development of the button box, which became one of the most popular instruments in the world in the early 20th century.
The early instruments had only one row of buttons on the treble (right hand) side, and two bass buttons or levers, giving two bass note/chord combinations - one when the bellows were pushed closed and another when they were pulled open. By the 1900s instruments with more than one row of treble buttons appeared, giving access to a wider range of keys, and the bass accompaniment was also expanded by the addition of more buttons. By the 1920s, instruments with up to five rows on the treble side, and a piano-accordion style bass system had appeared. Early boxes were fragile, with brass reeds which went out of tune easily and a mechanism prone to breaking. They were however quite cheap, which led to huge numbers being produced in Germany and Italy, and sold around the world.
During the 1930's a new, stronger version was developed with steel reeds and a stronger and more reliable mechanism. Since then there have been refinements to the design and improved reliability and tonal quality, but no change in the basic design or system.
There are Many Types of Button Accordions.
One-row instruments are the most basic, and probably easiest to learn for a beginner, yet in the hands of a skilled player they are capable of amazing things. They have one row of buttons on the treble side, which play a major scale in one key only. On the bass they have two buttons or levers. These play the fundamental bass note and chord of the tonic on the press, and the bass note and chord of the dominant (5th) of the draw - so if the treble (right hand) side is tuned to C the two chords available are C and G. More rarely there are 4 bass buttons which add the subdominant bass note and chord for the full "three chord trick" - which would be F on a C instrument. Although apparently very limited in potential at first sight they are the system preferred by Cajun players and are also used in Europe (especially England), Canada and Africa.
For the pedantically minded, these are the only members of the family which are properly called a melodeon - although in common usage many players of 2-row instruments also call their boxes melodeons.
There are two basic systems on instruments with two or more rows on the treble side. The first, and most common, has the outside row of buttons playing the major scale of one key and the inside row the major scale of the key a fourth higher - e.g. if the outside row is in G the inside is in C. Instruments in just about any key combination can be obtained but some are scarcer than others. Common combinations are G/C, Bb/Eb, C/F, D/A, and D/G. The G/C has the lowest overall pitch, the D/G the highest. Three- row boxes are similar, with rows G/C/F or D/G/A. *
* The Fontana Button Accordion club as well as most Slovene Style accordion clubs mostly have 3-row accordions tuned in C/F/Bb or 4-row accordions tuned in G/C/F/Bb.
There are also 2-and-a-half row (often called "Club" system after the Hohner originals) boxes which have 2 rows tunes a 5th apart and a short row nearest the grille, giving a variety of accidentals outside the main keys of the box.
The bass usually has 8 buttons (on a 2 row), or 12 buttons (on a 3 row and some 2 rows) providing the most useful chords for the keys the instrument is in, plus at least one relative minor.
This system, with rows tuned a fifth apart, is the most popular, and easiest to play. It's the system used for most traditional/folk styles, and is capable of surprising things despite it's apparent (and real) limitations in terms of available notes, especially accidentals outside the scales provided by the rows.
The other system has two rows, the inside row being a semitone above the higher. Typically these will be in the keys of B and C, C#/D or D/D#. This results in a fully chromatic instrument which at first sight may seem an advantage. Although it is capable of playing other types of music, it is best known as the proper box for Irish dance music. There is also a three-row version with rows in B/C/C# and a piano- accordion (stradella) bass. This is the instrument played by Jimmy Shand and John Kirkpatrick amongst others. Apart from the stradella bass models, the bass on these again has 8 or 12 buttons.
Because 8 buttons, giving a maximum of 8 bass/chord combinations (4 each on the press and draw) makes it impossible to have all the chords needed to accompany every possible key, many players customize the bass to suit their own needs. The system used by Paulo Soprani B/C instruments has become something of a standard, and contains most of the chords needed to accompany Irish music in the traditional style. It is worth mentioning that many of the B/C boxes, especially older ones, have a very limited bass intended to accompany the keys of C and B major. This setup is almost useless for accompanying tunes in the most common keys of G, D, A minor and E minor, so check out the bass on B/Cs before buying one.
The Helikon Bass Accordion
Finally, there is the "helicon" or "helikon" accordion. These often have up to four or five rows on the treble side, tuned a fourth apart, like the 2 and 3 row models but giving a wider range of available keys. The treble rows have one button tuned to give the same note on both the push and pull of the bellows like the Club system. The bass reeds have resonance chambers, which add volume to the bass and give it a great deal of "punch". The resonance chambers are often connected to little horns, like the bell of a sousaphone or tuba, to increase this effect.
Accordions frequently have a fairly strong tremolo on each note so long as they have two or more unison reeds for each note - a single reed, of course, has no tremolo. This is achieved by having two reeds sound for each note, one slightly sharp of the other. Some instruments have a third reed which is slightly flat, to give a "three voice" tremolo.
Over recent years it has become popular in many parts of the world to play an instrument with little or no tremolo, which gives a softer sound, but still penetrating. If you do need volume. A tuning with a lot of tremolo is called "wet", and one with little or no tremolo "dry". (In Europe an instrument with a very small amount of tremolo is often referred to as "swing", "dry" being reserved for tunings with no tremolo at all).
The amount of tremolo used is very much a matter of personal taste, and any instrument can be tuned to give any amount of tremolo so long as it has more than one reed sounding per note in the same octave.
Stops and Couplers.
The Fontana Button Accordion club as well as most Slovene Style accordion clubs do not have stops and couplers on their accordions.
"Stops" (which are knobs on the top of the instrument), and "couplers" (switches on the grille - common on piano accordions, rare on button-boxes) are found on some instruments. These are used to bring extra banks of reeds into play to alter the basic sound of the instrument - e.g. a 1-row 4-stop has 4 reeds available for each note. One plays the main note at the concert-pitch (sometimes called the "datum" reed), another adds a second note at the same pitch, which may or may not be tuned to give a tremolo, another adds a note an octave below concert pitch and the fourth adds a note an octave above. This gives a very "fat" and powerful sound. Stops are less common on two and three row boxes, but are becoming increasingly common on more expensive instruments.
Bass couplers are much rarer than treble stops, but are becoming more common. They usually remove the third (middle) note from the chords, so they sound neither major nor minor, allowing a more useful range of bass accompaniment. A second coupler adding or removing a low-octave bass note can sometimes be fitted as well.
Suggestions for instruments for different styles of music.
The following are suggestions as to the commonly used instruments for various styles only, but there are always exceptions, and there is no "rule" that says if you don't have the "correct" instrument for a particular style of music you shouldn't try to play it. It is much easier to get an authentic sound by using the instrument associated with a particular style though.
Irish players usually play a semitone-type instrument. Until fairly recently these were normally on the keys of B/C, but over the last few years players such as Jackie Daly and Martin O'Connor have popularized C#/D or D/D# tunings.
This is because certain keys are easier on this system than others, and the C#/D or D/D# make playing in the commonly used keys of G, D, A and Em easier than on the B/C. They also have a more "jerky" sound - some players prefer this to the smoother sound of the B/C. Others disagree. Irish players tend not to use very much bass accompaniment.
Cajun players almost invariably play a 1-row 4-stop. Cajun boxes have no tremolo at all. A characteristic of the style is that a C box is used to play in the key of G (which is the most commonly used key), the missing F# being skillfully "avoided" by decoration/variation of the tune. Although instruments in C are by far the most commonly used, boxes in other keys, such as D or Bb, are also used depending on the requirements of the singer.
Zydeco players usually play 3-rows, with a fair amount of tremolo. The most popular keys are G/C/F, Eb/Bb/F and sometimes A/D/G. The instruments are often used to play in keys other than the ones their rows are tuned to, as the "missing" notes can be very useful in developing a "bluesy" sound. Piano accordions are also very popular with zydeco musicians. Some zydeco players (e.g. Geno Delafose and Boozoo Chavis) also play 1-row 4-stop instruments, typically in the keys of C, D or Bb, but often played in G, A or F respectively in the Cajun way.
Tex-Mex/Norteno uses 2 or 3 row instruments, often in Eb/Bb, C/F, Eb/Bb/F, or G/C/F but other keys are used depending on the needs of the musician. For any style involving playing with brass instruments 2 or more rows in C/F or flat keys such as Bb/Eb seem the most popular, to fit in with keys favoured by brass musicians.
Helikon instruments are used mostly for the Polka band repertoire of central Europe and the USA.
English music calls for a 2-row in D/G, the amount of tremolo being decided by the taste of the musician more than any other factor. 1-row 4-stop instruments in C are also popular as are A/D/G 3 rows. Many English and American players also play Irish music on the D/G, but many of the Irish ornaments cannot be played easily or at all on the D/G.
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French and Breton folk music favours either the G/C or G/C/F, often with a very dry sound indeed. C/F or C/F/G combinations are also found, as is D/G on rare occasions. Musette is also played on these instruments but they are not as suited to the musette style as piano or chromatic button accordions.
If you wish to accompany a singer, it's best to look for an instrument that gives you the keys they most often sing in!
Buying a Button Box.
In the Future, Links to Accordion Sales locations will be added
If you are looking for a first instrument, you are probably best advised to avoid very old (e.g. pre 1950) instruments. The best diatonic accordions ever made are being made now, and in large quantities by many makers around the world. Old instruments often do turn up, but are rarely in good condition (even if they were good instruments when new - many pre-WWII 'boxes were not well made), and are often difficult and expensive to restore.
New boxes can be found in a wide price range. The cheapest come from China, and are branded Hero or Gremlin, amongst other names. Hohner Gbh (Germany) still produces a range of instruments which give good value for money, although recent price increases make them less of a bargain than they once were. There are also a variety of comparable and slightly less expensive factory-made instruments built by other European makers, which fill the intermediate range between the cheap Chinese instruments and Hohner - companies such as Castiglione or Galotta sell these as part of their product range.
There are also more expensive, and higher quality, instruments made by a variety of European and American makers - either small companies (some of which have been building accordions for a very long time) or an increasing number of talented individuals makers.
Playing the Button Box.
The good news is there's no one "right" way. The bad news is that although getting a basic tune out of a button box is probably easier than on most instruments, becoming really good at it takes time and practice as with any other instrument.
Almost all boxes come equipped with a thumb strap for the players right thumb attached to the keyboard, and many have strap-brackets for shoulder straps. As a general rule, players of 1-row instruments tend to use the thumb-strap (sometimes in conjunction with a shoulder strap), players of other systems tend not to use the thumb-strap. This is very much a matter of personal preference though.
Shoulder straps are either used in pairs like the piano-accordion, or as a single strap across the right shoulder, with the treble end of the instrument resting on the left knee or pressed against the right thigh (if seated).
Although many accomplished players never use there right thumb, others do. It's what one gets used to, but the best argument is that using the right thumb gives one 25% more fingers to use. In fact, there is no good reason not to use the right thumb.
To play a scale, start on the third button of the treble end, and push the bellows in - to get the next note, play the same button, but pull the bellows out. Then move up a button, and repeat the process. About half- way up the fingerboard the pattern changes slightly - it has to, to get all the notes in.
A 1-row in C works like this - if your instrument/row isn't in C substitute whatever key your box is in. The principle is the same.
(Button 1 is the nearest to the musician's chin).
|Button Number||Push Tone||Pull Tone|
Second and third rows work the same, but in different keys. On instruments with more than one row a common technique is to pick the notes you need out of either row (there's a lot of duplication) without changing bellows direction, either to play faster or to make the bass accompaniment fit better. This is called "cross fingering". The bass end works on a similar principle, each pair of buttons giving two bass notes and chords. On a C 1-row that gives C on the push and G on the pull. As 2 -row bass seems a bit confusing at first, here's how it works on a G/C. Again, instruments in other keys follow the same principle (apart from the B/C etc. "semitone" system which has a different bass arrangement).
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If you reside in Southern California and would like to learn to play the Button Accordion and Slovene Style music, please contact the Fontana Button Accordion Club or click the following link.
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