Choosing an Accordion (Part 1)

By David Tong

Choosing a new accordion is like choosing a partner – you’ll be on intimate terms for a long time, and separations can be expensive. This two-part article aims to help you decide what you’re really looking for. Part 1 deals with some of the basic issues involved. Part 2 looks at various technical aspects. (Click any picture to see a higher resolution version).

There’s a Lot to Consider

Here’s a list of some questions you have to consider when choosing an instrument:

  • Is the overall size and weight right for you?
  • Is the size of the keyboard appropriate for the size of your hand?
  • Does the feel of the keyboard suit you?
  • What type of sound do you prefer?
  • Do you want cassotto?
  • What kind of tremolo do you want?
  • How many bass buttons do you want?
  • How many treble voices would you like?
  • Should you pay more for hand-made reeds?
  • What kind of finish do you prefer?

Faced with all this it’s no wonder that newcomers get confused. The aim of these two articles is to dispel some of the mystery and help newcomers to make informed decisions. Accordions vary enormously in size, weight, tone, versatility, musical range, and cost. Since these factors are strongly inter-related the task of choosing usually involves some kind of trade-off. The best solution for you will depend on the kind of music you like to play, and your physical build, and even whether you want to carry your instrument about much.

Piano Keys…

120-bass showing piano key mechanism
120-bass with cover removed to show piano key mechanism

Piano accordions are the most common kind in the UK and the USA and many older accordionists probably began without even knowing that there were alternatives. In contrast, anyone starting now has to make a major decision right at the beginning, piano or buttons.

Naturally those familiar with the piano keyboard will be off to a flying start with a piano accordion. Practicalities also favour the piano accordion in the UK. It is easier to find tuition, and there is greater availability of second-hand models. Piano accordion fans also appreciate the fact that they can easily feel their way around the keyboard without getting lost.

…or Buttons?

Button accordion
Button accordions are more compact for a given range of notes

On the other hand, with a button keyboard the fingers can reach more notes without moving the hand, and many notes are duplicated so there are more alternative fingering possibilities. The hand can span more than two octaves without moving and fingering patterns are more consistent.

If you choose buttons, you then have to choose between two alternative button systems, the B and the C. Fans of the B-system claim that it matches the shape of the hand better. Advocates of the C-system say it is more intuitive for those used to the piano keyboard. It is also the standard choice in France.

Prices and Value

Part of an Italian-style bass mechanism
Part of an Italian-style bass mechanism

Good quality new accordions are never likely to be cheap because of the high content of craft labour. They contain lots of precision parts which have to move silently and smoothly for years on end, plus hundreds of reeds that have to be made, fitted, and tuned to pitch, each with its own air valve.

All this hardware is assembled, adjusted, and tuned so that when you play you can forget it and concentrate on the music. The final result is a thing of beauty that will give pleasure for decades. Years after the price is forgotten, you’ll still be enjoying it – and then you’ll be glad you chose carefully.

Where Are They Made?

Bass mechanism of Italian 120-bass with 5 bass voices
Bass mechanism of Italian 120-bass with 5 bass voices

Manufacture of accordions in quantity began in Italy and Germany around 1860 but they are also produced in France, Russia, China, the USA, Checkoslovakia, Romania, and probably other countries as well.

Several German manufacturers enjoy an excellent reputation and their instruments have a dedicated following from people who like the ‘German sound’. Likewise several French manufacturers make high quality accordions especially for the French and those wanting the authentic ‘French sound’.

However all this is overshadowed by Italy, and in particular the town of Castelfidardo. The whole town and district lives on accordion manufacture and has done so for generations. This pool of expertise and craftsmanship is unique and it shows in the products. As a result Italy is the main source of quality accordions.

In recent years China has become a major supplier of accordions, many of which are rebadged as if from more traditional makers in Italy or elsewhere. Some are very good and some not so good, so it pays to enquire carefully into just what you are buying.

Size Matters

The principle here is that spirited music in a slightly restricted range of musical keys is better than lifeless music from an instrument that’s painful to play or too big and heavy to control properly.

At an hour a day, you’ll spend about ten standard working weeks embracing your accordion in one year – so you need one that fits you. Otherwise, you could end up with backache or dead shoulder.  Some people have had to give up playing as a result.

Another hazard stems from the fact that the bigger the cross-sectional area of the bellows, the more inward force you have to apply to get the surges of air pressure needed for emphasised notes and vigorous music. In susceptible individuals, this force can overstrain tendons in the arm. The result is a painful condition which I call ‘bellows-elbow’ but which non-accordionists call ‘golfer’s elbow’.

If you are one of these unfortunates you’ll find a 72-bass instrument more comfortable to play than a 120-bass and will probably hardly miss the few extra notes or buttons that you sacrificed.

Weight Watching

Using a spring balance to weigh an accordion
Using a spring balance to weigh an accordion

Most people play the accordion sitting down, but they still have to hump it about and lift it up. A common accordion sticker says, ‘Play it? I can hardly lift it!’. Joke or not, many people find their accordion is heavier than they would like.

Sometimes the weights of instruments quoted in the manufacturer’s literature can be surprisingly wide of the mark. So if the weight of the instrument is important to you, it’s wise to check it yourself. You can easily do it with a fisherman’s spring balance and a tree branch, as in the picture.

The weight of an accordion is concentrated mostly in the reed blocks and the outer shell, and the more reed blocks the bigger the case. This means that lots of voices and low weight are not a realistic combination. A good 3-voice 72-bass will weigh around 8.2 kg (18 lbs) and a 5-voice 120-bass around 12.5 kg (27.7 lbs), but it’s easy to find heavier specimens than this.

Getting About

72-bass accordion
72-bass accordion

Accordions tend to be supplied in a nice velvet-lined case that looks quite good in the shop. But unlike modern suitcases they often have sharp edges and corners that dig into your leg and may have no wheels. So if you take a large accordion out and about in one of these you may need a trolley as well.

A popular alternative especially for smaller instruments is a ‘gig-bag’ made of padded nylon and designed to be carried on the back like a rucsac. This will give you more freedom, and definitely more street-cred. Like rucsacs, they vary in degree of comfort so it’s best to try them out before you buy.

Most accordion cases offer decent protection for normal activities but are easy meat for luggage handlers and baggage carousels at airports. If you want to take the accordion with you on a plane you’ll probably need something a lot stronger.

Compressed Keyboards

Ideally the size of a keyboard would be tailored to the size of the hand. As it is, people with big hands have an advantage on normal keyboards because they can span more notes. However there are some accordions with slightly compressed keyboards. These help to equalise things for people with smaller hands.

A 96-bass accordion the same size as a 72-bass
A 96-bass accordion the same size as a 72-bass

A spin-off is that they get a smaller and lighter instrument than if it were full-sized. For example, the two accordions pictured here have identical overall dimensions but one has 34 treble keys and 72 bass buttons (pictured top) the other has 37 keys and 96 bass buttons (pictured bottom).

Both keyboards have the same length, so the octave span on the 96-bass is reduced to 128 mm, from 141 mm on the 72-bass. On the bass side the button spacing is the same on both of the instruments. It takes only a day or two to get used to a different key spacing. After that it’s easy to switch back and forth if required.