What the Heck Does THAT Mean? (Accordion Speak 101)

(for the inimitable Tom B.)
A friend made a comment a few weeks ago indicating that those who are not Of the Bellows may have difficulty grasping the lingo of the box. “Yeah, yeah,” I thought, “thus is the fate of squeeze-muggles.” Then I read a sentence in another friend’s accordion blog, and it shocked me into sympathy. Describing a sort of uber-box, Andy, at Melodeon Minutes wrote, “It was a Gaillard, 4-voice — yes, 4-voice — in D/G, tuned LM-MM+, with two switches behind the keyboard.”

All I need is a Gaillard accordion,
two rows in G/C,  three reeds,
a wet tuning, and the truth.

“Good Lord,” I thought, envious, “That’s quite a thing!” Then I imagined the uninitiated perusing that line (maybe the boys at Homeland Security) wondering, “What kind of thing?”

Then, in my own paean to the Hohner Corso, I found that I’d described the red, pearloid wonder as, “A wet tuned French-sounding box.” Holy Cow! Is that even legal in New England?

So, what does it mean? With apologies to Andy, I’ve decided to use his exemplar sentence to explain some of the naming conventions of accordions.

  • Gaillard: That’s the name of the maker, Bertrand Gaillard, of France.  Highly esteemed. Other makers are Castagnari, Salterelle, and Loffet, to name just a few.
  • 4-voice: Button accordions — aka, melodeons — generally have more than one reed for each note. Each reed is a “voice.” Two or three voices are normal.  Four is extraordinary in a multi-row box because of the weight.  Each voice requires an entirely separate bank of reeds.
  • In D/G: Button accordions are diatonic, meaning they are designed to play in specific keys, rather than all keys (like a piano). In this case, the outside row plays in the key of D, while the inside row (the one nearest the bellows) plays in the key of G. Different types of music have differently keyed accordions that are most common. British music tends to favor the D/G melodeon. French music the G/C. In Irish music, B/C and C#/D accordions are all the rage. There are fantastic exceptions to all of these generalizations.
  • Tuned LM-MM+: This means Low Medium-minus Medium Medium-plus. Is that clear? Back to the four voices. Each reed for a particular note is not tuned to the exact same pitch. Say that the note being tuned is A. The main reed will be tuned dead on pitch. This is the Medium reed. The Low reed will be tuned a full octave below, filling out the sound. The Medium-minus and Medium-plus will be tuned slightly above and slightly below the Medium reed, creating a sort of tension that is generally pleasing to the ear — similar in function to vibrato for other musicians.
  • Two switches behind the keyboard: These allow you to turn on and off entire banks of reeds. So you can play all four reeds, or just the M reeds, or just the low reed. That it’s a switch behind the keyboard makes it simple to, for example, throw open the flood gates and engage all the reeds the last time going through a tune, whipping the crowd into a frenzy. Not that you’d actually do that, though. It would be vulgar.*
  • A wet tuned French-sounding box: So, back to the LM-MM+ thing.  When tuning the reeds, the further apart the tuning, the “wetter” they are said to be. Some types of music call for a “dry” tuning, with the reeds tuned relatively close together — Irish music, for example. Other types of music call for “wetter” tuning, French and other continental musics, for example.  The late Richard Morse, founder of the Button Box, explained the wet/dry situation here, at Hans Palm’s Accordion Page

So there you go. Suddenly it all makes sense, hey? Additional resources for this can be found at Wendy Morrison’s Guide to Squeezeboxes, and, at Melodeon.net, Steve Dumpleton’s excellent Voices and Tunings FAQ.

Further questions, comments, or corrections are welcome.

*This is sarcasm.  I love vulgar.

UPDATE: Found this video on YouTube demonstrating wet and dry tuning differences. The guy is something of a character, but he makes his point.

9 thoughts on “What the Heck Does THAT Mean? (Accordion Speak 101)

  1. Hi Gary,
    Very funny!
    4-voices in a Gaillard is actually extra-special because he does not make boxes like this anymore!
    I forgot to mention the ebony buttons with real mother-of-pearl inlays — also an option that, I believe, Gaillard no longer offers.
    Monsieur Gaillard has also given up on the switches behind the keyboard in favor of switches on top of the box (less accessible during a tune)!


  2. From the primordial goo of the uninitiated, thank you, my friend! Now I can follow along without the guesswork. Although, previous reading was a bit naughty before I actually knew what a wet tuned French-sounding box was. I was picturing more of a Dyna Moe Humm of Bellowsville. (You said you liked vulgar…)


  3. The uber Gaillard is right now sitting under the piano in my living room. I liberated it from Andy's household (I had to go around a knight on his horse and a very clingy young lady). Just beautiful.



  4. Hi Gary, I just found this post and it really made me laugh out loud, mainly on behalf of those who are not 'of the bellows'. Great stuff and good to see you back on Melodeon.net too 🙂


  5. Hi Gary, thanks. Great blog. Just a tiny, tiny correction, and only because I looked this up for myself a while ago. Tremolo is a modulation of volume, which is what you get from an accordion, whereas vibrato is a modulation of pitch, which i don't think you get from two reeds tunes slightly apart.


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