Building Materials

Photo by Knut Utler

In comments on the Accordion Workshop post, the inquisitive TomB wrote:

The most striking thing to me about these photos is just how much metal is inside these instruments. Has that always been the case?

Building materials are not my forte, so I asked my buddy, Andy from Vermont. In very quick order, he replied:

As far as I know, metal has always been used on the part that I would call the pallet rods, which connect the button lever (the part attached to the button) to the pallet. However, the button levers were (and still are, in many accordions) made out of wood. I believe that the pallets themselves were historically made out of wood (and again, still are wooden in many accordions), but some modern accordions use aluminum pallets.

My Melodie has nylon (possibly Delrin) button levers, copper pallet rods, and wooden pallets.  Your Nik has wooden button levers, and probably aluminum pallet rods.  You can check under the grille and see whether the pallets themselves are wooden or metal. [I checked and they are wood. GC] I’ve seen some old bandoneons with wooden pallet rods. The only modern button accordion that I’ve seen (in pictures only) with wood pallet rods is a model made by a French builder, Stephan Le Lan.

An advantage of metal is stability despite humidity changes. If pallet rods shrink or expand, the result can pull the pallets away from the action board, which would result in air leaks and reeds that sound even when the button isn’t depressed.

Thank you, Andy from Vermont!

Accordion Building Workshop

In February, in Norway, at the Rauland International Winterfestival, international folk music doings were abundant. Among these doings, accordionist and singer Emmanuel Pariselle led a “build your own accordion” workshop for twelve extraordinarily skilled crafters. Norwegian photojournalist Knut Utler, who has a fascination with folk music, recorded the event. The full album of pictures from the workshop can be found here.

Emmanuel Pariselle leading the “build your own accordion”
workshop. Photo by Knut Utler.
Three treble ends in process.
Photo by Knut Utler.

The Last Accordion I’ll Ever Buy?

Just received from the Button Box a Castagnari Nik (G/C) “on perusal.” I’ve taken a turn in my eternal quest for “the last accordion I’ll ever buy,” and gone away from the three-row, full-stop big machines. Saw this on the Button Box web site and just swooned for the idea of a simple, light two-row in the French keys. Also … y’know … Castagnari. Color me slave to fashion.

Under my fingers, the thing feels … like something that ought to be discussed using inappropriate metaphor. It’s just effortless. The tuning (called “American Tremolo,” not sure what about it is American) is very sweet. Even wife Bethany — who is very supportive, but more critical about quality issues than I, and far less likely to fall for an object like this — can’t imagine why I would send it back. So I spent the evening making videos. The first is a French scottish written by Sylvain Piron. It’s called Charlie in honor of Charlie Chaplin. The second is a Breton waltz (don’t know the title), which I got from Daniel Thonon’s CD Trafic d’Influence. Enjoy.

A Good Question!

In comments, the inimitable Tomb asked the following question:
Alright, Professor Chapin, here’s my latest in what will be a long line of questions from a novice. The history of the bellows that you’ve published so far seems almost entirely centered in England and France. This goes against my (assumingly incorrect) impression that Italian, Greek and Spanish folk music (maybe I should just say Mediterranean music) always seemed to have some sort of bellows wheezing in it somewhere. Are the European southerners the thieves of their northern cousins’ genius?

Thanks for the question! The classic, great names in accordion making are Italian (Castagnari and Salterelle, for example) or German (Weltmeister and the ubiquitous Hohner). This is an almost criminal oversimplification, but it serves for the moment (Andy?). The type of accordion I play has two rows tuned a fifth apart (G/C). This is called a Vienna tuning (more colloquially, “quint tuned”). England, Ireland, and France have great accordion traditions, very visible in the US. But there’s also a great Scandinavian tradition (hello, my Minnesota friends) that I need to learn more about, and an Eastern European tradition. In short, every musical tradition from the Caspians to the Andes, including your Mediterranean faves, has some sort of squeezebox going for it.

Peeter Joosep on lõõtspill, at
the 2008 Lõõtspillifestival.

Very often, the traditions adopt piano or chromatic accordions for their purposes, or they stay in the diatonic world but modify the instrument to suit their needs. Estonia, for example, has it’s own type of accordion called a Lõõtspill. On this side of the Atlantic, Quebec, Louisiana, and Tex-Mex each have a well-developed characteristic style. And this doesn’t even get into the concertina thing. 

So why am I focused on mainly France, and some England? Well, aside from accordions themselves — which are, you must admit, very clever — I am especially fascinated by (enamored with? obsessed on?) the repertoire of Central France, Alsace, Brittany, England, etc. Thus the focus of this page. It’s a small slice of squeeze-world, but it’s where I’m choosing to live.

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, 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.

The Mighty Corso

Me and my Hohner Corso.  Love.

Among the folks corrupted by my accordion influence are those who I’ve actually lent one of my older accordions to, either at my suggestion or their request, so that they might “give it a try.” The truth is, you can have your amazing hand-made Italian or French accordions, but the Hohner brand has brought more people to the bellows than could be counted. At this very moment, an unsuspecting colleague — a mandolin player, no less — is falling under the sway of the red pearloid, squeeze machine, a Hohner Corso, two-row G/C box that I lent him some months ago. This mirrors the way in which I got my hands on my first box, a Hohner Pokerwork, A/D, lent to me by the widow of a deceased accordionist.  Out of such beginnings …

The Corso was my primary box for years. A wet tuned French-sounding box, the Corso was perfect for the music I was learning: the bourrées, mazurkas, waltzes, and polkas of the Massif Central region of France.  Early on, I committed the arrogance of recording a CD with the Corso.  The cover photo, shot by my wife, Bethany, shows clearly just how besotted I was with that accordion.  God Lord!  I was a happy guy. The music on the CD pains me a bit.  I consider it to be a bit of a “trunk novel” situation.  But the vision in the music was solid. I was interested in playing French music in a simple, straight-forward way. Even back in 2002, I was aiming for Accordeonaire. On the CD, The instrument sounds great, and that’s what this post is about:  the Mighty Corso.

Aunt Lisle with accordion 1929 (?)
near Zurich

To give you an idea of the sound, here’s a recording. “Aunt Lisle’s An Dro” is actually a pair of An Dros (a traditional Breton dance), with the first being traditional, the second being a composition of my own in honor of my Great-Aunt Lisle, who played accordion (but not An Dros), or at least had her picture taken playing an accordion. 

UPDATE: Rikke van Ommeren in the “Polka Groove” post is playing a Hohner Corso — better than I ever have or will. I love my Salterelle, but the Corso was in no way an inferior box.

UPDATE II:  Here’s a picture of me playing it for students in my first year of teaching at Hall-Dale High School.  I was a hairy guy.