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Squeezebox Info > How To Pick A Squeezebox December 29, 2010

Frequently Asked Questions

English Concertina

The English Concertina has 18, 30, 48 (usually) or 56 keys or buttons, is fully chromatic ("plays in any key"), and is what squeezebox people call a DOUBLE action instrument; that is, each key sounds the same note in both bellows directions (like a piano accordion but unlike a harmonica), in other words, a double action (both push and pull on the same button) produces a given note.

The English concertina is most commonly seen in the 48 key treble model, which has the first 3 1/2 octave range of the violin. We also carry the tenor and tenor-treble models when available, but vintage instruments are also found, infrequently, in piccolo, bass, and other configurations.

On each side of the instrument is a pinkie rest and a thumb strap. The thumb strap is a must, but some players rarely use the pinky rest. Occasionally a heavier vintage or custom model may have wrist straps added on, but in general, the English doesn't have them. The buttons on an English are rather close together, so if you have very large hands you may be more comfortable with an Anglo.

All of the modern Italian models have an air button, which is not always present on a vintage instrument. Apparently one was expected to arrange the bellows work so that, by the time the tune was finished, the bellows were in the closed position.

The English tends to have a polite, elegant sound. It is more of a parlor instrument than the Anglo. While it is possible to play them with lots of energy and bounce for dancing, it's more work to play rhythmically than it is on an Anglo, so most English players tend to play in a smoother style. It is a wonderful instrument for classical music, slow tunes, and "pretty" or elegant styles of dance music such as English country dance and Swedish dance music, or for Eastern European tunes with unusual scales and lots of accidentals (flats & sharps).

The fingering might be more difficult at first than the Anglo, but it's worth figuring out because of the instrument's versatility. However, unless you practice good fingering habits, it's very easy to get lost among all those buttons on the keyboard. It is the perfect instrument for sight reading, as you can tell just by looking at the music which hand plays a given note. All of the notes on the lines are played on the left hand, and the notes on the spaces are played on the right.

Anglo Concertina

The Anglos we carry have 20 (diatonic), 30 (semi-chromatic), or 40 (semi-chromatic) buttons. Vintage instruments are sometimes seen with other configurations. Anglos are push-pull SINGLE action boxes; that is, each key sounds a different note in each bellows direction (like a harmonica). On each side of the Anglo is a wrist strap. The buttons, especially on the 20 key models, are generously spaced and easy to reach. The Anglo always has an air button, sometimes called "breather" button.

One problem with the Anglo is the limitation in keys. The 20 button instruments only have the notes from 2 major scales, usually C on the top row and G on the bottom row. (Other common tunings are G/D and D/A). The 30 and 40 button instruments have an extra row (above the 2 main key rows) which includes sharps and flats, making it possible to play in more keys than the 20 button models. Even with the extra notes, it is still not fully chromatic in the same way that an English concertina or a piano is, which can easily play in any key.

Because of its push-pull nature, the Anglo is very good for playing dance music, and is popular for Morris, Irish, and other traditional dance styles. Irish concertina players favor the 30 button models. A well-played Anglo has a gutsy, rhythmic sound. It is the instrument most people associate with sailors and sea chanteys.

The fingering is comparatively easy, and unlike the English, it's difficult to get lost on the keyboard. Anglo music is written out not only in standard notation, but also in concertina tab, which shows which button to press and in what direction to produce the desired note. However, some notes can be played on more than one button, and the Anglo is more of a "play-by-ear" instrument, anyway. Keep in mind that all of the books for Anglo assume you have a C/G instrument; if you get a G/D you can still play from the tab but you won't be producing the same notes.

20 buttons or 30 buttons?

Question: I want to play Irish music but I'm not ready to get a 30 button yet. Am I wasting my time on the 20 button?

It's not a total waste of time, since any tunes you have learned on a 20b will still translate to 30 button when you upgrade, as you will eventually want to do. If you are playing a C/G concertina, this means all of your C tunes and G tunes, Am and Em and some Dm tunes can still make the transition to a 30 b C/G, although once you get there, you'll want to learn some of the more versatile fingerings and settings that will now become available to you. If you're playing a G/D 20b, and upgrade to a C/G 30b, you'll have to relearn your fingering in order to play in the same keys as before -- or else, you can just play them the same way as before and have them come out in different keys. This won't be a problem unless you're playing with other musicians.

Or should I forget about the 20 button and get started with a 30 button (which I may not be able to afford for a while)?

If you want to play any serious amount of Irish music, you're going to want a 30 button eventually, since you can't handle most D major and A major and B minor tunes (and some Eminor ones) on a 20 button C/G without faking a lot of notes (no C#, no G#). Playing Irish music without a C#...well, it limits your repertoire.

Making a Choice between Concertinas

The first thing you need to do is figure out whether you want an English or an Anglo. With modern instruments this might be a simple matter of comparing the prices. Or you might need an English if the music you primarily want to play requires a chromatic instrument. Unless you already know you want the English, or you object firmly to the press-draw diatonic nature of the Anglo, you might look at the Anglos first.

20 button Anglo

The various 20 button Anglo models are the most popular ones we sell, chiefly because of their affordability. All of them have plastic buttons and wood bodies. Some models are covered in celluloid veneer. The main difference between the various 20-button models is how many reeds they have, either one or two reeds per note. The more reeds, the richer the sound -- English concertinas and 30 or 40 button Anglos, on the other hand, have only one reed sounding per note.

Some Anglo concertinas are available in different keys: although C/G is the most common, G/D is also popular. Instruction books are written for C/G instruments. Despite the diatonic limitations, there are many kinds of music you can play on a 20-button concertina: simple folk melodies, sea chanteys, children's songs, British Isles and American folk dance tunes, popular American folk songs, and so on.

30 button Anglo

If you are seriously interested in Irish, Scottish, contradance, and related music, the logical choice is a 30 button Anglo. A metal ended model may have a little brighter sound than the all-mahogany models, but will tarnish with time. Whether to have plastic buttons or metal buttons is a matter of personal preference.

Most people start with a C/G, especially for Irish, although the G/D is also popular, especially for Morris and other English dance music. All of the 30 button instruments are available only with single reeds -- that is, a single voice is available per note.

40 button Anglo

The 40 button Anglo has some advantages over the 30 button, mainly that it offers more choices in fingering and bellows direction for a given note. It is Italian made, with leather bellows, and is available either metal ended with metal buttons, or with mahogany ends and plastic buttons. Single reeds. Made in the keys of C/G or G/D.

See descriptions of English concertinas in the English Concertina Catalog


Concertina Books

Before you order, be sure you know which books are for Anglo and which for English. Here are our recommendations:

  • "The Best Concertina Method Yet" -- Good book for 20-button Anglo
  • "Anglo Concertina Demystified," by Bert Levy
    Best one for 30-button Anglo
  • "Handbook for English Concertina" by Roger Watson
    Great chord charts
  • See a listing of concertina books carried by HMT.


Frequently Asked Questions

"What's the difference between concertinas and accordions, and which one should I get?"

Concertinas (all types) play melody on both left and right hands. They have no chord buttons; each button plays only one note at a time. You get to make your own chords by combining buttons, just like on a keyboard. The button travel is in the same direction as the bellows travel.

Accordions, at least the types we usually carry at HMT, have a left side which doesn't normally play melody at all, but is arranged in bass and chord buttons (the exception is the non-convertor free bass or Bassetti accordion, which has no chords). The left hand provides rhythmic and harmonic accompaniment. The right hand consists of either piano keys or rows of buttons. If they are black & white piano keys, it is by definition a chromatic instrument, but a button accordion can be either chromatic or diatonic.

There are many styles of music that favor one type of squeezebox or another.

For example, if you want to play Cajun music, the traditional instrument is a Cajun one row button box in the key of C. If you want to play Klezmer, a piano accordion or chromatic button accordion is your best bet.

Find out what is the traditional instrument for the type of music you want to play, factor that into your decision, and then get whatever you like that's available and in your price range. Weight is another factor - even the lightest 12 bass piano accordion can weigh 12 lbs or more, heavier with a case. A 2-row button accordion only weighs about 6 to 8 lbs. on average.


"Which key should I get?"

Piano accordions, chromatic button accordions, and English concertinas are chromatic, so key is not an issue -- they can play in any key. For diatonic boxes and Anglo concertinas, the musical genre usually favors one tuning over another . Here are my suggestions for some traditional music that is played on squeezebox:

Cajun

single row Cajun accordion in C (less common: D, Bb, or G).

French Canadian
D single row button box, just like a Cajun accordion but in D tuning. Extra rows don't hurt, but are not at all necessary for playing in authentic style. Some Quebecois players are moving to 2 row or 3 row diatonic box for ease in playing Irish and related music.

Zydeco / Mexican / Tex-Mex

Piano accordion or 2 or 3 row button box with rather wet tuning, the keys might depend on the other instruments in the band. You want the third (bassoon) reed with Zydeco. G/C/F is common, E/A/D is popular with some Tex-Mex singers, or F/Bb/Eb to accommodate a horn section.

Irish

B/C button box, (or C#/D, etc. especially for Kerry music), or 30 button Anglo, usually tuned CG but also GD, etc. It is certainly possible to play good Irish music on piano accordion or English concertina or even ADG button box, and several well-known players do it successfully, but the preferred accordion is the 2 row button box with the rows tuned a half step apart.

Morris, French, English country dance, English polkas, barn dances

D/G or G/C 2 row melodeon, or Anglo in same keys, or English concertina, or piano accordion. For the more rhythmically accented genres, a diatonic instrument works better, and is more traditional. For the smoother styled Playford type English Country Dance, a chromatic instrument (English or PA) is preferable, largely because some of the loveliest tunes are in flat keys, so the 20 button Anglo or 2 row melodeon would be unable to play some of the standard repertoire. If you play only diatonic, you'd be better off with 30 button Anglo, or Club melodeon, which could handle Country Dance pretty well, along with the other genres mentioned.

Scottish / Cape Breton / American fiddle tunes / New England contradance music / Scandinavian fiddle tunes

Piano accordion, chromatic accordion, English 'tina, A/D/G three row box, B/C Irish box, or 30 or 40 button Anglo. Some are more traditional than others, for a particular type of music. In Scotland, for example, a very wet-tuned piano accordion is the norm.


Do I get a cheap one to learn on, and upgrade later?

The problem with buying a cheap instrument to learn on is that it may be so poorly constructed that it inhibits your learning, or worse, discourages you from continuing at all, due to the hardship of playing properly, and other headaches. Here's some of what you can expect from cheap instruments:

  • Stiff bellows
  • Inferior quality leather for the corners, or other cheaper materials
  • not enough bellows play
  • poor air transmission
  • action either too mushy or too stiff or uneven
  • springs that break
  • buttons or keys too high or too low
  • buttons that keep sticking or break off
  • noisy keys
  • reeds slow to respond
  • inferior sound, poor tuning, cheap poorly set reeds
  • reeds that squeak and wheeze, because of shoddy workmanship (little bits of sawdust, woodchips, etc. from the interior clogging the reeds)
  • cheap plywood or worse used for the body, wood not properly finished
  • improperly glued joints that come apart

There are any number of potential problems with a cheap accordion. There is a reason that a brand new button accordion might retail for only $300 - shortcuts were taken in construction and materials - lots of them.

A good rule of thumb is, buy the very best instrument you can afford, right at the outset.


"How difficult is it to learn?" sometimes heard as,
"How long will it take me to play it?"

It's not that hard at all, if you spend a little time getting to know your instrument. Squeezeboxes are easier than most stringed instruments in the initial learning stages: you just press buttons and move the bellows and you can knock out a simple tune, maybe not with a great deal of finesse, but that takes work on any instrument. As to how long . . . everyone learns at a different pace, and some people practice more than others. Really good technique and good music takes time, and a lot of hard work, regardless of whether you're learning the accordion, the violin, or the pennywhistle.


"If it doesn't work out, can I get a refund?"
(resell it, trade it in, consign it)

New Accordions Used Accordions

Our standard refund policy for new accordions: 7 days review allowed.
NO REFUND ON SHIPPING.

New instruments are guaranteed against defects in manufacture for 30 days, after which the factory guarantee, if any, takes over.

For in-person sales, 7 days review is allowed. There is no warranty on used accordions, but all instruments have been checked by our repair shop. We do not allow returns on mail order used accordion sales because of shipping risks (see below).

IMPORTANT: Used accordions, especially older ones, are often quite susceptible to changes in temperature and humidity, unless they have been recently overhauled (a considerable expense). They may sit happily on the shelf for weeks, and then suddenly develop a behavioral problem, such as a spitting or growling reed, or a reluctant button. It is impossible for us to check out the status of each reed and button on each instrument in stock on a daily or even weekly basis.

Shipping is to be avoided on used accordions and concertinas. After shipping, the instruments can develop problems -- buzzing or silent reeds, sticking keys, rattles, strange harmonics -- that were not there when they were in a different environment. Because of this, we encourage you to visit the store for your used instrument purchases. Any shipping of used instruments is entirely at owner's risk.

Trade-Ins: You may bring in your used accordions/concertinas in good condition, whether originally purchased here or not. Our repair shop will examine them (requires leaving the instruments here for at least 2 weeks), and based on their evaluation we will give you cash, trade, and/or consignment offers. Please see our page on Used Instrument Services for details. You must deliver in person, no shipments please.