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Used Accordions -- A Survival guide
How to make the most of your "found" or vintage accordion.
Maybe you found an abandoned accordion, or perhaps were given one that belonged to a more or less remote ancestor or relation. Or you bought it sight seen, or unseen online, untested.
Whatever its provenance, it is likely that it is not a new state-of-the-art top-of-the-current line accordion.
Or maybe you just are thinking about buying an accordion, in which instance the information provided here, might be of use in determining how to find a good accordion and how to judge its potential.
Not to worry!
You may have felt a sort of magnetic attraction! There could be a good a reason for this. As to what that reason is, is beyond the scope of this treatise, and for philosophers, psychologists and maybe even theologians to ponder. Anyway I won't go there. Further along, I will say more about how to judge the condition of an accordion. You should always use your own judgement and not a seller's judgement, unless of course you yourself are the seller.
If you paid a nominal sum for this incredible find, you probably did not make a really really bad deal. The old accordion that you now possess is unique in important ways. In the first half of the 20th century and before, accordions were mostly hand-made, and a stupendous variety of models and brand-names were produced. These hand-crafted accordions could never be replicated for what you have spent. To make a brand of accordion in "the old days" required a community effort. There would be groups, maybe a family making the bellows, another making keyboards, reedmakers, often making reeds entirely by hand, specialists in tanning leathers by closely guarded methods, finishers, tuners, and artisans making the decorations, sometimes pearl inlay in wood.
What to watch out for, i.e., traps and pitfalls.
Looking at recent postings on auction sites, etc., I have noticed patterns of problems with accordion listings for sale online.
The seller claims "near mint" or "seldom played", "like new", etc.
This tells you nothing about the internal condition of the accordion. Accordions have hundreds of moving parts, and many perishable materials inside. Just leaving most accordions stored in a flat position can cause damage that will take hours to correct. After 50 years of no maintenance, you can count on it needing a lot of work, no matter what.
The seller claims that it was serviced by a technician.
More than half of the accordions I have bought recently were damaged by bad technicians. Often the reeds were "butchered" and permanently harmed by grinding in attempts to tune them.
The seller claims the accordion is an antique and was brought from Europe in the 19th century because it belonged to a very ancient relative.
More often than not, it turns out the accordion was made since 1950, but either the seller is quacking up the goods in hopes of getting a quick and lucrative sale, or a legend has grown up around this family accordion, based on perceptions of the murky past.
The accordion is very smelly, having been kept in a basement, or it was played by a heavy smoker.
In America, it seems that there is a prevalent custom of putting everything in the basement, including things that should not be kept there. If you watch a lot of crime shows on T.V., you know what I mean. Anyway, once an accordion gets a musty odor, there is really no way to get rid of that smell. It can be dangerous to your health even to play it. Not to mention the damage that can occur to the reeds and mechanism from corrosion.
If the previous owner liked to smoke and play the accordion, or had a gig in a pub where tobacco was rampant, it could get a disagreeable odor. Also, the reeds and reed valves will have tobacco tar on them, affecting the tuning. Theoretically the odor could be got rid of by replacing all the soft parts, but that is truly major surgery.
A piano tuner dumped a load of graphite in it.
Graphite is often used on piano actions. But pwodered graphite, once it gets inside the accordion, will blow around and stick to the reeds, detuning them, and there is really no way to clean it all out. It is quite a job just to lean most of it out.
The accordion was partly electronic, but the amplifier, tone generator, or connectors are missing.
These will be very hard or impossible to find, and you will be left with an extremely heavy instrument, with much stuff inside that is useless.
New accordions are not cheap.
There are of course the Chinese accordions, often masquerading under Italian and German names. These are very cheap and you get what you pay for. The Chinese accordion may more quickly go out of tune, and the parts may be substandard and hard to repair. Sometimes they can't be satisfactorily repaired or tuned.
New European accordions are of course very expensive, and in recent years, quality has suffered somewhat, but if you are very knowledgeable (not just think you are) you could get a custom made one that just might be very good. I could help you do that. It's like don't go to court without a lawyer, and don't try to buy a fine accordion without expert advice.
Used um.. pre-owned Accordions
Used European accordions, however, can often be had for salvage value. The cost of restoring one of these, which will be about as good as a new one, sometimes better, is substantially less than buying a new European accordion.
How to find restorable used accordions, or maybe OK as-is
The important thing is to be able to see the actual accordion before making an offer on it. When you buy online like from ebay, unless you are an experienced accordion technician, the deck is stacked. On ebay you will pay too much, and most of the time get something that needs expensive work. So check the local classifieds on
Checking it out
First check all the tone switches to see if they work.
Listen for notes that play all the time whether a key is pressed or not. Duh... if a note sounds all the time, that is wrong.
Play all the keys and buttons in both bellows directions, on all tone switch settings, and listen for reed problems. If the notes sound funny, it is likely to need a complete reed overhaul. This is the most expensive repair.
If something is rattling inside, likely it needs a reed job, as the stuff that holds the reeds in place, the reed-wax, has given way, and the reeds are falling loose. This is an overhaul and tuning job. Likely very expensive.
The second most expensive repair is usually bellows work. Repairing the bellows is often only a temporary solution, and new bellows are often needed. Air leaks, however, can come from a number of places besides the bellows, and those repairs are usually much less costly. For instance, the bellows frame gasket can be leaking. A musty odor can warn of corrosion on the metal parts including the reeds, caused by storing the accordion in a damp place. Mold can also cause the bellows to need replacing when the accordion dries out, as the materials will shrink and dry-rot.
The least expensive is mechanical repairs, and the top of that list is new key-valve pads. If the keys on the treble keyboard are raised high, and make a whacking noise when the key is let off, the valves will have to be replaced. Mechanical repairs like sticking keys and buttons are usually the least expensive to fix.
Accordion specifications, sizes, etc.
PA Piano keyboard accordion.
CBA Chromatic button accordion.
DBA Diatonic button accordion.
The standard piano accordion has 41 treble keys and 120 bass buttons. The keyboard goes from F to A and has 41 keys, 24 white and 17 black. A reed plate has 2 reeds, one on each side, for when the bellows are pulled, and when the bellows are pressed. A reed plate, with its 2 reeds, is often referred to a a "reed". In the bass there are 12 "reeds"per set, for each of the 12 tones of the chromatic scale, e.g., 4 bass sets might cover 3 octaves, with some overlap. In the treble side of the accordion, the number of reed-plates or "reeds" in a set is equal to the number of treble keys, e.g., 41 for the standard 120 bass piano-accordion with 24 white and 17 black keys. E.g., 4/5 would indicate 4 treble sets and 5 bass sets. (41 times 4) + (5 times 12) = 224 reed plates.
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The most common Piano Accordion The junior entry-level 120 bass accordion sold to students during the height of accordion popularity (pre-Elvis) in the 20th century, has a 15 to 18 inch keyboard, and usually 2 sets of treble reeds tuned an octave apart, and 4 sets of bass reeds or 2/4. Total reed-plates = 130.
The full-sized Piano Accordion measures 19-1/4 inches from the outer edge of the "F" key to the outer edge of the "A" key and the keys are 20 millimeters wide. It generally has 4 sets of treble and 5 sets of bass reeds, 41 reed-plates per treble set and 12 per bass set, referred to as 4/5. It usually is 120 bass, but some have 140 bass buttons, or even more.
The medium or "Ladies" size Piano Accordion has an 18 inch keyboard and is often 3/4 or 3/5 meaning 3 sets of treble reeds and 4 or 5 sets of bass reeds. Total reed-plates 171 or 183.
many having fewer than 120 bass button. Like the 48 bass, the 12 bass, the 60 bass, 96, etc. Because few players need to use all 120 bass buttons, weight can be saved, and make it easier to manage, even more fun to play. However these smaller ones usually have fewer treble reed sets also, and won't make as much noise or have the capability of as many combinations of reed sets to produce as many sounds. Incidentally, the number of "tone switches," has little to do with the number of reed sets. For instance, an accordion with 4 sets of treble reeds might very rarely not have any tone switches, or just one, and one with 3 sets might have 5 or even more, with duplicates. most often though the more reed sets the more switches. Back before electronic amplifiers became available, accordions (and reeds) were designed to be louder, and there were fewer switches, since you would play with as many reed sets on as possible, maybe just switching off the low set to get a higher pitched sound when desired.
There are many sizes
of Piano and Chromatic (See below.) Accordions
- On any of these accordions, the reed sets in the treble can be low medium or high octave also referred to as, Bassoon, Clarinet and Piccolo sets of reeds. These are often referred to in specifications as L, M, and H, for Low Medium and High. An accordion with LMH treble would have one set of Bassoon, one of Clarinet, and one of Piccolo tuned an octave apart. A few accordions have what's referred to as a "half-octave" set which is a perfect fifth above the Clarinet set.
- To get "musette tuning", or tremolo, you would need at least two sets in the same range, e.g., MM. So an accordion with LMH 3 sets of treble reeds could not be tuned "musette". This is not to be confused with "French Musette" tuning, which is a technical designation for a particular type of tremolo tuning requiring 3 sets in the same range, e.g., MMM.
- Later on in the last half of the 1900's LMMH, LMH, and LM became more popular reed arrangements, than the MM, LMM, and LMMM, but then more players in the 1980's to present started demanding musette capability, so the LMH and LM reed configurations fell out of favor, and are now very rarely made.
Some common types of accordion and their differences.
- Before 1920 Piano Accordions were rare. The most popular configuration had become the Chromatic "staircase" white keyboard, often with "dummy" black keys added to make it look like a piano keyboard. But then some accordion makers seem to have decided to promote a standard 41 key 120 bass accordion, called in Italian Fisharmonica, roughly translated as F accordion, because the keyboard goes from F to A. The Fisharmonica has been extremely successful starting about the middle 1920's, as it tapped into the vast reservoir of people who could already play the piano or organ keyboard. Before 1920, most accordions were either Chromatic or Diatonic.
- The Diatonic accordion plays a major scale when pressing or pulling the bellows, the Chord notes, e.g., C E G when squeezing and the other 4 notes of the major scale, like D F A B when drawing in air. It could also be in other keys of course, and may have 3 or 4 rows of buttons each row in a different key, e.g., G C F. The basic Irish diatonic accordion would have two rows in keys a half-step apart like C#/D. The Diatonic is used almost exclusively for folk or ethnic music.
- The Chromatic accordion has a keyboard in a "Staircase" arrangement, usually buttons, but sometimes white keys. that divides the 12 tone Chromatic scale into 3 series, C D# F# A, B D F G#, and G A# C# E. There are two keyboard systems, C system and B system. The C system has the C row on the outer edge away from the bellows, then then next row is the B row, and then the G row. The B system has the B row on the outside, then C and then G rows, up toward the bellows. There could be a-s many as 6 rows with duplicate keys or as few as 3 rows. The extra rows, as in the 5-row Chromatic Accordion allow playing in any key without changing the fingering, making transposition between different keys easier. Many people who play CBA (Chromatic Button Accordion) consider it superior to PA (Piano Accordion) because the fingering is easier and transposition is almost efforless between keys, e.g., playing in C# vs C.
- A rare system is the "checkerboard" keyboard promoted by the late John Reuther, which divides the 12 tone scale into two series, C D E F# G# A#, and C# D# F G A B. It takes its name from the square keys being black or white as to whether they are sharps or naturals, giving the keyboard a checkered appearence. These are very seldom seen today, but like the CBA's are easier to play than Piano Accordions, once the system is learned.