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Accordion tuning is a skill that requires talent, and a lot of time to learn how to do it without damaging the reeds. Everyone who owns an accordion should read this page carefully, for ideas about ways to preserve the heritage contained in old accordions.

By Gaines I. "Ike" Milligan

Ike's Accordion Tuning Info

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How accordions are tuned.

  Accordion Tuning is a very exact science, and should only be undertaken with a complete understanding of the way the accordion produces tones. An improper method can permanently ruin the reeds, and good accordion reeds are increasingly rare, as the old hand reed makers pass from the scene. The best reeds are made by hand. Nowadays the vast majority of accordions use factory made reeds, many of which are vastly inferior to hand made. A full-size Piano Keyboard Accordion contains more reeds than a Grand Piano has strings.

The accordion reed consists of a flat plate with two slots through it, and on the end of each slot is riveted a steel or (rarely) brass strip, which vibrates in the slot as air passes over it. The strip that vibrates is called a reed, and each plate has two reeds, one for each direction of airflow, according to whether the bellows are squeezed or pulled. When you open the accordion, as described in How to Repair Bellows, you will see some blocks containing the reeds. Never touch the reeds with bare fingers, as salt and acid in your skin will eventually cause the metal to oxidize. Never blow into the reeds with your breath to test them, as the same thing will happen quicker. This corrosion of the metal is one of the principle causes (among many) that will cause unwanted changes in pitch. Also, take great care not to scratch the reed plate where the slot is, or nick the slot, as the slot must have a precision fitted sharp edge to make the reed play right. Most of the reeds have a leather or thin plastic valve on the opposite side of the plate glued down on one end, to allow the air to only flow in one direction, except for the highest reeds, which, if well made, don't waste much air, and may need a little "bleeding" of air to cut the pressure. If this valve is missing, bent, or defective it will make the reed out of tune and/or sound bad.

The reeds are usually glued to the wooden blocks, called "reed bars" with a mixture of beeswax and rosin. Other kinds of wax, e.g., candle wax, pure beeswax, parafin, will not work. Some very old accordions use other fastening systems, like screws and leather gaskets, for instance. The unique function of the special accordion wax is to tightly grip the reed plates against the wood. This is absolutely necessary to produce strong bright sound at an accurate pitch. The wax will usually do its job well for only about 20 years or so, after which it gets brittle and starts to crack. It cannot be well restored by re-melting, as the essential oils have leached out and evaporated. If you try to fix the bad wax with a 30 watt soldering iron, it will not hold for very long, and also the accordion may sound weak. If the wax is still good, it will feel somewhat soft to the touch, and a tiny flake can be warmed and softened in the hand, and smeared between the fingers as a test. Before tuning can take place, bad brittle wax must be replaced.Click here to see a photo I took of my reed waxing tools: a couple of special spoons, a waxing blade, an alcohol lamp, and a warming pot to melt the wax. The spoons are made from metal tubing, and the wax is heated over a low flame to the right temperature before being "poured" between and around the reeds.

Chinese Accordions

Chinese accordions, with junk parts and reeds are very cheap, however. But Chinese accordions are less fun to play because of badly made reeds, and mostly will not last long enough to be restored, even if the cost were justified, which it isn't. Many Chinese accordions are so flimsy they can't be repaire mechanically. Some companies like Hohner are having the second-line accordions made in China. These accordions are slightly better than most other Chinese accordions, but are not nearly as good as the ones Hohner made in Germany before.

New European Accordions

Many of the old brand names have been bought by a few large companies, and the quality has mostly changed for the worst. Routinely junk reeds are put in even full-sized instruments. Often the older second-line smaller accordions, made prior to 1990 have better reeds than some of the new full-sized ones made today. As the Dollar has declined in value, the prices have risen very high in Dollars.

Unrestored Accordions

A word of warning: Before buying a used accordion -- most used accordions on the market have never been properly serviced, as this country does not have the accordion repair infrastructure of repair people, like you have for,  for instance, pianos. Pawn shops, music stores, and individuals, even some accordion dealers are selling unrestored accordions for too high a price. After you play an unrestored one for a while, it starts to develop bad sounds, if it didn't have them already. Most accordions have hundreds of reeds and thousands of moving parts. A reed overhaul will almost always be necessary in order to tune and restore the reeds, that is, new wax has to be carefully poured around the hundreds of reed plates, the reeds inspected, cleaned, anti-rust treated, reed valves replaced, requiring many hours of work. Restoration of an old accordion can cost  hundreds to well over $1000 due to the many hours of labor needed. Compared with piano maintenance, it is not more expensive, when one takes into consideration that pianos need to be tuned once or twice a year, whereas an accordion needs a reed overhaul after 20 years or more if properly stored and/or played nicely. If your accordion was played in smoke-filled bars every night or worse on the street corner every day, it needs to be overhauled every year or so. I would advise against paying much money when buying most used accordions for the simple reason that, in the U.S. at least, very few accordions have ever been serviced.

On the plus side, an unrestored accordion after being restored, would be better than a new one costing much more that the cost of repairing it.

If the accordion smells damp and musty, don't even consider buying it, as dampness problems, e.g., such as arise from storage in a basement, can easily double the time necessary for restoration work. Dampness causes rust on the reeds, corrosion to mechanical parts, warping of wood parts, and on and on.

Preparation for Tuning

Before the reeds on most older accordions can be tuned, they must be cleaned, usually re-waxed, anti-rust treated, reed valves repaired. and reed blocks leveleled to not leak air under the block.  Failure to overhaul the wax and "leathers" before tuning the accordion will give a very bad result. Pouring the wax, cleaning, etc. is a substantial time commitment. The "average" or median accordion is a "3/5" 120 bass accordion meaning 3 sets of treble reeds, times 41 treble keys, 5 bass reed sets consisting of 12 bass reeds. 3 sets times 41 is 123 reed plates plus 5 times 12 (60) bass reed plates. That's 183 reed plates with a reed on each side of the plate, 366 reeds. 99 percent of American accordions have never been overhauled, and need it as the accordion wax will usually be pretty dry after 20 years. The cost of such a job, including tuning, because of the time necessary, is around $5 per red plate based on the total number, as a flat rate. It is not unusual for the treble key valve pads needing to be replaced at an additional cost.

What I do first

The first thing I do when preparing to tune the reeds is remove them from the reed blocks. I carefully remove old wax from the reed plates, and the old glue residue from the reed valves. I put the reeds in a non-water based cleaning solution in an utltrasonic cleaning machine. I then drain the solution from the reeds and wipe them and insp[ect for rust and other residue. The rust, etc. has to be carefully fremoved by hand, without using chemicals. Chemicals for dissolving rust will permanently damage the reeds. I then place the reeds in order, and fasten new vlaves on them. The higher reeds are mostly OK with plastic valves. but often on the lower reeds, I will use leather, which is a special leather made only for accordion reed valves. It is usually reinforced with tiny strips of steel called "boosters" to prevent curling and give the correct tensoin. Too much tension on the valve affects the pitch and response of the reed. The tip of the reed's clearance above the plate is set to about the thickness of the steel at that point. The clearance if too narrow, will cause the reed to choke when air pressure is applied, and too wide a gap makes the reed sound slowly and waste air. After removing the old wax from the reed block, carefully to avoid gouging the wood, the block is cleaned with compressed air and the reeds are lined up in the correct order, and waxed in place. Prior to this, the block is checked for straightness and seating on the foundation plate. If necessary the block is repaired to lie flat. In the process of tuning, the reeds are checked for correct pressure response on the tuning bellows. If the reed plates were not marked as which side was up, they were marked on the edge with a file, since "flipping" the reed plates will cause a slight difference in pitch. The tuning has to be chacked inside the accordion, because the pressuer on the tuning bellows is reversed, the air density when pressured, is different than the air density under vacuum when the accordion's bellows are operated. the pressure differential will cause a difference in tuning the reeds outside the accordion than inside.

Causes of Sour Notes

Bad sounding notes have several possible causes. Here is a list:

1. Curled or missing reed valves. All of the reeds, except the very highest pitched,  require a one-way valve glued to the top of the slot on the opposite side of the plate from the reed. This is usually a made from a very special kind of leather, or in the case of newer Hohner accordions, a synthetic material. This is blown outward by the air when the reed plays, and snaps back when the reed on the other side of the plate is activated by the opposite flow of air. This may have a "booster" (tiny spring) glued at the fixed end to make sure it goes back quickly. If the reed valve does not lie flat, then it will either pop back after the reed starts to sound, with a sudden change in pitch and volume, not go back at all, with a sharpening in the pitch sounding out of tune and wasting air, or dance with a "sniffle" or "sizzle" in the reed. This can be due to curling due to humidity and heat, or keeping the accordion stored in a horizontal position which will make half the valves sag open due to gravity. Most accordions are designed to be stored vertically so that the reed "leathers" remain vertical and don't deform.
 2. Rust or dirt on the reeds. If the accordion is played in the rain or worst of all near the ocean, which will totally ruin the reeds beyond repair due to salt rust making pits in the surface, or maybe stored it in a basement, or perhaps someone opened the instrument and blew breath on the reed bars to test the reeds, (which one should never do) the reeds will usually go flat, making the tuning sound pretty bad. Such an instrument will often smell damp or moldy. This type of damage, if severe, greatly complicates the job of tuning, and can make restoration not be cost effective. Incidently, if a customer shows me an accordion, and I think it is not worth repairing, I will strongly discourage having the work done. If I think it is worth it and I like the instrument, I will try to work with an affordable price estimate.
3. Bad wax. The special wax which in most accordions holds the reeds in place will go entirely bad after 20 to 40 years. If  the reeds are nailed in with tiny nails as in some accordions e.g. Hohner, etc. the accordion can still be played with bad wax, all other things being equal, but even then tuning can not be done correctly without pouring new wax. This is partly because the old wax fragments and gets all over everything when disturbed. If the reed is loose in the wax, it can buzz and sound very horrible, or just leak air and sound weak, or go sharp.
4. If a reed is about to break from metal fatigue, it will go very flat, down eventually to a lower pitch, then it snaps off.
5. Improperly glued reed valves. The reed "leather" should not cover too much of the length of the slot where the glue is. It has to  lie the whole length of the slot, to keep the reed from wasting air and going sharp, but has to bend up easily with air pressure off most of the slot to keep too much pressure from building up, which makes it go flat i.e., the thicker the air the slower it can vibrate. The general rule is 20% of the end of the valve has glue.
6. Wrong clearance on the reed tip. The reed tip has to lie slightly above the slot, generally a gap about equal to its thickness. If it is too wide a clearance it will waste air and be sharp in pitch. If not enough clearance, the reed will "choke" when under sudden pressure change.
7. Cheap steel or too much filing during tuning. Both conditions will cause the reed to go flatter as more air passes over it. This can make the accordion in tune at one pressure and out of tune as the loudness and pressure change. The accordion reeds are tuned by scratching or filing, but some amateur accordion tuners may ruin or damage the reeds by scratching the plate, or taking off too much metal.
8. Loose reed rivets. In the worst case they can make the reed not play at all if the reed rotatates sideways over the slot.
9. Damage to the slot, for instance the accordion reed can hit against the metal in the slot and suddenly go sharp as it plays louder. This may usually occur on the highest reeds.

    My accordion tuning method.

Right now you may be wondering... "How does Ike achieve such phenomenal results tuning?"

Here are some points about my accordion tuning methods. In general:
    I use digital software and rather sophisticated audio equipment to measure the pitch. It is a very bad idea to use a meter type of pitch device to tune accordion reeds. It will give you s an inaccurate reading. Some repairers do not tune the reeds by constantly checking the sound with the reeds inside the accordion, but if you try to do it with the reeds out, the pressure is different than inside the instrument, and an accurate result is not possible. Outside the accordion, the pressure is reversed, and the reeds that are under negative pressure (vacuum) are the ones that are under positive pressure inside. Also the reeds all have to be clean and the wax new, and the reed valves in order, before undertaking tuning.

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