Friday, April 8, 2011

FAQ #1: I want to play diatonic accordion, what kind should I get?

Q: I want to learn to play the diatonic accordion, what kind should I get?

A: It's really impossible to answer this question until you become somewhat clearer about what kind of music you would like to play.  We will have to figure out what keys are commonly played by diato players in a given tradition, and what kind of "system" is typically used.  

Q: Okay, let's say that I want to play French Canadian tunes and some New England contra dance tunes -- what kind of box should I get?

A: Good, now that narrows it down.  A one-row box would make a good starting point, and the best key to choose would be D.  Alternatively, a D/G two row box, with eight bass/chord buttons would also work, although in that case, my suggestion would be to start by playing tunes on the D row only.  Finally, an A/D/G box would be fine, as long as you don't get bogged down early on with all the possibilities -- again, stick to the D row at first.

Q: Don't I need a one-row box in D with four stops for French Canadian music?
A: No.  It is an illusion created by distance and the internet, although it is true that one-row, four-stop boxes are now popular with many of the higher profile, advanced players in Québec.  Up close (i.e. in Quebec), one will see beginning players starting out on lots of different boxes.  Typically, the Hohner HA-series one-row boxes, whether they have two, three, or four stops are used, or other inexpensive one-row boxes.  If you want to buy a used one, you could call one of two shops where many players trade-in their beginner boxes when they upgrade: Messervier in Montmagny and Gagné in Québec City.  You could also give Mélodie a call.

Q: Do I absolutely need a one-row in D?
A: No.  It does seem like one-row boxes in C are more readily available.  You can learn all the techniques, and you can learn to play many tunes on a C box.  Just remember that you are essentially "tuned down" a whole step, so you'll learn tunes in C that are commonly played by other musicians in D.  If you plan to play with others, you should really try to find a D box.

Q: Would you make the same suggestion for Cajun music?
A: No.  Er, non.

Q: Care to elaborate?
A: Okay, but I don't play that kind of music.  You need a one-row in C.  Some Cajun players add other keys (starting with D) later, but it is entirely possible to learn all the techniques on a single box, a one-row in C, preferably with four stops.  Really, you should call Marc Savoy and ask him what he recommends for a beginner.

Q: I just changed my mind and want to learn "French" music and maybe some Breton tunes.  What now?
A: There is a very active culture of diatonic box "pedagogy" in France and Brittany, and there are several excellent book series dedicated to helping people learn to play multi-row diatonic boxes.  Beginners typically learn on G/C two row boxes (usually, 21 buttons) with 8 bass/chord buttons on the left side. I recommend the Pignol/Milleret books that are sold here.

Q: I just got a D/G box (see above) and now I want to play French music, do I need a G/C box?
A: You can actually keep the D/G and "pretend" that it is in G/C for purposes of using one of the French  books.  Each book features tablatures, so the fingering pattern is the same, it's just that the music that comes out of your D/G box will be a fifth higher in pitch.  Yes, that's quite a bit higher in pitch -- you will eventually want to get a G/C box, but try to learn the techniques first and see if you like it, then get the new box later.

Q: What if I come up with more questions?
A: Don't be afraid to ask!


  1. what kind of diatonic accordion is best for playing Russian folk?

  2. i just got G/C accordion i am 55 years old is it to late in life to learn to play