ACCORDION SHOPPING GUIDE “Useful Points”
Accordion Shop South Africa, for the benefit of all our present and future clients interested in purchasing a second hand Accordion, here are some notes that I have found from distinguished professional repairers throughout the world. I hope this will guide you and help you to make the right choice when purchasing a second hand accordion. For information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Accordion Shopping Guide by Peter Anderson – Accordion repairer – AUSTRALIA
(Prices quoted are in Australian Dollars)
03 9459 8864 0402 454 830 or email@example.com
As an accordion repairer, it gives me great pleasure to bring back to life a really nice instrument. Conversely, it is less than pleasant to have brought to me an instrument which is fit only for the rubbish bin (and may have been from brand new) which some poor aspiring player has spent far too much money on. The notes which follow are intended to assist novice buyers with avoiding the latter scenario.
Mechanical / Structural
The usual construction of the accordion is of wood laminated with celluloid. The celluloid is totally cosmetic, and whatever nicks and scratches exist are there for good. Examine the accordion casing from all angles. If any cracks are evident through the celluloid into the woodwork, leave this instrument alone. If any warping of the woodwork is evident, leave the instrument alone.
Test all keys and bass buttons for stickiness. Sticking bass buttons are common, but are usually an easy repair. One or two sticking keys on the right hand can usually be sorted out fairly easily, but any more may signify the possibility of tricky problems with the keyboard, e.g. warped woodwork. Avoid any instrument with missing keys or missing key top lamination. Particularly avoid instruments with solid plastic keys which have broken. Missing bass buttons can be replaced provided the mechanism is intact and the rod which held the bass button is still in place and visible in the hole, but if this is questionable, avoid the instrument. Uneven key height (on the piano keys) is common, but is usually a very easy repair.
Couplers which are sticky or ineffectual can generally be sorted out, but avoid instruments with missing or very obviously damaged coupler components. Be a bit more wary though of Hohners with coupler problems as they use plastic parts which are extremely difficult to fix if broken.
Bellows / Airtightness
Check the instrument from all angles for air leaks. Listen for the hiss of air and hold your face close to the accordion to feel for and identify air leaks. Gasket leaks where the bellows join the two wooden bodies are common and can be readily fixed. Missing pins which secure the bellows can be replaced. The hiss of air from the bass chamber may signify only the need for minor bass mechanism adjustment, but the possibility exists for more involved repairs. If air hisses from behind the grille, remove the grille if possible and examine further. Here look for palettes not quite sealing / covering the airways – usually an easy repair. If however, the felt padding of the palettes is visibly chewed about by moths, or leather facings on the palettes are coming loose, expect an expensive repair. Another source of air leaks which may be evident behind the grille is cracks in the wooden casing. Avoid any instrument with these. Back to the bellows: – If any damage is evident to the soft leather gussets in the bellows, avoid the instrument. If any of the cardboard ribs of the bellows are folding inwards when the bellows are opened, avoid the instrument. If a small number of metal bellows corners are loose, cracked or missing, this is repairable, but avoid the instrument if this damage is too extensive. Wear to the tape on the edges of the ribs is common. Unless extreme, this is only a cosmetic problem and if desired, bellows can be re-taped.
Assessing the condition of the reeds and valves
The sound of the accordion is produced by small steel reeds which play a certain pitch when air passes through them. Associated with (almost) every reed is a flap valve of either leather or plastic which is of critical importance to the production of the note. To assess the reeds and valves in the keyboard end, firstly select (if possible) the coupler which gives a single reed sound. Play every note on the keyboard in both pushing and pulling the bellows at low air pressure. Notes which fail to sound often signify a reed jammed by a bit of dust or grit. This is a very easy repair. Notes which fail to sound and have in their place a whoosh of air generally indicate a broken reed, or a fallen out reed plate. – Not a difficult repair. Notes which play sharp momentarily before settling into their pitch, or notes which play accompanied by a hiss of air, or notes which are buzzy or spluttery signify problems with the flap valves. Individually, a valve problem is an easy repair, but if it is prevalent over much of the keyboard (as is often the case) it adds up to a lengthy and expensive repair job.
On the bass end it is usually not possible to sound single reeds, but valve problems are generally most in evidence in the bass notes (as opposed to the chords) and will show up as grumbly, spluttery and buzzy bass notes, with a general lack of depth in the bass sound.
Regarding tuning, an instrument that is shot in the valves will not play very tunefully, but it is possible for an instrument which has no valve problems to be out of tune as well, due to a buildup of rust or dust on the reeds. In this case, obviously fully retuning an instrument is not a minor undertaking. However, it is not as big a job as would be the case if an instrument required full replacement of its valves as well as a full retune. A moldy smelling accordion signifies that it has gotten a bit damp, and may thus have rusty reeds.
We generally regard concert pitch as being A = 440 Hz. (Hertz and cycles per second mean the same thing.) However, orchestras in Europe often play sharper than this. Accordions are generally pitched anywhere between A = 440 Hz. And A = 445 Hz. Further, most accordions generate tremolo by adding to their ‘home pitch’ reed a second reed playing somewhat sharper. (Perhaps one accordion in thirty will generate their tremolo by the addition of a reed playing flat.) Some accordions are musette tuned with both a sharp reed and a flat reed added to the ‘home pitched’ reed. It is important to understand this aspect of accordion tuning for ensemble work. For instance, to sit in with the Berlin Philharmonic playing at 445, a 440 tuned accordion would sound flat played in single reed mode but would sound fine in tremolo mode. Or to play with a flat piano in an old folks home, one could probably get by with a 440 tuned musette accordion, but a tremolo tuned 443 accordion would sound very sharp. To measure the pitch of an accordion, use an electronic tuner to get the general pitch of the keyboard end in single reed mode, or hold it to the bass end and play bass notes. Note that not all accordions have a tremolo setting. Some have two or three voices on the keyboard tuned to pure octaves.
The principal German makes are Hohner and Weltmeister. Hohner has for years made its reputation on the production of solid mass produced accordions. While always solidly made and reliable, in terms of playing quality (keyboard action, tone, reed response, volume, etc.), Hohners vary from indifferent to exceptional. In fact, the top of the line Hohners were built by the Italian accordion builder Morino. Possibly the best of the mass produced Hohners is the Atlantic which is actually a metal bodied instrument.
While these can have problems with their palettes, it is a curable problem and usually worth the effort. A good Atlantic is a fine accordion. Note that some consider that Hohner quality has deteriorated in recent years with smaller accordions contracted out to Czech and Chinese makers. One advantage of Hohners in repair terms is that they use plastic valves rather than leather (since the 1950’s) which rarely give trouble even when 50 years old.
Weltmeisters have always been the East German poor cousin to Hohner. That said, their overall quality has been improving for the last 20 years. Weltmeister playing and build quality varies from poor (on the older ones) to very good on present day models. Note that almost all German accordions are tuned to A = 440Hz. (Another less seen make of East German accordion which is well worth avoiding is Royal Standard.)
The principal older makes that one comes across are Parrot and Baile. Of the two, Bailes are more solidly built and copy Italian design, and it is possible to find a Baile that is quite respectable in playing quality, though there are plenty of indifferent ones out there as well. All this said, there are touring musicians who have good Bailes and who appreciate the robustness and raw volume these instruments give.
Two newer brands of Chinese accordion are Aidi and Paloma. These are better tuned from the factory than Chinese accordions have been in the past, but that said, build quality is very variable. One might play very nicely, but the one next to it on the shelf could be very ordinary indeed. All Chinese accordions are tuned to A = 440 Hz.
The main make is Delicia, and while there are occasional reasonable ones about, in no respect can I see the sense in buying one when there are Italian or German accordions available. In every respect they are (almost always) very indifferent accordions.
There are far too many makes of Italian accordion to name even a few. As a general rule, a badly made Italian accordion is a rarity. In terms of craftsmanship and sweetness of tone, the Italians rule. That said, Italian accordions are not necessarily made robustly enough to stand the test of time. Totally ‘shot’ leather valves, sticky keyboards and cracked or warped casings are all par for the course on old and ill-treated instruments. Still, if an instrument is good structurally, it is often worth the investment in having its valves renewed and having it tuned. Note that an Italian accordion will almost always have ‘Made in Italy’ or ‘Castelfidardo’ labeled on it somewhere. It is not unknown for a Chinese, Czech or East German instrument to wear an Italian name. Such instruments are better avoided. Pitch-wise, 7 out of 10 Italian Accordions will be tuned to A = 443Hz, the remainder being 440, 441, 442, 444 or 445.
Accordion Setup and Tuning
The way an accordion is set up (in terms of how many reeds can be played per note) and tuned varies enormously, and which variation is chosen, is often dictated by the type of music to be played. The most common configuration is 3 reeds per note available on the keyboard, with two playing slightly apart on the same pitch to provide tremolo, and the third playing an octave lower. The tremolo setting is a matter of taste. A fast beating tremolo will give the instrument more ‘cut’ in ensemble situations, and a slow one will give a more mellow tone. Changing the tremolo to suit individual taste is par for the course for an accordion repairer. Different nationalities have different preferences as well. A Scotsman will want a 4 voice (reeds per note) musette tuned accordion, that is, 3 reeds on the same pitch tuned for a strong and almost dissonant double tremolo, plus a lower octave. A Frenchman will want a less strongly tuned musette on his accordion. An Italian will want a ‘double octave’ 4 voicer – that is, two reeds in light tremolo plus a low octave plus a high octave. A Yugoslav will want a double octave 4 voicer with almost no tremolo and ‘cassotto’ construction. A cassotto accordion has half its keyboard reeds playing into a chamber which enhances mid range response and reduces high frequency response. An Irish player will want a 2 row 2 voice button accordion (B/C system) with zero tremolo.
As noted above, the most common configuration is the 3 voicer. Professionals mostly play 4 voicers. 3 voicers are regarded as ‘intermediate’ or part time player’s instruments and 2 voicers as learner’s instruments. Perhaps this is an outdated wisdom, as lots of people playing 2 and 3 voicers prefer the smaller size of these instruments as they often give greater volume and expressiveness. (With less weight!)
There is a convention sometimes used to denote the voicing of accordions. Where an accordion has very low pitched reeds available for the notes on the keyboard, this is referred to as L. (Often also referred to as a bassoon reed.) If an accordion has very high reeds available to the keyboard, this is referred to as H. (Also referred to as piccolo reeds – 2 octaves higher than bassoon reeds.) The reed(s) pitched in between these two are referred to as M. (And are variously referred to as clarinet or oboe or violin reeds.) So a small accordion with only 2 reeds available per note might be MM or LM. A 3 voice accordion might be LMM or LMH or MMM. Full sized accordions are either LMMH (Double octave tuned) or LMMM (Musette tuned, and an MMM accordion can also be said to be a musette instrument.) Very occasionally one sees an LLM accordion, which has been made specifically for jazz, and also occasionally one sees an LMMMH accordion, which is just too heavy!
To determine the voicing configuration of a particular accordion use your ears! There has never been a recognised standard for coupler labelling. For instance, a coupler labelled Violin may refer to 2 reeds or a single reed. A coupler labelled Musette may refer to musette as I have described it (MMM), or it may refer to MMH. Couplers labelled with dots often give a concise picture of how an accordion is set up, but in many instances this labelling is misleading or ambiguous as well.
Number of Bass Buttons
As a general rule, a full sized accordion will have 120 bass buttons, i.e. 6 rows by 20 diagonals. Smaller accordions will generally have less, typically 96, 80, 72 or 48. That said, some quite small accordions can have 120 bass, and some 80 bass instruments can be quite large. The point to note here is that instruments with very few bass buttons (say 3 rows x 12 diagonals) have very limited bass capability and are intended for children or very basic learners. A learner with any aptitude at all would outgrow this arrangement in months if not weeks. My recommendation would be to not buy any instrument with less than 5 rows of bass.
There exists variation in the size of the keys fitted to piano accordions. A full sized accordion reckoned to be for a male player has white keys 20mm in width. But smaller and lighter accordions are made which can have the same range as a full sized accordion, but with the smaller size achieved by having narrower keys. These are referred to as ‘ladies’ accordions, and the usual key width is 18mm, though even narrower sizes exist. Another popular size is 19mm, which could perhaps be referred to as a unisex accordion. Asking key width when buying an accordion from eBay is a good idea, as it is hard to tell these things from photos, and a large handed man would certainly not want to find that he had bought an accordion with 16mm keys!
Below all those bass buttons is a mechanism which is simple in theory but complex in practice due to the amount of repetition involved. It’s job is to transfer the movement of a single button to 2, 3, or 4 pallettes to sound the appropriate number of reeds required to make a chord or the appropriate number of octaves of reeds which make up a bass note. The usual complaint when problems occur here is continually sounding notes. Usually the original cause has been the dropping of the instrument. (Airline baggage handlers are the renowned masters at accordion dropping!) Usually, the repair is an easy and quick one and just involves finding the parts which have been jarred out of alignment and pushing them back into place. This can with luck be a 5 or 10 minute job. What can make it a bigger job is –
- When the instrument has been played regardless of this problem and components have become bent or damaged.
- When a repair has been attempted by someone inexpert and components have become bent or damaged.
- When the dropping has been severe enough that the bass mechanism mountings have broken loose.
Another problem which can occur here is that the leather facing on a bass palette can come unglued and cause similar symptoms. This can require total disassembly of the bass mechanism. (Some 200-ish parts.)
Should the purchase of an accordion with a ‘droning’ bass end be contemplated, bear in mind that this is a job which really can’t be quoted on until I am well into the job.
Another noteworthy point on bass mechanisms is their construction. The more common construction method is to build up the 200-ish parts ‘in situ’. Consequently, should a problem develop underneath it all with the bass palettes (fortunately uncommon) or the bass palette springs (fortunately rare), piece by piece disassembly and then reassembly will be required. Some accordions however, have a bass mechanism which is removable as an assembly. Most Hohners, many Scandallis, many Bailes and occasional other makes use this construction. While I don’t recommend purchase of an accordion to be totally contingent on this consideration, it should be borne in mind that there are occasional repairs required which can take over 6 hours with the former method of construction versus 30 minutes with the latter.
Clearly, when the sound source is a vibrating piece of steel, it must be securely mounted to the instrument. Each reed is riveted to an aluminium plate. (2 reeds per plate) Each plate is attached to wooden blocks by wax. (From 4 to 9 blocks in an instrument with the reed plates arranged in banks – usually a bank on each side of a block.) The blocks are screwed or clipped to the accordion body. Problems and failures can be caused when the wax (officially a combination of beeswax, shellac, linseed oil and rosin) becomes old and brittle. Non-gripping wax can cause reeds to buzz, to play sharp, or to not play at all. In fact, entire reed plates can fall off and rattle around inside the accordion. These symptoms will sound similar to earlier mentioned reed and valve problems, and it is even difficult for me to discriminate between them until the instrument is pulled apart.
Repair-wise, there are patch up jobs I can do (if only one or two reeds have come loose) which may last a good long while, but the day comes when every accordion needs renewal of the wax. (If an instrument is being fully rebuilt anyway with full revalving and retuning, a full rewax is required as a matter of course.) The original wax put into an accordion often lasts as long as 50 years – of the instruments which come through the workshop, probably 4 out of 5 require no attention to their wax, but if you buy a 1930’s instrument, a full rewax will certainly be required. Very occasionally, a whole bank of reeds (usually big bass reeds) will fall off the blocks and be loose inside the accordion, but even here, as long as none have suffered damage, the workshop time to rewax a bank would only be an hour or so. The worst thing wax-wise is when an amateur has attempted repair. Reed plates roughly held in by candlewax or glue, and wax sodden leather valves are typical of the problems amateurs leave behind, and add significantly to repair times and costs.
There are some interesting variations on the wax method of reed plate mounting. Some accordions have their reed plates affixed to the blocks by screws or nails with the sealing achieved with leather facings on the reed block. Nothing wrong with this – it’s quite reliable. Another variation is seen in some Hohner Atlantics which use a PVA glue instead of wax. This is also reliable, but makes removal of reed plates when necessary rather more difficult, and the glue behaves just as badly as wax when the instrument is overheated. Also occasionally one sees the reed plates held on by the same varnish used to finish the wood of the reed blocks. This is probably the best and most reliable method of all – it is impervious to heat, and the hardness of the varnish is very good for reed response.
In a word, all things are possible. Tuning a 443 accordion to 440 is perfectly feasible. Adjusting the tremolo is normal practice. It is possible to convert double octave accordions to musette if required. One of the weirder jobs I have done is for a neighbour who plays Arabic music. He wanted many of his notes to play quarter tones on the pull and semitones on the push! – Easy!
There are two critically important rules on accordion storage which don’t get nearly enough publicity, so they might as well get a mention here. The first is fairly obvious. Never store an accordion anywhere damp! Accordions hate moisture. I once had come to me a brand new, very expensive, and never played accordion which had spent 10 years presumably under a bed. It was horrendously out of tune as the reeds had all been well attacked by rust! I got it back into tune, but such things should never be allowed to happen. —- The second golden rule — ALWAYS store an accordion sitting on it’s bass end, i.e. with the keyboard pointing vertically. The reason is that in this position the oh-so critical valves hang vertically and remain straight and thus seat properly. When they instrument is stored any other way, the valves will with time and gravity develop a curve and make the instrument spluttery, airy and unresponsive. This is a problem evident to a greater or lesser degree in 2 out of 3 accordions which come through my workshop!
Buying a non-playable instrument
I have instruments brought to me which are barely playable or not playable at all, usually because of notes continuously sounding, or because when notes are played, there is a whoosh of air as loud as the note being sought. It is even difficult for me to know how well such an instrument will turn out when repaired, so for the purchaser it must be regarded as a total gamble. The make of the instrument is only a partial indication, as even good makers can turn out a dud, and unknown or less regarded makers can turn out the occasional beauty. Possibly the sweetest and most responsive instrument I have ever seen was a make I had never heard of which came to me barely playing. Other instruments which have looked very promising have in the final analysis turned out fairly indifferent. Take your chances on this one!
It’s an old instrument, therefore it must be good?
The answer to this is a resounding NO! The first point to note here is that the science of accordion making reached its present level in the 1950’s. There are still plenty of 1930’s instruments around, and while I rebuild one from time to time and it is nice to see one playing well, the fact of the matter is that in terms of reed response, keyboard action and robustness of construction, the best 1930’s instrument will not be as useable as the average 1960’s instrument.
Secondly, the adage ‘They don’t make them like they used to’ is largely mythical. As long as consumer goods have been made, some have been made exceptionally well and some have been cheap and poorly made. What we see today is the good ones which have survived and not the poor ones which have been thrown away. In terms of accordions, cheap and nasty ones have been made as far back as the late 1800’s and are still being made today. A poor instrument is worthless whether it is new or 80 years old. Conversely, exceptional accordions are still made today. What may be said however, is that while there are many instruments of today which are made to a very good standard, the number of exceptional accordions made these days is probably fewer than were made throughout the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s.
For the potential purchaser of a pretty looking antique accordion, the best advice I can give is to compare the feel of the keyboard with that of a modern instrument. If the keyboard feels heavy or rickety or clattery (as it most likely will), the chances of the instrument being viable for regular performance or usage are virtually nil.
There is one more point to make about early piano accordions. Up until the 1950’s, accordion makers made the piano keys with their edges cut very straight. Since this time, the edges of the keys have been made slightly rounded. In playing terms, the earlier arrangement really handicaps fast playing and fast sliding up and down the keyboard, and provides another reason for my non-recommendation of early accordions.
A Small instrument will be cheaper to repair than a large one?
(As there is less inside?)
There is of course truth to this, but there are exceptions! Manufacturers, on their ‘bottom of the range’ instruments have a tendency to save costs by making their instruments less ‘repair friendly’. I refer particularly to the practice of gluing down the reed blocks. Generally, the reeds of accordions are serviced by the removal of the reed blocks which are screwed or clipped into place. Once removed, air can be blown into the blocks for checking the reeds, tuning or other repairs. However, on certain instruments, the blocks are glued into place, and the reeds must be removed plate by plate, then waxed to another block for tuning etc., then waxed back into the instrument. Obviously, this can double or triple repair times. The worst instruments for this are Hohner (and other) single row diatonic accordions, and some piano accordions with few basses (8, 12, 24) .
Buying Accordions on the internet
This is fraught with hazard! While there are good accordions there, it’s also true to say that there are plenty of people who through ignorance or dishonesty will advertise an unplayable wreck as being in good condition! I have had a good many accordions brought to me, for which someone has paid several hundred dollars, for which I would be reluctant to offer $20 for spare parts. Beware! If you feel tempted, take advantage of freely given advice from me and e-mail me the advertisement. I’m not suggesting that even I can properly assess an accordion from a photo, but I do have the experience to improve your odds!
The above is, I hope, a good rough guide for accordion shopping. Almost every second hand accordion (and even many brand new ones) will require a trip to the workshop for some tweak or other. Repair costs can vary from $10 for, say, unsticking one jammed reed to over $500 for a large instrument requiring full re-valving, full re-tuning and mechanical repairs. Of course a repair quote can exceed even this, but at this point I nearly always recommend going shopping for an accordion in need of less work. Mostly, a structurally good accordion needing tidy up work to valves, tuning and mechanicals will be repairable for around the $200 – $250 mark. Naturally, I am happy to give further guidance on the phone, but the best procedure to follow when possible, if considering a purchase, is to bring the instrument to me for an assessment and a definite quote.