A few words of Introduction
I will keep the introduction brief since the meat of the subject matter will be found further down and this page is quite long enough as it is. However, I feel it is important to point out that when making a decision such as this, it is absolutely critical that you be as honest with yourself as you possibly can. In reality, only you know your true motives, likes, dislikes, and capabilities. If you wish to be as satisfied as possible with your selection of an instrument, it is absolutely essential to make an informed decision based on the truth. Otherwise, you are likely to waste your money on an instrument that you really aren't satisfied with, or worse yet you will end up disenchanted with the whole thing and give it up. One has only to look at the used instrument selection of any well-stocked button accordion shop to get a good idea of how many people buy the wrong instrument and later regret it.
The idea of playing a one row Cajun Melodeon may sound romantic and trendy right now, but after you've squeezed out a couple of tunes and start looking around for a local Cajun band to join only to realize that there are no 'local' cajun bands in your area you may start to realize that you're doomed to play this thing alone and that you can't even play along with other accordionists because of the way the dang thing is tuned. Suddenly, its lost some of its charm, and unless you are very devoted, you've just bought a $1000 knick-knack to dust around.
There is another 'trap' to be aware of which is the opposite of the one presented above. It won't take long before you begin to realize that the button accordion is a 'limited' instrument (most instruments are if you think about it...can a piano sustain a note without a decrease in volume? Can a trumpet play a chord? Is an organ portable? Can a fiddle accompany itself?). Because of that, you can't play all music just as it is written. You won't always have the chord you want when you want it. You won't always be able to phrase your bellows just the way you want them. It is important to realize that these 'limitations' are not weaknesses. They are what give the melodeon its unique character. They are what seperates the button box from a piano accordion. What I see a lot of is people who graduate to more and more complex instruments with more and more bass buttons and modified layouts that try to make every note available in both bellows directions. They want an instrument that will play everything from classical to jazz to folk. I would submit to you, that if you think this might one day be you, you would do well to consider a Chromatic Button Accordion rather than a melodeon. Please be open minded about it. There are small CBAs out there. They are layed out quite logically (more so than a diatonic accordion, even more logically than a piano accordion) and can be played in all keys quite easily. If you are going to end up wanting a box that will play all music, just buy and learn the CBA from the outset. You will save yourself a lot of grief and frustration, not to mention cash, and you won't end up with a box that looks like it was meant to be a piece of furniture. Castagnari and Saltarelle both have 60 bass CBAs in their lineup which have the same fabulous look and feel as their very popular diatonic models.
Let's face the truth, the melodeon is best for musicians who prefer to play 'folk type' music with a toe tapping beat and who aren't burdened by ears that are overly sensitive to 'wrong' chords. We are mostly an easy going bunch, interested in the enjoyment of playing music with and for friends, perhaps over a beer or two (I'm stereotyping of course - see I'm using both the right and left hands). 'Serious' musicians aren't too likely to be satisfied with the capabilities of a button box in the long run......yes, its sad but true. Its likely that I have just offended a lot of 'serious' people with the last several sentences. I stick to my guns though, and in my defense let me point out that good music is good music, fun music is fun music and serious music is serious music. Serious music is not always good music, and fun music need not be bad music. If you think otherwise, I would suggest that you are possibly too serious to have fun playing a button box. For a more in depth (and entertaining) discussion of the finer points of 2 row vs. 3 row melodeons, please refer to the article
Norman Armoires by Yann-Fañch Perroches and its sequel by Bernard Loffet.
Well, somehow this brief intro became very, very long, so on to the rest of the page!
The Type of Music You Intend to Play
This may well be the most important question you will need to answer before you decide what kind of instrument to get. It is probably also one of the more problematic questions, because often, beginners are unsure of where their musical adventures will take them and they don't want to limit themselves to just one specific type of music. If this is truly the way you feel, then you are probably best served by getting a more versatile instrument. If you already know what music you want to play, then get something that is best suited to that particular type of music.
So why all this talk about types of music? Why can't you just play any music on any instrument? Well, button boxes are best suited for playing folk music. The unique characteristics of their design lead to a certain style of playing, and that style of playing affects the music that is made. Because of the diatonic nature of the instrument, and the vigorous push-pull motion of the bellows, the button box is ideal for dance tunes based on diatonic modes and scales. That is not to say that they can't be used for jazz or classical....its just that those types of music require a lot more work and expertise to play on the button box. When you are playing a button box, in its native music style, it can be very easy to get a decent sounding tune out of it, even for beginners. An instrument like a piano accordion can play all types of music equally well, but it is not as easy to learn and it will never be as good as a button accordion at playing toe-tapping folk dance tunes. So enough generalities, lets get to some specifics.
Irish Music: The craze today seems to be Irish folk music (some people refer to it more generally as Celtic Music but that is a term that has certain negative connotations for purists). Probably the most frequent question I hear regarding the choosing of a button box goes something like this, "I want to play mostly Irish music, but I might also sometimes want to do other kinds of music too, like Tex-Mex or French Musette tunes, what kind of accordion should I get?". The answer to that question is quite long, and can't be determined on just the information given. Let me say that the most common boxes in use in Irish music today are two row boxes with 8 basses. The two rows are tuned 1/2 step apart, usually B/C or C#/D. The current trend is for boxes that are tuned very dry. There is raging debate about whether B/C or C#/D is the better system...in truth, they both have their advantages and disadvantages, so my suggestion to you would be; if you have a teacher, book, or video from which you will be learning, get the system that your teacher, book, or video uses. If you don't have any of the above, but you have a favorite player in mind, whose recordings just blow you away, get the system they use so you can play along with the recording, failing all of the above, go with the best deal you can find or flip a coin.
So, if you are interested only in Irish music, get a 2 row instrument with a flat keyboard and dry tuning either in B/C or C#/D. But what about the bass side, you say? Well, to be totally honest, its not that big of a deal....basses are rarely used in Irish music, and the basses can be difficult to layout in a useful system for this type of box anyway. Some players have come up with their own creative layouts which they swear are the greatest, and I would refer you to Han Speek's page to read what he has to say on the subject since this is beyond my area of knowledge. As a final note, let me point out that Irish tuned boxes are called diatonic because each of the 2 rows is diatonic by itself, when put together, though, the result is a chromatic instrument. Chromatic instruments are theoretically capable of playing any tune in any key (single note melodies, anyway).
Western European Folk: Now here we are talking about French, Dutch, German, English, Italian, etc. All of these musics use button accordions that are tuned a fifth (a "quint") apart. I know that some of you serious types get heartburn when I say "fifth apart" because you think that it should be "fourth apart". Suit yourself. Its generally understood in button accordion circles, whether right or wrong, that both designations are OK. In the circles that I frequent, most folks say "fifth apart" so that's what I'm going to call them.
The most common tunings are: G/C, C/F, D/G, A/D (roughly in that order) although there are also other tunings (such as Bb/Eb (one whole step lower than C/F) for use in brass bands). G/C is the dominant tuning in France, Belgium, Italy, and recently, Scandinavia. D/G is king in Britain, C/F is the rule in the Netherlands and Germany, A/D is used mainly in Britain and Scandinavia to accompany fiddlers, but is not nearly as common as D/G.
If you intend to play French, Italian, or Belgian music, you almost have to get a G/C instrument. If you intend to play a little of this and a little of that, you would probably be best served by a G/C box as well, since it is the most commonly available. In addition, there is a vast amount of music and tuition books written for the G/C box, since the French have been very prolific in this regard. Furthermore, it seems that G/C is becoming the "lingua franca" of button accordions. Many workshops, particularly those with international flavor, are set up for G/C instruments, even in areas which don't traditionally play G/C. The G/C is particularly well suited to playing along with hurdy-gurdies (also normally pitched in G/C) and French bagpipes...both great combinations. It is the lowest pitched of the top 4 box tunings, and consequently it can use more air in the lower octaves....but the upper octaves sound great.
If you intend to play English music, especially for country dance or morris dancing, D/G is THE traditional box. There is a hint of a rumor of a movement about to try to make C/F the new standard for morris, but I think chances are slim that it will happen. There is a lot of inertia to overcome. One also sees G/C boxes in use by morris musicians, but they are the exception rather than the rule and they often have trouble playing with other musicians in massed dances. D/G is the highest pitched of the top 4. The very highest notes can be quite shrill and unpleasant sounding. It is interesting to note that G/C boxes are usually played in the upper octaves, while D/G is usually played in the lower octave...probably a function of where each instrument sounds best...but it also has an effect on what sort of ornaments are easiest to produce, since the fingerings are differant for each octave. This peculiarity has sometimes led to the generalization that players on the Continent play the upper octaves, and the British play the lower octaves. I think it actually depends more on the tuning than on the locale. Incidentally, D/G is also a fine choice for playing fiddle type music, and for playing Irish music.
The C/F is played by the Dutch and Germans (both have a rich brass tradition, and C/F is more adaptable to that type of music). It is pitched 1 whole step below the D/G, which reduces the shrillness of the highest notes somewhat. The Dutch have a clever and useful modification to their system which consists of reversing the reeds on the fifth button of the inside row. This button is a duplication of reeds found in the same bellows direction in the outside row. By reversing them, there is a lot more vesatility and flexibility in playing right hand chords and in choosing bellows direction....of course the trade off (and there's always a trade off) is that playing in the key of F requires cross fingering. There is usually a great selection of older used instruments pitched in C/F....probably the easiest tuning to find in used instruments. This is partly due to the fact that Germany was a hotbed of accordion production, and still does a fair amount of accordion manufacture. Some folks like them because they are easy to sing along with.
The A/D is played because those happen to be very common fiddle keys. It is most commonly found as a second box (behind the D/G) in Britain and (behind the G/C) in Scandinavia. It can also be used to good effect in old-time string bands. So, for squeezers who play with fiddlers or who like to play fiddle tunes, this is the logical choice. It is pitched 1 whole step above the G/C box, which gives it a nice rich tone without as much of the air-greedy, rough sounding lower reeds one sometimes finds with a G/C.
So far, we have only covered two row instruments. There are also plenty of 3 row instruments in use. By far, the most common 3 row tuning is G/C/F. That is the tuning used by Tex-Mex and Conjunto musicians as well as other South and Latin American musical styles. It is fairly normal to find this instrument in use in France, Italy and the Netherlands as well, since it can play along with G/C instruments and C/F instruments. Running a distant 2nd is the A/D/G. This is found in England (especially in country dance circles) as it can play along with D/G instruments, and in fiddle music, since those three keys are by far the most common fiddle keys. In recent years, there has been a growing trend to tune 3 row instruments as a two row, with the inside row consisting entirely of accidentals. This makes it possible to play chromatic passages in any octave of the instrument...and is especially common in France, where there are numerous systems proposed by various players. Diatonic yet chromatic at the same time - confused? You should be. Maybe Yann Dour can help explain it better in his article Sounding Off. The other trend with 3 rows is to combine Irish and Continental tunings on one box e.g. C#/D/G or B/C/F. The advantage here is that the box becomes fully chromatic, there are more opportunities for cross fingering, it is easier to use the basses, and one can use the same box for a variety of differant styles. Its a good idea for those who just can't decide whether they'd rather play Irish style or Continental style.
Another variety of accordion consists of 2 1/2 row instruments. These are basically similar to 2 row instruments except the the accidental buttons have been placed on a half row where they are more convenient to the fingers. These instruments are often equipped so that they are chromatic in 2 octaves rather than 1 octave as on a standard 2 row. Also, 2 1/2 row instruments usually (but not always) come with 12 rather than 8 basses, which gives greater flexibility to the left hand. The "club" model of accordion is a special version of a 2 1/2 row instrument, it has a button on the treble side, in the middle of the inside row which plays the same note in both bellows directions. This button is called the Gleichton (which is German for "same tone"). This button functions much like the Dutch reversed button to give the instrument more flexibility. The "club" models often have only 8 basses, which are tuned slightly differantly than the standard setup.
One row models, which used to be the most common, are still in use in many cultures. Cajun, Quebecois (French Canadian), morris music, Irish, French, numerous African cultures, all use the one row box. Most people who are interested in the one row are looking at playing either Cajun, or Quebecois. Be aware that Cajun boxes use a special tuning called "just intonation". This tuning will sound "off" if used with fixed tuning instruments such as piano, non-cajun accordions, etc., but this tuning is also what gives the cajun accordion its "cajun" sound. Each culture has its own favorite tuning for the music it plays. Quebecois reportedly uses 4 reed (tuned LMMH with 4 stops) D boxes most often, followed by G and A....though sometimes one sees the ubiquitous G/C/F 3 row. Cajuns, who also use 4 reed LMMH boxes, reportedly like their melodeons tuned in C with D being the next most common. Please note, however, that Cajuns typically play on the pull rather than the push, which means that a C box is played in G, and a D box is played in A (two row players may want to note that with a G/C, C/F, D/G, or A/D box, you can approximate the Cajun or Quebecois repertoire in the popular keys of C or D for Cajun and D, G or A for Quebecois, you're just not likely to have the 4 reeds or the Cajun intonation on your box). I would highly recommend that you thoroughly research the type of music you will be playing before deciding on what sort of instrument to get, and in what tuning.
Some button accordions have even more than 3 rows. Generally speaking, these are known as Helikon, Heligonka or Steirische instruments. They are common to Alpine music from Bavaria, Switzerland, Austria, Slovenia, Bohemia, Moravia (sometimes Slovakia) and Italian Tyrol. In specific terms, Helikons usually have from 3 to 5 treble rows which are tuned with a gleichton in each row except the very outside row (though not all have the gleichton), like the club model. They tend to be larger instruments with very low, tuba-like basses. They are common in Polka music. The boxes can be very ornate, with little metal horns that protrude from the bass side, and shiny chrome details and colorful decorations everywhere. They are often tuned to play in brass bands (which means mostly flat keys) and the large number of rows allows a lot of choice in bellows direction and fingering...this results in a smoother style of playing than most button boxes. Its a good thing too, because these boxes tend to be large and heavy....approaching the weight of a 120 bass piano accordion (though smaller in size), so they don't lend themselves very well to a push-pull style of playing. I believe they normally have 11 basses, and I'm not sure of the layout of those, though it stands to reason that it is significantly differant from a standard 2 row melodeon.
Where and with whom you intend to play
This is a little easier of a topic than the previous one. What it all boils down to is, if you know that you will be playing with a particular other musician, keep that in mind when you go to buy your instrument. For example, if your best friend plays a C#/D Irish box, and you intend to jam with him, but all your research says that B/C is a slightly better box, it might be better to ignore the other advice and get a C#/D anyway. It might mean the differance between hours of enjoyable jamming with a good friend, or playing alone in isolation on a superior box. Likewise, if you are playing for morris, and can save $100 by going with a G/C box rather than a D/G, think twice about it. Sure, if you are just playing for your own team it won't make much differance, but if you go to an Ale or other gathering of teams, are you going to feel left out when the other players all play "Bonny Green Garters" in D, or when they all get together afterwards to learn a brilliant new tune someone just picked up which needs an Emin bass? The same applies to how you intend to learn. Good teachers and good books can be hard to find. If it makes the differance between having a teacher and not having one, or if you might have to transpose all your lessons to use them with your box, you might be better advised to simply buy the tuning that your lessons use.
Where you intend to play also makes a differance. Indoors, in intimate settings, a nice mellow box is the perfect thing. Outdoors, you want a box with sheer piercing volume. On stage in front of an audience, you might consider having a box with a mic installed. Playing with brass? Maybe you should consider having a loud instrument tuned in a common brass key. Playing outdoors in inclement weather, or in bars where drinks might be spilled? Maybe consider having a "beater" box on hand rather than chance having your pride and joy ruined. Will you be playing standing or sitting? If standing, you'll want a lighter, smaller box. Likewise will you be strolling with it for long periods? Better go with a small, light box again. If playing with fiddlers, a wet musette tuning can be a real source of aggravation to them. Maybe you should have a dry tuned box, or at least have a way to turn the bank of tremolo reeds off. On the other hand, in situations where the other instruments have a tendency to overpower you (most session players have horror stories of 20 bodhran & 15 guitar sessions), a good old fashioned wet musette can really cut through the noise and keep you from being drowned out. If you will be accompanying singers, a mellow sound is nice, especially one that is in a key that matches the singer's range.