There are a number of considerations to make when choosing an accordion and as a beginner it can be pretty stressful if you don’t get good sound advice. Here, I am going to attempt to clarify a few points with the hope that it will in some small way help you make that first expensive purchase.
There are many different types of accordion, the only common feature being they all have melody keys or buttons on one side (often called treble keys), and chord accompaniment buttons on the other. So right from the start, you need to consider things like what types of music do you want to play, what past musical experience do you have? Where are you hoping to play the instrument, maybe the Royal Albert Hall, or just at home? Then there are the more cosmetic things such as weight and colour.
There are two basic accordion categories: Uni-sonic and Bi-sonic. With the Uni-sonic configuration, the instrument produces the same note when the bellows are opened as it does when the bellows are being closed while the Bi-sonic instrument produces one note when opening the bellows and a differrent note when the bellows are closed.
Another fundamental distinction to be aware of is whether the instrument is diatonically or chromatically tuned? An example of the diatonic accordion is the smaller instrument that is also known as the Melodeon. Because of its lighter compact size, it is ideal for traditional folk music. Melodions tend to have one or two rows of treble notes each row being in a different key and containing seven notes in an octave. These are the notes associated with the regular major scale so it can limit the variety of uses that this type of instrument can provide for a musician. However, one answer to this is the two and a half row instrument whereby the half row would consist of accidental notes to make the instrument more versatile.
The chromatically tuned accordion can produce all the sharps and flats throughout it’s range and so is considered a more versatile configuration although possibly more difficult to master. These instruments come in many guises and so they can have either a button or piano keyboard on the right hand side, and on the other side they usually employ what is known as the Stradella bass system and these can come with anything from 12 buttons to 160 buttons. The argument for piano over the 5 row button keyboard is to some extent a personal preference and there have been long debates on the subject, however, both systems are very versatile and each system has it’s own advantages and disadvantages.
One of the main advantages of the piano keyboard is that it is a straightforward layout with one key for each note. One of it’s disadvantages is it’s range is limited compared to the button keyboard with the piano having a maximum range of 45 notes and the button up to 64 notes. Another advantage of the button keyboard is that the melody and chord patterns are exactly the same in different keys, so when playing a D major chord or a C major chord the fingering remains exactly the same.
We now move on to the tuning. There are two options here and they are straight tuned or musette tuning and again this is a personal preference but in general, straight tuned accordions would be used for classical, jazz and dance band music where musette tuning is more commonly used for traditional folk music such as French, Scottish, Irish music and many eastern european traditional music styles. The obvious examples of this would be the Late Jimmy Shand’s musette and the more mellow – straight tuned – tone of Jack Emblow of ‘sing something simple’ fame (for those old enough to remember). You can see a more in depth explanation of musette tuning in the ‘Musette Theory‘ tab elsewhere on this site.
So as you can see, its a bit of a minefield and it would be my No1 recommendation that you find a good teacher who may have some example instruments for you to see and hear, and who maybe willing to accompany you to the accordion shop and guide you through the whole process. A good idea is to start with a smaller and cheaper instrument just to get a feel for it, and to actually confirm it’s the right choice of instrument for you. There’s countless examples of people going out and buying a very expensive instrument only to find it’s not really for them after all, or it’s far too heavy so they end up with backache every time they try to play it, then it ends up collecting dust in a loft or on top of a wardrobe somewhere. So go to a reputable dealer like Emilio Allodi in Lewisham, where you can get sound and un-biased advice, listen and try on a selection of instruments in your price range and even get someone in the shop to play them for you so you can hear the different variants available.
Finally, don’t be afraid to ask! There’s countless websites like this one where any questions can be answered (visit the comments page) or look for your local teachers and accordion clubs. Good Luck and enjoy your new accordion!