Accordion/What Instrument to Have
Unlike instruments like the flute, clarinet, piano, etc., accordions come in all shapes and sizes, with different tunings, sizes, reed configurations, and other varying specifications, so it can be challenging to determine what accordion is best for you. Here is a list of the most important aspects of a new accordion you should ask yourself. (This page is concerned with the piano accordion only, not diatonic or chromatic button instruments, although much of this text is applicable to them as well.)
Size and range
Consider purchasing a full-sized instrument right away, and preferably one with three or four sets of treble reeds, instead of the tiny, so-called "student" models with only a few dozen basses and very small keyboard that are sometimes promoted. Almost all current accordion repertoire is written with a standard 41-key, 120-bass range in mind; you can get away with less if you're planning to only play very simple folk/pop music, but in general not having the standard size will increasingly become a hindrance as you improve your technique. (The instructional part of this guidebook assumes a full-sized accordion, as do almost all methods books, such as Palmer-Hughes.) Besides, by using a large instrument from the start, you can immediately get used to the feel and touch of a real, standard accordion, and will not have to adjust to a larger instrument in the future. (Just as learning pianists don't start by playing on a cheap toy piano, neither should an accordionist start on a tiny, toy-like accordion.)
Tunings and reed setups
If you intend to mostly play folk, dance, and light classical music, you could get a musette tuned accordion, which has two or three reed blocks tuned slightly differently from each other for an off-tune, vibrating "French" sound.
The "musette" sound is not appropriate for every kind of music, though. If you want to eventually play serious classical pieces or jazz, an accordion where all the reeds are tuned to the same pitch is preferred - that's called dry tuning. (Reed blocks and tunings are covered in further detail in another section of this book.)
New vs. used
Decide whether you want a new or used accordion. New instruments usually have improved, more efficient mechanisms, tighter bellows, and in general will need less repair as time goes on; used instruments, however, cost a good deal less as a rule. Depending on how well it was kept, however, a used accordion can be almost in as good overall condition as a new one. (Even if a used accordion has some problems, they can usually be repaired fully.) Many people consider older models from the '60s and '70s to have a more mellow, pleasant sound, but a lot depends on personal taste. Try playing both a new and old instrument if you have the opportunity, and compare to see which sound you enjoy better.
Good full-sized accordions are in general not cheap. Both price and reed quality vary considerably and there are masses of manufacturers. Bottom-of-the-barrel, machine-made models can cost as little as $400 but have a miserable, painfully abrasive sound. Some new top-of-the-line, hand-made European models, meanwhile, have an incredibly rich, organ-like quality but come with a price tag of $25,000 or more. Keep in mind, though, that price does not always equate to quality; you may find a cheaper model of one brand to be better than a more expensive model of another brand.
As mentioned above, used instruments usually cost a good deal less than new ones; it may be the deciding factor if price is an issue for you. As a beginner, you don't need a state-of-the-art model, but you need something with a sound that you can at least live with. Nothing will deter you from playing the accordion more than practicing on an awful, raspy model. Depending on where you live, a decent full-sized accordion will usually come with a price of about US$2000; it can be half that price or less if used. (Even if you buy a used instrument with some minor problems, the cost of it and the repairs that need to be made to it will usually be much less than a new accordion by itself.)
If you take an interest in the accordion and take it up seriously, you'll probably want to eventually buy a better accordion that will complement your ability better as you improve your skills.
Find a reputable dealer. Play the accordion before purchasing it if possible to hear if it has a sound you can live with. Buying an accordion over the internet (like on eBay) can yield some excellent deals if you're lucky, but is also very risky since quality is not readily apparent through a photograph.
Here are a few things to check for, especially for a used instrument:
- Make sure the notes are more or less in tune and that all the keys and bass buttons are working (i.e. not caved in, missing, or otherwise damaged).
- Find out in what conditions the instrument has been stored. If it's been kept in a damp environment, or where there are extreme temperatures (i.e. near a ventilator, heater, near a cold wall, etc.) there might be problems with the accordion, even if not immediately apparent to you.
- Examine the bellows. Put the accordion on and let the bellows fall open in your lap without playing a key. If you hear a "whoosh" or the bellows fall open very quickly, the instrument has a leak - a common problem which severely affects playability. (If the bellows slowly creep out but without noise, that's okay. Almost all accordions - and especially older ones, even if well-maintained - will let out a small amount of air.)
- Smell the accordion for mold. Mold is bad for the reeds and may subtly damage internal mechanisms and reeds, even if you can't hear or see it immediately.
- If you see problems after any of the above checks, consider looking elsewhere.