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.)
Unlike a piano, an accordion is an instrument that you wear. Furthermore, accordions can be heavy! Playing an accordion that fits you well will be more enjoyable than one that's too big for you. It's not uncommon for accordionists with full-sized accordions to later buy a smaller one and find they play it more often. This might also help to avoid health issues like back or shoulder strain.
This doesn't mean you should judge accordions solely by weight, since a somewhat heavier instrument might fit you better. The height of the instrument (determined by the length of the keyboard) might be as important as weight for shorter people. Much like with clothing, the best way to judge what's comfortable for you is to visit a store and try a few different models.
Some features can be traded for lighter weight. In particular, having four sets of treble reeds isn't necessary. It's more important that you like the sound of the reeds you have for the music you like to play.
A 41-key, 120-bass accordion will work with all instruction books; otherwise you'll want to make sure you have enough range for the music you want to play.
On the treble side: (TODO).
Omitting bass buttons saves very little weight, but smaller accordions often have fewer bass buttons, so you'll still have to think about what you need. On the bass side, 60-80 basses lets you play popular music and will get you pretty far in accordion instruction books.
An instrument with five vertical columns of bass buttons instead of six will usually be missing the diminished chords. As a beginner you won't be needing them anytime soon, but they're useful for some kinds of music (jazz and classical).
When an accordion has more than 12 rows of buttons on the bass side, it has duplicate buttons that don't add more sounds, but help with fingering. This is useful for being able to play music in any key; otherwise, you might have to transpose some music so you can play it in an easier key. Being able to play in all 12 keys is not something beginners will be learning right away, but could eventually be useful for accompanying a vocalist or playing in a band.
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 a pleasingly off-tune, vibrating "French" cafe accordionist sound (this is a "chorus" effect).
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.) The "musette" sound is also less useful for playing in a band, because in a group, you want to blend.
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.
When you are buying used, there are a range of ootions of where to buy, from an online ad from a private seller to a music store. The best prices are buying from a private seller, because there is no "middleman" taking a percentage and the selker has no overhead (as a store owner has). The downside is that there are no warranties or returns with a private sale. If you are buying privately, it is important to check the condition carefully. Do all the keys, bass buttons and chord buttons work? Do the different register switches work? Is the instrument tuned well? Some defects may lead you to not get an instrument (e.g., the instrument needing a $1,000 overhaul). But a tuning issue, as it is a standard maintenance task that a repair shop can fix, could be OK if the price were to be reduced to take this into account.
If you buy a used instrument from a reputable music store, there may be some type of warantee against defects. As well, a good music store will clean and repair used accordions they buy. In contrast, a private seller's instrument may not have been taken out of its case in 10 years and may have problems. You can find used accordions at pawnshops, but remember that there may be no warranty in this type of store and it is probably in unrepaired, "as-is" condition, as pawnshops are unlikely to have an accordion repairer on staff.
For used accordions, judging its playing condition by the blemishes and scratches can be misleading. For example, a showroom-mint looking accordion that has sat in a damp basement for 12 years may look beautiful, but its internal components may be badly damaged by moisture. On the other hand, an accordion used by a touring professional for the last 12 years may be covered in nicks and scuffs, but if the owner had professionally-trained maintenance done yearly, it might be in great playing condition.
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. Student-level instruments start at about $700 to $1200. A good quality new accordion costs about $2,000.
Some new top-of-the-line, hand-made European models, meanwhile, have an incredibly rich, organ-like quality and a huge range of sound options 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 well, in some cases, an instrment's price might be higher because costly finishes have been used.
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$2,000; 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.
A new digital accordion will cost from $3,000 to $8,000. Digital accordions have MIDI (musical instrument digital interface) systems, electronic sensors on the buttons, keys, switches and bellows, and a synthesizer that recreates accordion sounds. As well, digital accordions can play other sounds, such as pipe organ, piano, or bass guitar.
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.