Accordion 101

While meeting with my accountant recently, I inquired as to the best way to invest extra cash (in the event that I ever had any)? He said "diversify." And to you, fellow keyboardists, I offer the same advise--diversification is the key to broadending your style and getting gigs. I have had the opportunity to play with such stylistically different artists--John Prine, Dave Koz, Jon Bon Jovi and Rod Stewart--because of one thing: the accordion. Laugh if you will, but I would probably still be playing lounge keys at the Holiday Inn if I didn't. Mind you, I wasn't always an accordion player. A friend and bandmate, Tim Scott, gave me the one I still use years ago and from the moment he handed it to me, I started getting real gigs. This was prior to the accordion losing its image of only being used in cheesy polka-humor-lounge (that's "in" now, too) settings. But the accordion has become a great addition to any rock and roll, country, folk, blues, or even a jazz gig.

Many people believe the accordion is hard to play. Not true! It is important, though, to use a decent, in tune, instrument that you are comfortable with. There are several kinds to choose between. A keyboardist most likely will prefer a piano rather than a button accordion. The piano accordion has keys on the right side, similar to that of a piano keyboard. The same note sounds whether you pump in or out. The button accordion (also referred to as Irish or Cajun, depending on the key and configuration) has buttons, is set up in a scale (diatonic), and each button is a different note dependent on squeezing in or out. It is practically a harmonica that you squeeze. Quite confusing! Granted, Conjunto (tex-mex), Cajun, or Irish music sounds more convincing using these, but the piano accordion can fake those styles as well.

Another consideration is size. You may see the German Polka-style accordion with 120 bass buttons and think it is too big and complicated. So do I. For pop and rock and roll, you don't need all those notes and certainly don't need all the bass notes. This is why I use the smaller two octave/12 bass boxes. They're easier on the back, too.

Once you have an idea of which accordion you need and want, now the task is to find one. It is easy to pick one up at a garage sale or thrift shop for cheap, but unfortunately, most of these will have problems--some of which are easy to fix, and some, such as a hole-ridden bellows, are not. These must be taken to a shop to be fixed and will usually cost quite a bit of money. Even if the accordion just needs to be tuned, that will set you back at least 75 to 100 bucks.

If you do decide to buy this way, examine the squeeze-box carefully. Even I have had problems thoroughly checking out an instrument after many years of looking. I've been lucky in Los Angeles to find Paul LaVoe at ABC Music (4114 W. Burbank Blvd, Burbank, CA; 818-842-9495) who buys and fixes my accordions. He can usually find a good, used one costing no more than 300 bucks. A lot of stores that sell accordions will try to steer you in an expensive direction. This is not necessary. Even the good brands such as Hohner and Scandalli can be had for little dough. Once again, like buying a car, check them out! Keep on searching and you will find your magic box. After you figure out what straps go where, and have the accordion strapped on, just start jamming. Remember, note selection is important to avoid that dreaded polka effect (unless you are going for this). A well-placed note or a fifth goes a lot farther than a hand-full of notes. Thirds sound more Cajun or mariachi. Fool around and see what works. It is usually pretty obvious. Also, remember that you have two devices for the emotion and dynamic of a phrase--whether you play legato or detached, and the control of the bellows (the in and out motion). This is one of most important aspects of accordion playing, like breathing is for a singer. Most band leaders need a good, smooth sound coming from the accordion. It definitely pays to give this the highest attention.

On the keyboard accordion, the keys on the right are the same as a piano, but what's up with the buttons on the left? Don't panic, it actually is pretty easy. Hopefully you got a box with no more than 48 buttons. (I started on a 12 bass.) No matter how many you have, it all is the same idea. The first (and second on more than a 12 bass) row are bass notes, The others row are the corresponding chords (remember chord organs?). Starting from the C (the one with an indent), all the buttons to the left go in a flat direction in the circle of fifths (you were awake during theory class, right?) and a sharp direction to the right. In other words, C, F, B-flat, E-flat, A-flat to the left, and C, G, D, A, E to the right. Some have more buttons, some have less, but the idea is the same. A well placed bass note can make a lot of emphasis.

Although there are thousands of accordion instructional methods available, there is a lack of technique books for pop and rock. One could use a book of Irish accordion or fiddle reels to jam with but the best way to sample different styles is to check out the greats in action. Recordings by Garth Hudson from The Band (we're not worthy), Clifton Chenier (blues accordion), Buckwheat Zydeco (little gumbo with that), Flaco Jimenez (Tex-Mex) and Roy Bittan (Bruce Springsteen) are good bets. Check out my website, too, for recordings I have done with other greats. Listen to great music and you will be too. Now, squeeze on!

1998 Gig Magazine
Reprinted with permission