Basically there are two types of melodeon - Diatonic (D/G, G/C, C/F are the most usual) and Chromatic (B/C, C#/D are common, C/C# and D/Eb less so). Diatonics are used in England and most of Europe and most have two usable octaves in each key. In England we tend to use D/G most, playing mainly in the lower octave. In Europe they prefer G/C and play mainly in the upper octave (the G row being an octave lower than on the D/G).
As the notes are arranged slightly differently in the upper octave, the triplets, runs and fills which fall most readily to hand are different from those available on the lower octave - accounting for some of the stylistic differences between European and English melodeon playing. So - it's perfectly possible, but more difficult, to play an Italian monferrina on a D/G box in G. The same applies to an English morris tune in G on a C/G - it's horses for courses.
For Irish (and to some extent Scots) music it's a bit more complicated. Up to around 1950 they all used diatonic D/G or equivalent instruments, (or one-rows), so if you want to sound like some of the older traditional players, a diatonic is best. After that time many players switched to B/C chromatics and created the modern Irish accordion style you're probably familiar with. Inevitably, the triplets, runs and fills which fall most readily to hand on a chromatic are different from those available on a diatonic, so the modern style is different from the old. Today, quite a lot of players are switching to the keys of C#/D, as opposed to B/C. As almost everyone plays in the 'fiddle keys' of D, G, A and associated minors, you'll be able to see that a tune played in D on a C#/D needs different fingering from a B/C, and that it will sound somewhat different too.
For what it's worth - it's my belief that Irish music is easier to play on a diatonic than is English on a chromatic.
Cajun players use single row instruments with four voices (2 medium, 1 low, 1 high). They also play them backwards, 'on the pull' - so a C box, the most popular choice, is played in G - and have them specially tuned for this purpose. Played in C 'normally', a C Cajun box will sound slightly out of tune. Don't buy one unless you want to play only Cajun music! A 3-voice 2-row box will give a satisfactory approximation of the Cajun sound - at least, to begin with.
If the reasoning behind all of the above is clear to you, and seems convincing, remember also that all melodeons and most button accordions play different notes on the push and the pull, so that the bellows direction changes affect the rhythmic dynamics of the playing too, which in turn affect the style. To sum up, you'll be able to play any type of music on any of the above mentioned boxes, but each will by stylistically more suited to one type.
A chromatic can obviously play in any key, though they only provide chords for the fiddle keys. Each key requires a different fingering pattern and some are quite tricky. Learning to play a chromatic in five different keys involves five times the work of learning in one key. You should find out in which keys you need to be able to play.
If you're going to be playing on your own, then the keys you choose are less relevant - though many people find D/G a bit high to sing with; C/F might be better. If you'll be playing with others, then you need to be able to play in the same keys as them - fiddles, banjos and many popular instruments play in D, G, A, Em and Am, for example. If you intend to play with European friends, they tend to play in C, G and Dm.
A further consideration is the number of voices (reeds per note) you require for your instrument. Most cheaper instruments have two medium voices, tuned either the same (dry voicing) giving a concertina-like sound, or slightly apart (swing, demi-swing or musette) giving a vibrato sound. You get the sound the instrument produces and that's that. With three voices - say, two medium, one an octave lower, (more expensive and heavier) you can often control each bank of reeds separately to produce several different sounds.
Swing Voicing is what most people in the UK want for diatonics - about halfway between Dry (no vibrato) and Demi Swing (a stronger vibrato; as used by Hohner), so this is how most other melodeons are voiced as standard. Chromatic (B/C and C#/D) instruments are usually in Dry voicing as standard. Any instrument should be able to be supplied in any voicing - but you will have to wait a bit for unusual 'specials'.
What a 2½ row does provide is greater ease in getting some of the notes which may prove difficult to play on a 2 row. For example: on a B/C chromatic, the notes A, Bb, C, C#, D, Eb, F, F#, G, Ab and A are only available in one bellows direction. Some tunes would be easier (or smoother) to play if some of these notes were in the opposite direction. So 2½ row models often provide the notes A, C, D, Eb, F, F# and G in the opposite direction on the half row. These are known as reversals.
Similarly, on a diatonic box (say, D/G), the accidentals Ab, Bb, Eb and F are tucked away at the top end of the keyboard, well away from where they naturally occur in the scale. This can be quite a stretch for anyone with small hands or short fingers. So 2½ row models usually provide these notes on the half row (and in 2 or 3 octaves, rather than just one), where they are much more easily accessible. These accidentals are found in the low octave at the top end of the keyboard, and in the middle and high octaves on the half row. The reversals of C and F are also provided in the middle of the half row.
Be aware that you pay a price for this supposed ease of note availability and the extra chords! Not only are the 2½ row boxes more expensive, but they are quite a bit heavier, larger and, thus, a little slower than their 2 row counterparts (see below).
With choices like these, it's always a matter of compromise. For what it's worth - I feel that, unless you have a real need for what a 2½ row box offers, you'd be better off spending some extra time (rather than money) on getting to grips with a good 2 row.
It may seem strange for me to suggest that 3 reeds vibrating at the same time can be quieter than two, but it often sounds like that - for two very good reasons. Firstly, because a 3-voice box usually has its third voice an octave lower than the other two, the big low reed uses about the same amount of air as the two smaller ones. So, if you use the same amount of effort in playing, the high reeds (which are the ones you hear most readily) are only playing half as loud - the sound is obviously fuller, but quieter.
The second reason is the air pressure (which governs the volume of sound produced by the reeds), and is expressed in terms of force/area2, as in pounds per square inch. If you put one pound pressure on a one square inch piston (like in a bicycle pump), you produce a pressure of 1 lb/in2. But if you were to put the same pressure on one of those big pumps used to inflate air-beds having an effective piston size of maybe 10 square inches, then the pressure produced would be only 0.1 lb/in2. One tenth as much!
So you'll see that the size of the bellows' cross-sectional area will affect the air pressure - and thus the volume of sound produced by the reeds. Having an extra bank of large reeds, a typical 3-voice box uses a bellows with a c/c area around 20% greater than a typical 2-voice. Thus it is around 20% quieter - or must be played with 20% more effort to produce equal volume, even when only using two voices.
Lastly, weight. If you play standing up, a heavy instrument can be tiring to play - but since most people play sitting down, the actual weight is not usually too much of a problem. What counts is how much weight you have to move about! And what you have to move about is the bass end of the box - thus a 12-bass instrument is noticeably harder work and more tiring to play than an equivalent 8-bass one.
Yes, the humble gob-iron works exactly like a melodeon - suck and blow equal push and pull, and moving one hole up or down is the same as moving one button up or down. If you can get a tune out of a mouth organ, you'll be able to play the melodeon. Buy a cheap Chinese instrument - and not a 'blues harp' type. If you fail to get to grips with it within a month, bin it and say goodbye to a fiver - better that than an £800 melodeon!
Your First Instrument
For a first melodeon (unless you only want to play one type of music, ever) I would suggest a D/G box as offering the greatest flexibility - you can play anything you want to on it with reasonable ease. Any other choice will make some of the range of music you might want to play difficult for a beginner.
All of the above should have answered most of the questions I frequently get asked, reasonably adequately - but it may have left you even less able to decide! Give me a ring or drop me an e-mail with any resulting queries.
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