How limiting is the responsiveness of a B/C box?

How limiting is the responsiveness of a B/C box?

Some background: I’ve been working on B/C accordion as my secondary instrument for a while now, and while I continue to make progress, I never seem to be able to achieve the smoothness I want. I can always emphasize the heavy beats when I want to, but I find that the bellows changes in the middle of a phrase results in emphasis where I don’t want it. Frustratingly, I can’t seem to smooth those changes out. Peter Carberry (whose playing made me want to learn B/C in the first place) seems to be able to only emphasize exactly those notes that he wants to regardless of bellows changes, so it must be possible. Hell, Joe Burke (God rest him) seems to be able to play without emphasizing any notes whatsoever.

My instrument is a second hand, older (i.e. made in Germany) Hohner Erica. I’ve never played a fancy box like a Castagnari or Saltarelle, so I don’t really have anything to compare mine to. However, I wonder from time to time if my difficulties achieving the smoothness I want are compounded by learning on a not-so-responsive instrument. Obviously a good instrument will not make a bad player good, a good player can play a bad instrument well, and good bellows control is a critical skill that can only come with time and practice. That said, I want to ask the more experienced B/C players here: when it comes to B/C box, is having a highly responsive instrument essential (or maybe just more important than with other instruments) to playing smoothly? Will an especially unresponsive box limit how smooth you can play B/C more so than on other instruments? Can even the most unresponsive box be Joe Burke levels of smooth in the hands of a good player, and I just need to keep practicing?

Posted by .

Re: How limiting is the responsiveness of a B/C box?

It would be informative for you to try out some higher end boxes so you could find out for yourself.

In my experience the instrument you play does make a difference. Boxes with more responsive reeds and better quality bellows need a lot less heaving and hefting on the left hand side.

It’s a combination of the musician and the instrument at the end of the day. A great player like Josephine Marsh plays a Hohner Black Dot, decent instruments, but not super high end of the market. Another example: Back when I was (unsuccesfully) learning to play fiddle, a certain musician who visited our session would pick up my horrible bottom of the range chinese Skylark and literally bring the pub to a stop with the expressiveness and quality of her playing.

If your reeds aren’t so responsive then you will have to heave the bellows to get them to speak, then you will get that surge of emphasis you so dislike, I have a low quality Primo b/c that plays a bit like that.

Try out some other boxes so you get more of a picture of how different accordions play, there is definitely a spectrum of playability. As well as the high end stuff there are probably some decent mid range instruments around too that would be worth a try.

If you don’t have experience of other boxes it will be hard ( as you are finding) to work out if it’s you or the box that’s having problems. Go to a music shop and try a few. Some box players, if you ask them very nicely, don’t mind if you have a ‘quick go’ on their instrument, but tread very carefully , it’s best to get to know people a bit before you ask.

Is it essential to have a high quality box? Probably not. Does it help to have a good quality box? Definitely.

Leaving out the issue of tone quality, just talking about playability here:

Poor quality boxes will hold you back and feel like a constant struggle to play.

Good quality means decent playability where you are not fighting the instrument.

High quality boxes are a dream to play, you will know when you play one.

Re: How limiting is the responsiveness of a B/C box?

Hohner Ericas and Double-Rays, properly set up, especially older ones, are really responsive and exceedingly easy to play. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that a more expensive instrument will compensate for failings of technique. From your description I think you need to develop your mastery of the bellows. Forget about heaving, and forget about trying to be loud.

Re: How limiting is the responsiveness of a B/C box?

Often, these kind of issues can be because of instability of the instrument due to incorrect strap setup.

How many straps do you use and is the instrument stable and not moving around/swaying when you play?

Getting the ergonomics right is crucial for playing B/C box. I’d be happy to have a quick Zoom meeting with you to talk about this and check out your instrument setup, let me if you’d be interested via a private message.

Re: How limiting is the responsiveness of a B/C box?

I agree with just about everything that’s been said, and I just want to add one tip: try playing everything quietly for a while. Most folk on box put more effort into it than is necessary, and a period of deliberately quiet playing is helpful in restoring control.

Posted by .

Re: How limiting is the responsiveness of a B/C box?

Use the E notes on the outside row, smoothness comes with practice, and intake of air at the right time. Good luck!

Posted .

Re: How limiting is the responsiveness of a B/C box?

Of course a lot depends on what you mean by “smooth”.

There is legato playing, minimizing bellows direction changes through use of the “magic” E and B which one might refer to as “smooth”, and then there is precise playing which may be anything but legato, but still “smooth” and may or may not use the “magic” notes.

My guess it’s the latter you’re struggling with, that you’re finding any bellows changes problematic to maintaining flow, and why I brought up straps and ergonomics first.

If you’re fighting keeping the instrument stable, then you’re never going to be able to have proper control of the instrument, and this shows up particularly when doing rapid bellows reversals.

Re: How limiting is the responsiveness of a B/C box?

OP, Peter Carberry played B/C box, past tense. He had a severe hand or finger injury and thought he’d never be able to play again. Then (I can’t remember who) a fellow musico who is a box master suggested he try C#/D. That is what you hear him playing on his records.

If he picks up B/C now, I’d wager he’d be playing flat–i.e., “D” tunes in C, and “G” tunes in F, which on a B/C box you finger like you finger “D” and “G” on a C#/D.

Your question really applies to B/C or C#/D or any box where the rows a re a semitone apart. They all finger more smoothly in the same number of keys–it’s just different keys. And they all finger herky-jerky “back-and-forth” or old “push-draw” style in the same number of keys–just different keys.

So, when you hear a player like Joe Burke sounding so smooth, much of that is, he is usually playing his B/C in the keys that on B/C finger more smoothly using both rows so you can get more notes in both directions. If he was playing his B/C in “C” and “F” you’d hear more bellows movement because on B/C those phrase “back-and-forth” like a one-row melodeon. But usually, Joe recorded in keys that are “across the rows” and smooth on a B/C.

Of course, on a bisonoric button instrument there will always be some notes that fall contrary to how you want in the phrase, and for those you have to perfect your technique.–you do this by giving up the fantasy of playing those notes “long.” You play them short and staccato, careful not to over-emphasize any that shouldn’t be, until that awkward part of the phrase passes.

You can achieve this on any box that isn’t outright stiff and resistive. But to be honest, there’s a reason many button accordion players buy the best-quality boxes, with the highest-grade, most responsive reeds they can afford. It’s because a faster, more buttery and supple response does make it all easier and a lot more fun. There’s also a reason Tony MacmMahon is on record as saying, “F**K THE 2 ROW BUTTON ACCORDION!”

Re: How limiting is the responsiveness of a B/C box?

good points C monster –
a friend once used the term “chuck-ing the box” playing with too many in/out phrases – gotta work those alternate B and E notes out –

To the OP: be patient with yourself - work on playing your D and G scales as smoothly as possible and then move onto jigs like Tobin’s favorite or Father O’Flynns that use the D arpegio – work on playing these jigs as smoothly as possible –

An Erica can be upgraded to a fantastic box - check with Yutaka Usi or Martin Quinn about upgrading the reeds and keyboard on an Erica – they are fantastic upgrade hot rods!

Re: How limiting is the responsiveness of a B/C box?

Sure would be nice if the OP followed up with any response so we can get some idea what he/she is actually struggling with based on the many suggestions made…

Re: How limiting is the responsiveness of a B/C box?

Are you using the bass chords? also watch all the great B/C players you can on YouTube. Peter Carberry does not play the B/C system.

Posted .

Re: How limiting is the responsiveness of a B/C box?

I second the advice to try more boxes – as many as you can. That will help illuminate whether it’s you, the box, or a combination thereof. If you are in the Eastern US, perhaps you could take a field trip to the Button Box or another sales/repair shop where they’ll let you squeeze some of the stock?

And if you’re playing B/C but listening recordings of a C#/D player … well, that’d account for problems with matching the bellows changes exactly.

Re: How limiting is the responsiveness of a B/C box?

Coming back to Stiamh’s point:
“Hohner Ericas and Double-Rays, properly set up, especially older ones, are really responsive and exceedingly easy to play.”

That’s true and the likes of Jo Marsh and Charlie Piggott wouldn’t use them if that wasn’t the case. However that doesn’t rule out the possibility that your box might need some attention.

The reeds should sound with very gentle bellows pressure. If they don’t then that could indicate problems with the set of the reeds, the gap between the tongue and the plate. If that was the case though the responsiveness would differ between notes as you wouldn’t expect them to all be a long way out. Another cause could be that the box is not sufficiently airtight.

Another thing that affects the playability of old Hohners but not the responsiveness is excess button travel. Buttons that disappear down the holes makes for a clunky playing experience.

If you like the sound of the box then all these things are fixable by your local accordion repair person. If not then an upgrade could also get you something that sounds better to your ears.

Re: How limiting is the responsiveness of a B/C box?

We still don’t know what he/she is actually struggling with…

Re: How limiting is the responsiveness of a B/C box?

No and we may never but it doesn’t matter. The thread contains a variety of helpful responses and different approaches that other people with similar issues might find useful.

Re: How limiting is the responsiveness of a B/C box?

It does matter.

While all the suggestions are great, they assume that the issue is with the box.

I’m more interested in the player, because a great box in the hands of a player with poor ergonomics, inappropriate straps, lack of stability, or incorrect motion can cause all the same issues he/she has described.

In my experience, many players who have issues like this never spent the time to properly deal with the ergonomics of the instrument and struggle for years because of it. This is why I continue to bring up the question.

Re: How limiting is the responsiveness of a B/C box?

There could be lots of different reasons why it doesn’t come out fluid..

how much travel do you have on your box (how far do you need to push the button before the sounds come out ?)
can you play it softly and the right sound comes out, quickly ?
Do you have your next finger over the button you going to play next (almost touching the next button before you play it) Do you keep your fingers close to the key board (no dancing fingers)

look at bellows control, the smoothness can be achieved by not pulling and pushing straight out/in, but more rotating the bellows (slightly) when changing direction,(when pushing the bellows it’s a clockwise rotation when changing direction (pull to push) and anti clockwise the other way around. You shouldn’t shouldn’t hear any noise from the bellows when changing direction.

(here an example of excellent finger work and bellows control) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=50PPrdsMS9U


don’t forget the double use of the the B’s and E’s

Gmaj is usual quite an easy key for fluid playing on a B/C (using the B on the push when appropriate)

and yes a better instrument will be easier to play

Re: How limiting is the responsiveness of a B/C box?

“It does matter.

While all the suggestions are great, they assume that the issue is with the box.“

No they don’t, e.g. Calum’s suggestion to try playing quietly, others on the use of B and E reversals. However the o/p thinks he has an issue with the box’s responsiveness and I’ve given him some simple diagnostics to check that out. It does no harm to eliminate that first.

Re: How limiting is the responsiveness of a B/C box?

And we still haven’t heard back from the original poster, so we still have no idea what he/she is actually dealing with…

Hope he/she takes some of our advice and lets us know how it goes.

Re: How limiting is the responsiveness of a B/C box?

Yes it would be nice if we heard something back.

Re: How limiting is the responsiveness of a B/C box?

I saw once box player Barry Brady in Tig Coili (pub in Galway city) playing a toy button accordion and I was just amazed to see that the playing was absolutely great. He was kind of joking, but believe me, what he was doing there was extremely good.

Everything is on the player.

With a cheap accordion you must play slow if you don’t want to have problems with the responsiveness. If you have a good one, it’s easier to play, the sound is better and you can play faster and trust the reeds.

I strongly believe that playing cheap accordions is good for practising the bellow work and I suppose the same it goes for the air button. You get used to them and when you get a good one you have most of that work done, you can concentrate on more difficult parts of the playing.

I don’t play the box myself, I base all of this in my concertina and harmonica playing. For those instruments I played cheap and expensive ones.

As per the box, I play a mobile app. It sounds like a joke but I’m taking it pretty seriously and I’m loving it.

Re: How limiting is the responsiveness of a B/C box?

I have more than one person describe my playing as jerky: and yes, it probably is, to watch, though hopefully it sounds OK. This is to a large extent determined by what tunes I play, and this in turn reflects the choices of friends I play with and playing such tunes in “the usual key”. I do use the alternative Bs and Es quite a lot, but take a tune like Soldiers Joy in D, where you have all those F#s in between the Ds and As: no alternative but to keep pulling and pushing! Or the strathspeys with their “Scotch snaps” where you often have make very fast directional changes. I rest my case!

Re: How limiting is the responsiveness of a B/C box?

Unusual to see Danny O Mahony playing a B/C box.

Posted .

Re: How limiting is the responsiveness of a B/C box?

“I do use the alternative Bs and Es quite a lot, but take a tune like Soldiers Joy in D, where you have all those F#s in between the Ds and As: no alternative but to keep pulling and pushing!”

Yes, but it is absolutely possible on a stabilized (no swing due to strap or other ergonomic issues) instrument with careful timing and bellows control to have those fast reversal notes sound nearly indistinguishable from sequential notes all in the same bellows direction, even at a fast speed.

Re: How limiting is the responsiveness of a B/C box?

Joe Burke was great at camouflaging those nasty D#s by diverting the tune away from them, great technique. The great Paddy OBrien Tipperary was the same. Imho the two best B/C players ever.

Posted .