Accordion Tips and Tricks

George’s Accordion Tips and Tricks

Now with videos: Don’t worry – they’re all really short!

Hi, welcome to accordion tips and tricks. This page is aimed at accordion players, especially if, like me you have arrived via some other instrument. It’s mostly list of things that only accordion players do, I play piano accordion but some of these techniques are applicable to other types of bellows driven instrument.

Bellows, Bellows, Bellows!!!!

Accordion bellows
Bellows – the engine!

 

The heart of the accordion!! This is what separates us from piano and keyboard players….the bellows gives absolute and continuous control over volume, something no other polyphonic instrument has (unless you count the swell pedal on an organ, or a melodica, er…..etc.)

 

 

Turn

It is good practice to turn the bellows often and on the beat…this helps with rhythm and keeps them more closed than open…air is squashable so the more air there is in your bellows, the less punchy you can be. Take a tip from those dancey rhythmic melodeon players, they turn all the time and its part of their sound. Try putting a “gratuitous” turn at an off beat point in a tune you know well and listen how it changes the feel of the tune. A great rhythmic device is to turn whilst playing a note or chord making it sound as though you’ve struck it twice: e.g. Play: C bass, C major, C bass, C major as crotchets 1,2,3,4….but turn the bellows on the offbeat at 2+, halfway through the chord on beat 2.

Tremolo

For tremolo you can flutter your left hand in the air which is nice on slow tunes but then you can’t play notes with it so I prefer to do a kind of vibrato movement with my right hand or for slower tremolo do it with my left arm.

Shake

I use this a lot, not so much on tunes but on held chords for accompaniment. I start on the push (closing the bellows) but not everyone does it that way round. Keep the bellows nearly closed and use both hands to push and pull (by pressing down hard on the keyboard with your right hand) and push and pull the bellows alternately in a rhythm. Try different emphasis points:

PUSH, pull, push, pull, PUSH, pull, push, pull.

Or for jigs:

PUSH, pull, push, PULL, push, pull.

Or the “hand jive” rhythm:

PUSH, pull, push, PULL, push, pull, PUSH, pull, push, pull, PUSH, pull, PUSH, push, pull, pull.

Practice at different speeds!

Here’s a link to a song I do with bellows shake

Pulsing

Whilst playing with the left hand rhythmically bang the right side of the accordion on the hard edge below the keyboard. Try with a drone bass note first …you can bang quite gently for good pulsing effect. Try playing other things (legato stuff works best) and other rhythms of banging! This tends to sound a bit different on the push than the pull.

Emphasis or “Pop”

Even without turning the bellows you can give notes a pop or attack by giving the bellows a little tweak, this is extremely effective both on and off the beat.

Swell

Play a chord and then move the bellows, very gently at first, but ending very loud. Take your hand off the keys at the loudest point for a Glen Miller style wwhhuuUUPPPP!!!! You can do it the other way round to give a piano style decay…get the bellows pressure on before playing a chord and immediately relax to nothing.   The audio compresser on the video camera has reduced my swell to a much smaller change in volume – but you should get the idea!

Straps

George Whitfield playing Standing Up
George Whitfield – I strap in quite tight!

 

Most books tell you to have one strap longer than the other: But I have books that tell you the right should be longer and others that would have the left longer! My view has changed on this over time and I’ve even edited this paragraph since I first wrote it. I have my left strap slightly shorter to bring the keyboard more central to my body and always use a back-strap which joins the two straps to each other behind me making the accordion feel very solid. With larger accordions I sit down so that the weight of the accordion is taken by my legs and not my shoulders.

 

Stradella Basses

Accordion Stradella Basses
Accordion Stradella Basses- you may notice the accordion itself says Stradella on it (because it was made there) – and the town gives it’s name to the bass system too.

 

I love Stradella basses! Apart from the double bass there are few acoustic instruments that can supply a good bass line in acoustic sessions so it’s an opportunity for accordion players when everyone else is playing chords or the tune! What’s more, they’re “transposing”: learn a riff or bass line in one key and it works in all the other keys.

I’ve done a general  Accordion Bass Scales post and Accordion Bass Scales – Harmonic Minor

Use a Different Note!

Say you are joining in with your left hand playing the chords… alternating bass and chord e.g. G bass, G major, G bass, G major etc. I call this “Root, Chord, Root, Chord”. The next step might be to play: root, chord, 5th, chord. The 5th is D bass which is next door to G bass so it’s not too tricky. In fact the whole G scale in bass notes is only a button or two away so try different ones! Here are some of my favourite moves:

Root, chord, 3rd, chord. The 3rd is always the note on the counter bass row next to the root.

Root, chord, 6th, 5th.

Root, chord, 7th, chord, 6th, chord, 5th, chord.

Root, chord, 5th, b7th. (For modal or minor stuff)

Accordion Bass Intervals Diagram
Accordion Bass Intervals Diagram

Get the Levels Right

Basses on an accordion are loud so if you want your right hand tune to come through more play very staccato (short notes) on the left. Good effects can be had by playing staccato basses and legato chords and visa versa.

Play Tunes

If you are doing the above try playing bass tunes or runs, links between chords or even “the Tune” on the left hand. The best way to do this is to learn you’re left hand scales and practice them! In one position there are two ways to play a major scale…learn both for maximum flexibility of fingering. Posts on scales are here.

Custom Chords or Chord Combinations

I have witten a longer blog about this with downloadable chart and video here

Lets say you want to play G bass, G major and then Em the relative minor which often sounds better as a minor seventh, (not available as a single button) you can get the bass note E on the counter-bass row (the 6th) and play the G chord button. Held together this is Em7.

G major and D minor you get G7+9 a sumptuous chord.

G bass and B minor=Gmaj7 (a bit of a stretch!)

G bass and E minor=G6 (but with no 5th, if you want the full chord play the G major button as well)

2 Hands!

I don’t do this much but you can play blindingly fast basses by using your right hand on the buttons as well as your left: keep the bellows nearly closed and try playing root chord 5th chord with the left hand and then add the right hand on the off beats: left bass, right, left chord, right, etc. on for example the 6th and the 3rd on the counter bass row.

 

Right Hand

Close up of hand playing accordion
A very light touch is possible on an accordion even when played loud!

Unlike a piano the right hand gives no energy to the note so an ultra light touch is possible enabling us to skip lightly across the keys!

Grace Notes

these are fantastic on an accordion for giving emphasis to a note, the simplest type is where you slip off a black note onto the white note above…the black note hardly sounds but adds zing to the note played. The semitone below is the most common but with nimble fingers you can do this effect with any two notes…try notes a 3rd apart above or below…or an octave!

Glissando

Because the keyboard is so light you can do a Hammond Organ style glissando very easily…try sliding up to that high not instead of jumping. Let your fingertips drag behind your hand for least resistance. By getting your hand shape right you can glissando a whole chord, say up an octave or to a different chord.

Multi-strike

Lots of tunes have repeated notes in them and for fast playing multiple prods of the same finger is not the best way! A good example is “The Trumpet” which was used as the Captain Pugwash theme. The first 4 notes are the same: “d-d-d-dar”. You can play: Index, thumb, index, thumb which works but I prefer: ring, middle, index, thumb. Don’t try to press and release each finger (piano technique!!) but drag them one by one off the edge of the key with a clawing motion so that the key pops up just before the next finger hits. This way you can do an amazingly fast “brrrrup” which gets used as an ornament by many wizzy accordionists.

Overlapping Notes

Legato is one thing but on an accordion unlike say a flute you can let certain notes of a tune hang on whilst continuing to play the tune…some sound good, others rubbish…experiment! When the tune has an arpeggio is a good opportunity or during a falling scale motif like the B part of Winster Gallop or Y Delyn Newedd

Pitch Bend

just like a mouth organ you can pitch bend a note down a bit by half pressing the key and applying a lot of bellows pressure. It’s easiest on a single reed setting and not too high a note. This technique works well on the flattened third in a blues (e.g. use a pitch bent g for blues in E) It’s hard to get but usually surprises people if you get one in!

My MIDI accordions both have a “closed” stop so that I can play MIDI only on the Right but still play acoustic basses. By first selecting a single reed, and then pushing the “closed” stop nearly all the way in I get half pressed keys all the time – play gently and its in tune, use more force on the bellows and the notes bend flat!

 Other Crazy Stuff

Pressgang-Fire-CD
How to break your bellows!

 

Here are some other tricks I like

Harmonics

By doing an extreme version of the pitch bend (very slightly press a key and apply massive bellows pressure) some reeds will “over-blow” an octave or more….fun and weird but not that useful. (Thanks to Martin Green for showing me this!)

One handed playing

Obviously you can play one handed with your left hand, leaving the right free to pick up a pint or play the trumpet or whatever. If I  need a hand for something but have to continue playing with the right you can just let go of the bellows and let gravity pull them down – you even have a bit of control over the air pressure by tipping the whole accordion. If you are sitting down you can put the bottom corner of the keyboard between your legs so the whole squeezebox is at 45 degrees to horizontal and play right hand only tipping left and right to power the bellows.

Behind the head

Jimi Hendrix did it so why can’t I? It’s not very hard actually, but not very comfy and you can bash your precious bellows.

George Whitfield Flat-on-Back!
Accordion playing lying down comes quite naturally too.

 

Leave a comment

If you have any other tips and tricks I’d love to hear them! or if anything isn’t clear, just ask.

Other Resources

Rod Stradling has some great pages for people wanting to learn accordion here

Tom Collins has a great demo of bellows shakes here

35 thoughts on “Accordion Tips and Tricks”

  1. here’s a request. ‘d love to know how to finger a major scale and minor scale on the bass buttons.
    what about a chromatic scale? how would one accomplish that?

    you can probably tell that I’m a medium-beginner! i want to get my bearings before i start getting serious private lessons.
    thank you in advance for your generous information and
    thank you for your tips on your post. very interesting!

    1. Hi – Scales – I’m just working on a post now! But to help you along until then: Major scales fall nicely under your hand and they are all the same (unlike piano) to play a scale of C major using the bass row put your ring finger (4) on C, little finger (5) on F Middle finger (3) on G and index (2) on D. Now if you stretch your fingers to the counter-bass row they will play 5-A 4-E 3-B and 2 F# (which we don’t need) so to play a scale of C where bold is Bass row and not bold is Counter-bass you go 42453534
      Do the same thing with your 4th finger on any bass row note and you get that major scale.

  2. Alternative Base scale fingering :

    C – 4
    D – 2
    E – 4 COUNTERBASE
    F – 5
    G – 3
    A – 4 COUNTERBASE
    B – 2 COUNTERBASE
    C – 3

    I have used this for a number of years and it works very well on all major scales.

    1. Hi Adrienne,
      Thanks for that! (and sorry it took me ages to reply!)
      Alternative fingerings are great to learn because in the real world bits of scales and arpeggios get used as basslines – and which finger you end on can affect the next thing you play.
      Your fingering is particularly useful for those who find stretching the little finger to the A on the back row too hard – and also if you want to end with 3 on C (which may help fingering for a bassline continuing to F for example)
      Cheers
      George.
      PS nice website!

  3. Thank you for your tips, George!
    We are Hong Kong Accordion school mostly teach button accordion.
    Do you have any tips for button accordion?
    Would highly appreciate!

    1. Hi Andrew,
      Thanks for your comment – I’m afraid I don’t play button accordion so I don’t have any tips. Some things I’ve written may be transferable but you need to ask a button player really.
      Sorry and GOOD LUCK!
      George

  4. George, you are a talented and very generous person. There is so much to learn here; you have opened many doors for me to explore. I’m older than you (b.1941) but am just learning music for the first time in my life. For the past seven or eight years I have been wandering around the internet and have concluded that without the benefit of a chromatic button accordion (CBA) teacher, I must rely on “the kindness of strangers”. Technology is advancing rapidly enough that I hope to find a qualified CBA teacher and use Skype. If you or anyone who reads this knows of such a source, please contact me. Thanks, Joe. Rochester, New York.

  5. So nice to watch your film clips and get practical tips demonstrated clearly and unpatronisingly without the kind of egocentric verbosity that mars so many online tutorials (even if the presenter really does have a good point to make … eventually!). Thanks, George!

  6. Thanks for a great site,when playing D bass then its Counter Bass note F#, I’m hearing it slightly out of tune, noticable more when using an electric Bass, is this usual ?

    1. Hi Ken,
      No – I think it should just be in tune!
      If the reeds go out of tune (usually flat because of added weight: dust and rust) that would not affect any MIDI electronics you might have (is that what you mean by “electric Bass”?)
      Anyway – it should be in tune and if it isn’t it can be fixed.
      Cheers
      George

      1. Thank you for your swift reply. The instrument I’m playing is a new Roland FR4X, and I have been studying the Handbook etc. And discovered a way to adjust the Pitch of the Electronic Bass Accompaniment. This has improved the sound a lot. My next task is adjusting the Bellow Controls to get a good action. Any tips or help again would be welcome.

        1. Hi Ken,
          Good news about the Bass!
          As to the bellows – on the FR4X there are no reeds and the bellows have a pressure sensor to tell it’s “brain” how hard you are playing, and an escape hole so that the bellows do actually go in and out. Both of these are adjustable. I played a Roland once and found the bellows slightly un-realistic but didn’t have time to explore the adjustments. Here is a video from Roland showing exactly where the adjustments can be made.

          Good Luck
          George.

          1. Hi George, thanks again for your help, the video clip was very helpful, I am beginning to get the hang of the electric bellows, it is a strange action but practice makes perfect as my teacher always said, I find that after playing the Roland and then playing my acoustic accordion, the Bellows action is actually smoother than before.

  7. Hello, found your site very interesting. My Father (who died a few years ago) Told me about a one armed accordion player. Is that even possible ?

    1. Hi – Yes, you can play left hand only and produce accompaniments and even tunes. Right hand only is restricted because the left arm operates the bellows, but you can still play in a limited way by leaning left and right so the bellows become gravity operated.
      Cheers
      George.

  8. Hi, the New Roland Virtual Accordions can be played with fixed Bellows, so you don’t have to move them to get a sound, which is useful for people who cannot push the Bellows. Worth a look.

  9. Hi George,

    Just found your page when I was doing an internet search on arpeggio’s. I had no idea the accordion could make all those sounds! Great. When I came across your site, I was looking for a tutorial that showed the proper way to cross your thumb under for Arpeggios. I am playing an easy waltz in AM and there is an Arpeggio in it that goes A, C, E and cross under to A again. When I practice this (or any other) arpeggio my thumb starts hurting. I have the same trouble going up or down the arpeggios. Would you pretty please do a utube video on the proper had position so my thumb doesn’t hurt?

    1. Hi Bonnie,
      Thanks for your kind comments.
      Maybe I will do a thumb crossing video! Until then check that you are not tensing up. whenever I play stuff I find difficult or new I have to watch out for that – my shoulders sometimes rise up, and I suddenly realise that I’m all tense and my hands are aching. My solution is to try to be aware if this is happening, and relax my arm and maybe slow down my practice until I can do it without tensing up.
      Also I think the correct technique is the same as for piano so I guess there may be some good advice on the internet……
      Cheers
      George.

    2. Bonnie you may be expecting your thumb to do to much of the work.
      Move your hand down as you play . That way you will just be positioning your thumb for when you arrive over the next A

  10. Hello, I very much appreciate your post =) However, I have a question. How do I play left hand on the beginning of Concerning Hobbits (from LoTR). Here is the link: https://musescore.com/user/172088/scores/806771 (it’s for piano but I play it on the accordion). What I don’t understand is how i can play the D an octave higher on the left hand.
    Thank you very much 🙂

    1. Hi Ivana,
      Good Question!
      Stradella Basses only have one octave of bass notes – most runs sound fine but it’s hard to convincingly play a bassline that jumps the octave like the one you posted. (If you have “Free Basses” you can do it but I don’t play that type of accordion.) So you have to fake it – sometimes you can make a good alternative one of 4 ways:
      1) Play the same D bass for both notes and maybe differentiate them by playing the second one more quietly.
      2) Use the D chord instead of the high D
      3) Use a different note altogether instead of the high D, maybe in this case an F#? (I just tried that and it didn’t sound very good but I’m leaving it as an idea because in other pieces it can work!)
      4) Use a low D on the right hand to play the high D from the bassline.

      Or, since that bit of bass is solo at the beginning play the whole of the first 2 bars on the right hand which establishes the bassline in the listeners mind, and fake it later when you need to play right hand as well. I prefer method 2 in this case.
      Cheers
      George.

  11. so I’m trying to play Piano Man by Billy Joel using piano, harmonica, and accordion. There’s this part where I need to play the piano with my left hand and the accordion with my right hand at the same time. I just don’t know a good way to get the bellows back up without my left hand. Any ideas?

    1. Wow – I’d like to see that! You could try starting with the whole box at about 45 degrees so the corner of the keyboard is between your legs – then you can play right hand only by leaning left and right and letting the weight of the bass end power the bellows. Or how about a piece of string running from the top of the bass side, across to the treble side and then down to your right foot! (you might need a pully…) then you could close the bellows by lowering your foot! (I’ve never tried this and it would be a bit too comic for Piano Man I think!) Good luck and do post a video if you get the job done!!!

  12. Hi Sir
    thank you very much for all the tips and tricks. However I am new
    to accordion. I had a Roland FR-1X V accordion and had been fiddling with it as I can’t find a teacher around my area. I notice that whenever I pull or open bellow the sound from the accordion is very much softer than when I close or push the bellow back. I tried adjusting the bellow resistance but does not help. I wonder is this a defect or I am not doing it correctly. Hope you can enlighten me on this Thank you.

    1. Hi there,
      Well I am suspicious that it may be a fault – the Roland FR-1X has a pressure sensor and should return the same volume on on each stroke of the bellows providing you use the same force opening as closing. You could reduce the amount of expression for the purposes of being able to play it more nicely by using the Bellows Curve Setting “BLC” (page 49 of your manual) setting 1, 2 and 3 return the same volume whatever, 4-8 give more and more expression so the lower you set it the less your problem will manifest itself. You can also test if it is broken or not by recording the MIDI into a DAW and looking at the MIDI volume values given for opening and closing the bellows. Good luck! George.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *