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!!!!
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.)
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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)
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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
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
Here are some other tricks I like
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.
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.
Rod Stradling has some great pages for people wanting to learn accordion here
Tom Collins has a great demo of bellows shakes here