Although similar in principle, there are several internal and external differences between concertinas and accordions. The most obvious is the way the buttons are played. Concertina buttons are pushed into the instruments, traveling in the same direction as the bellows. Accordion buttons, called “bass,” are pushed perpendicular to the bellows. Another difference is that most accordions have bass capable of playing an entire chord, whereas concertina buttons play one note at a time.
The first patent for an instrument called an “accordion” was filed in 1829 by Cyrill Demian in Vienna, Austria. A little later, both German Carl Friedrich Uhlig (1834) and Englishman Sir Charles Wheatstone (1844) patented the concertina. These inventions were the culmination of years of tinkering by European instrument makers trying to perfect the basic principle of a handheld instrument that blows air over free reeds (reeds that do not beat against another surface) by means of a bellows. These early attempts were given exotic names, such as the aeoline, the hand physhamonika, and the flutina.
Both instruments are available in several systems. Choosing which one is right for you depends on the style of music you wish to play. Perhaps the most familiar accordion system is the piano accordion, common to polka and other European music, and, more recently, zydeco, country, and rock. As its name suggests, piano accordions make music with both a piano-style keyboard and bass. But there also are accordions that use only buttons, such as those used in klezmer music. Melody notes on some button accordions use a diatonic scale (notes arranged in the order of a piano’s white keys). Others arrange buttons in the chromatic scale (like the arrangement of a piano’s white and black keys together).
There are several concertina systems, with somewhat misleading names if you consider the folk music traditions in which they are played. Anglo-German concertinas are used in traditional Irish as well as English folk music; English concertinas are more popular with Scottish and American folk musicians; German concertinas, also called Chemnitzer concertinas, are played in the American Midwest; and there is also the Bandonion, an instrument used in Argentinean folk music.
Perhaps the most tricky aspect of learning to play accordion is getting used to the bass layout. Standard accordions have 120 bass, although some models employ 72 bass in 12 rows of six columns. In the Stradella bass layout, columns are arranged according to the Circle of Fifths, each column a fifth higher than the one next to it. The first two rows play single notes; the next four rows offer major, minor, seventh, and diminished chords, in that order.
There are quite a few concertina systems in addition to Anglo-German, English, Chemnitzer, and Bandonion concertinas. Broadly speaking, concertinas fall into two categories: bisonoric models produce different notes depending on whether the bellows are pressed or drawn; unisonoric concertinas play the same note on the press and draw
Button accordions come in a variety of styles and configurations, although all devote buttons on one side to single notes and on the other to bass and chords. Scottish legend Sir Jimmy Shand popularized the British Chromatic button accordion.
Piano accordions are perhaps the most well-known accordion system and are often the choice of pianists and organists who enjoy the familiarity of the piano-style keyboard. Guido Deiro brought the instrument fame in the early 20th century America with his Vaudeville performances.
Squeezeboxes have been pushed and pulled into the Age of the Microchip, thanks to the addition of onboard electronics. The free reeds may or may not be gone, but the instruments have the same feel as traditional accordions, along with many more sound options, MIDI compatibility, and effects such as reverb and chorus.