4. Buying Advice

If you are reading this there is at least a possibility that you are interested in buying a concertina, so I shall proceed on that assumption.

Since the first version of this FAQ was written in 1995 the landscape for buyers of concertinas has changed radically. Back then if you wanted to buy new then either there was a handful of makers making expensive but superlative instruments at a rate of a few a year or there was Bastari (now Stagi) making fairly cheap but not so nice accordion-reed based concertinas. Most people bought an old instrument that had been renovated. Such concertinas varied between just about passible and superb, with prices to match.

For old instruments not much has changed except the price, which has always increased. It's in the area of new instruments that things are so different. Now there is a whole raft of new makers on the scene, serving every level of the market place from beginner to accomplished professional. It is said that 1900 - 1930 was a "golden age" of concertina making. That may be so, but we are perhaps living through a concertina "silver age" right now. So, on with the discussion:-

In theory, before buying a concertina you would consider what you want it for and decide which type you need. For instance here are a few guidelines you may hear on the uses to which you might put the various types of concertina (as you will see, I take this with a pinch of salt myself):

  • If you want to play in groups or ensembles of concertinas, go for an English concertina.
  • For English folk dance the push-pull pattern of the anglo scale gives a "lift" to the music.
  • For song accompaniment or for solo instrumentals duets are ideal.
  • For fast flowing melody lines the key layout of an English gives it an edge.
  • On the other hand if you play Irish music you shouldn't even think about buying anything other than a C/G anglo.
  • If you intend to play from music or to compose music for the instrument, choose an English or a duet.
  • Unfortunately life is never that simple. The English is widely used for song accompaniment. Alistair Anderson has shown how successful the English can be for dance music and band work. I, like quite a few other people use the anglo for song accompaniment. There are some superb players of Irish music on the English concertina (even occasionally in Ireland). A lot of people lay down the law about what sort of concertina you should play for what sort of music; I, however, believe that you should find the sort of concertina that you feel comfortable playing. You will work out how to play the music you want on it. Conversely if you don't feel happy with the instrument you will never put the time into learning it properly.

    This all stems from the fact that the different systems of concertina are very different to play. I will make the following tentative observation: people who want to learn to play by ear often find the anglo easy to get started and very rewarding quite quickly (it still takes a lot of hard graft to get good! There's no royal road to that). Conversely people who read music and play instruments like the piano often find the anglo thoroughly irrational and are much happier with English or duet. At the end of the day all you can do is try the various systems as far as possible and see which suits you best. If you can, talk to other players about why they chose their instruments and listen to what they play.

    Buying an old concertina

    When buying a concertina you have two choices: buy new or buy used. If you buy used then if possible take someone with you who knows concertinas. I cannot stress that too strongly. You will likely be buying an instrument that is 80 or more years old. There is nothing wrong with that per se - many of the finest instruments around are of that age or older (we have a beautiful baritone that is well over 100 years old), but an old concertina may have faults not immediately apparent that will be expensive to fix. In particular check that it is in concert pitch and not "old" pitch if you intend to play with other musicians. Retuning a concertina is a specialist job, and expensive to boot. Old concertinas come with steel reeds most commonly, or brass reeds. Brass reeds have greater sweetness of tone than steel reeds, and brass reeded instruments tend to be cheaper, but if played forcefully (e.g. in band or outdoor work) they can go out of tune more quickly.

    The "best" name in old English concertinas is undoubtedly Wheatstone. (Be aware though that instruments made after they were taken over by Boosey & Hawkes in the 1950s are generally regarded as being of poorer quality than before). Other good makers include Jones, Crabb and also Lachenal, who made instruments ranging from the cheap-and-cheerful to the excellent. Their Edeophone range (distinctive for having 12 sides and rolling off tables if you aren't careful) matched the very best Wheatstone Aeolas.

    The leading name in anglos was Jeffries. Again Lachenal also made a wide range of instruments. It is quite common for players to start with a mid-range Lachenal, graduating when time, expertise (and money!) allow to a Jeffries. Crabb also made many fine instruments, as did Wheatstone with their Linota range.

    If you are seriously considering a particular concertina don't be afraid to ask the dealer to take the ends off and let you look inside. After all, you may find anything up to and including woodworm. It is only fair to state that some dealers disagree with people doing this! With concertinas, you get what you pay for. There are few bargains around, but you have the consolation that if you have an instrument of reasonable quality or better it will hold its value and you will have no trouble selling it if you decide it is not for you.

    Up to about 1990 the market for English and anglo concertinas was fairly similar, with Wheatstone Englishes and Jeffries anglos, for instance, fetching broadly similar prices. Unfortunately prices, especially for 30-button C/Gs as used in Irish music - and in particular anything bearing the magic imprint of Jeffries - have gone through the roof! I have heard of people offering to pay over UKP5000 for a Jeffries sight unseen! This is plain silly in my opinion, and biases the market heavily against the new or poorer player. If it weren't for the new makers we'd be in trouble!

    For a first class treble Wheatstone English in excellent condition expect to pay from UKP1800, more for Aeolas. A mid-range Lachenal may cost you UKP1000 and up. Comparable anglos cost more (sometimes much more). Duets and the larger sizes of English tend to be cheaper. It is a quite reasonable strategy to buy a cheaper concertina that needs some work and then get it renovated.

    If you are offered a modern mass-produced instrument such as a Stagi (formerly Bastari) second hand check it very carefully. The method of construction owes much more to accordions than concertinas and as such they tend to degenerate with time in a way that true concertinas do not. (Note that I am not disparaging accordions here. Concertinas are small and the interior is cramped compared to accordions, and each has its appropriate construction techniques).

    Buying a new concertina

    As I say above, there are a number of new makers on the scene and the big innovation many of them deploy is the use of good quality accordion reeds in tandem with traditional methods of concertina construction, e.g. the use of a reed pan with the reeds laid flat in chambers, decent rivetted actions and the like. These have become known as hybrid concertinas.

    Colin Dipper once told me that half the value of a good concertina is in the reeds, and at present nobody has worked out how to automate the production of true concertina reeds economically (there are people trying, and maybe one day one of them will succeed - I hope so). Hence all concertina reeds are fairly laboriously hand made. Not so the accordion reed! There is still a huge world wide market for accordion reeds and the new makers have tapped into this. By using mass-produced (though still good quality) accordion reeds and traditional techniques for the rest of the concertina the makers can make concertinas that are good to play yet at a reasonable price.

    Of course there is a downside to this, and it is twofold. The accordion reed is larger than the concertina reed, and as noted above there is not much space in the concertina engine room so you can't fit as many reeds in. The makers typically manage 30-button anglos and 37-button Englishes, but it's a real push to get beyond that. The second issue is the sound of the accordion reed, which is different to that of the concertina reed. How much of a problem that is depends on the player. There are many who prefer the accordion reed's slightly buzzier and less cutting sound. I am among those who love the pure sound of the concertina reed, but that hasn't stopped me buying and playing a couple of hybrids!

    Alongside the hybrid makers like Tedrow, Edgeley, Herrington and Morse and in the UK Marcus and Norman there is a new breed of up market, mostly anglo makers making fine instruments using true handmade concertina reeds, and still, of course, there are the old warhorses Dipper, Suttner and Dickinson/Wheatstone. I have a beautiful Dipper baritone anglo. It's not to die for (how could you play it if you were dead?) but you might well consider selling your children into slavery for it. The downside here is the cost and the wait. Be prepared to pay several thousand pounds and wait several years - but you'll still think it's worth it.

    "Hang on a minute," cries the new player, "I just want to see if I'll like the concertina, I don't want to pay stacks of dosh and wait months and years to get one". Well, once again things have improved here as well. Wim Wakker of the Concertina Connection (see section 8, Makers and repairers) has been able to get concertinas made to his design in China but subject to his quality control. For around $340 you get a Rochelle C/G anglo or a Jackie English concertina (or even a Jack baritone English, but not yet a G/D anglo, sadly) plus a gig bag and a tutor. They are beginner instruments but within that restriction they really aren't bad and will get you started.

    Aside: Jackies and Rochelles are available from The Music Room in the UK at a price of UKP370. Even at the current exchange rates this seems quite a mark-up but the instrument is still middling good value. Harry Geuns is currently (2011, see section 8) advertising them for 260 euros. Note that Chinese knock-offs have started appearing. They look much the same and are, of course, cheaper, but they're really not as good. Some sort of tribute to Concertina Connection, I suppose.

    Back to the plot: In the UK Bastari/Stagi apparently rarely sold their better instruments in the past, and mass-produced concertinas in general are sometimes quite hard work to play with a fairly coarse tone. I have been told that Stagi have a significantly better name in the States. Note that (especially in the UK) you can rarely resell a mass-produced instrument once you have outgrown it for anything like it's original cost. (Pete McClelland of Hobgoblin (see section 9, Shops and Dealers)) emailed me some years back to say that they are "very keen to buy secondhand Bastaris, Stagis, Gremlins & Hohners", which may help UK players, and of course there is always eBay).

    I would much prefer not to talk about the very cheapest, usually Chinese anglos. These are often so shoddy that all they succeed in doing is putting the prospective player off for life. Do yourself a favour and save a little more money and buy a Jackie or Rochelle. (Bad news: in a recent development some Chinese makers are making "knock off" Jackies and Rochelles. These are rather cheaper than their Concertina Connection counterparts and look very similar but are much poorer quality. Avoid like the plague).

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