3. Types of Concertina

There are several distinct types of concertina, all sharing the same basic design of folding bellows with buttons at each end, and anything from 6 to 12 sides in cross-section. Where they vary is in the layout and function of the keys. The variation is so great between the types as to effectively render them different types of instruments - the player of one type or "system" will almost certainly not be able to pick up a concertina of a different system and play it without starting almost from scratch to learn it.

Concertinas come in various sizes which govern the range of notes they can play. The most common are treble concertinas. The range of a standard 48 key English concertina is from G below middle C to C 3 octaves above middle C (i.e. the same as a violin). Below them are baritone concertinas which play one full octave below the treble, and the bass which plays one octave lower again. Also fairly common are tenor-trebles which cross the range of the treble and baritone. VERY occasionally you find piccolo concertinas which play one octave above the treble.

The main types are the English, the Anglo and the various systems of Duet concertina.

English concertina

Pictures of English Concertinas
Click here for a picture (34k) and description of a Lachenal Edeophone English concertina.
Click here for a picture (33k) and description of a Wheatstone baritone English concertina

This is the original concertina as invented by Wheatstone. You can recognise one by the 4 parallel rows of buttons and by the supports for thumb and little finger on each end. (There is quite a good picture in Microsoft's Encarta encyclopaedia, except that it is upside down!). The larger baritone and bass English concertinas frequently have wrist straps as well, to help with the greater weight of the instrument.

The two centre rows on each side are in the key of C, the accidentals are distributed between the outside rows. Playing a scale involves alternating between the left and right hands. The layout of buttons is very logical and fully chromatic, and permits very high speeds to be achieved when playing melody (e.g. the Flight of the Bumble Bee mentioned above), but is more restrictive if you want to play melody with low accompaniment, e.g. ragtime.

Normally the English concertina has 48 keys, but some models had 56. The extra 8 keys are at the high end of the scale and are thus not so useful on the treble, but they can be helpful in tenor-trebles and baritones.

Keyboard Charts for English Concertinas
Click here for keyboard charts for the standard 48 button English concertina, as prepared by John Nixon.

Anglo Concertina

Pictures of Anglo Concertinas
Click here for a picture (32k) and description of a modern Wheatstone 40-key Anglo concertina
Click here for a picture (34k) and description of a Crabb 30-key G/D Anglo concertina

The anglo concertina (or to give it its original name, the Anglo-German concertina) was developed soon after the English, using as a model the diatonic German instruments which were also the ancestors of the melodeon and harmonica. It can have two or three curved rows of buttons on each side and a wrist strap for support. Some of the duet systems described below can look a bit like an anglo, but the firm diagnostic test is "if I press a button, do I get the same note when I close the bellows as when I open them". If the answer is "no, I get different notes" then it is an anglo. Only the anglo of all the main types of concertina plays different notes on the push and on the pull.

(It has been pointed out to me that occasionally English and duet concertinas can be so horrendously out of tune as to play very different notes on the pull from the push, and thus fool the unwary into thinking that they are anglos. This is, fortunately, very rare).

On two-row anglos each row is in a different key, so the instrument is capable of playing in two keys only. The three row is the same, except that the third outside row is a collection of assorted accidentals that enable the skilled player to play in other keys. Anglos are referred to by the 2 keys. The most common is the C/G anglo, where the outside row (or middle row on a three row) plays the key of C and the inside row plays the key of G. Also fairly common are G/D instruments, mainly used for folk dance music. Occasionally you find C/C#, which are chromatic between the two main rows, and a whole variety of odd tunings made to the request of the purchaser.

Anglos are also referred to by the number of keys (here meaning buttons!) they have:- a 20-key is a two-row, a 30-key is a three row, a 40-key is also a three row but with additional buttons dotted around to make playing in different keys or more smoothly a little bit easier. You can play good music on a 20-key instrument, but it is limiting - you have to fudge any accidentals you encounter. 30-key concertinas are fine for all normal use. When you get into the expert bracket look for a 40-key.

Keyboard Charts for Anglo Concertinas
Click here for keyboard charts for C/G anglos.
Click here for keyboard charts for G/D anglos.
Click here for a keyboard chart for the Edgeley/Herrington 24 button C/G system.

The low notes on all anglos are on the left hand side, and the high notes on the right, which brings us on to the last type of concertina...

Duet Concertinas

"In the same way as the Maccann is related to the English system, the Jeffries is related to the Anglo system. The Crane is a rethink, and mine is a discovery rather than an invention. That's the way I see it".
Brian Hayden
Pictures of Duet Concertinas
Click here for a picture (42k) and description of a Hayden Duet concertina made by C & R Dipper
Click here for a picture (36k) and description of a Hayden Duet concertina made by Wheatstone
Click here for a picture (33k) and description of a Wheatstone MacCann Duet concertina

In fact there are several systems of duet concertina, each as separate from each other as an anglo is from an English, but all set out to cure the same perceived problem: how to give an accompaniment to a melody without going schizoid. The answer is the same in all cases: put the low notes on the left hand side, and the high notes on the right hand side and have some overlap between the two sides. The player can then play the melody on the right hand, with an accompaniment on the left, thus the name of "Duet".

The main duet systems are:

  • MacCann: the key layout looks fairly illogical, but it was apparently designed for speed rather than logic and there are certainly some very fine players around! Fairly easy to get one. 57 or more buttons, but sometimes can be huge instruments with up to 80 buttons and the range of a piano!
  • Crane: also known as Triumph by the Salvation Army who used it a lot. A pretty straightforward, logical system. Supposedly doesn't lend itself to fast playing, but I've only ever heard MacCann players say that, and the Crane players I've asked do not agree. Again some very good players around. 35, 48 and 55 button models exist. Fairly easy to obtain one.
  • Jeffries: designed for anglo players to convert to. Has a "home key" such as G and is apparently difficult to play chromatically, thus players tend not to stray far from the home key. Somewhat rarer than the first two, mostly due to the very regrettable practice of converting them into anglos.
  • Hayden: a modern system. Another logical and straightforward duet system, with some ingenious characteristics that make key transposition easy. As a modern system it used to be quite hard to find but the situation has improved massively recently. As an illustration of the old situation I once asked Brian Hayden back in the '90s how many Hayden duets there were in the world, and after some thought he said "Oh, about 60". Now The Button Box (see section 8) have started making their "Beaumont" 52 button Hayden concertinas with a promised 4 - 6 week delivery time. These will be very good quality instruments. Concertina Connection, as well as building Haydens of the highest quality to order are also selling "Elise" Haydens, cheap but decent instruments perfect for learners. The outlook for the Hayden system can only be very bright.
  • Keyboard Charts for Duet Concertinas
    Click here for keyboard charts for the Crane, Hayden and MacCann duet concertinas, as prepared by Marc G. Lamb.
    Click here for keyboard charts for the Jeffries duet concertina, as prepared by Nick Robertshaw.

    Chemnitzer Concertinas

    Picture of a Chemnitzer Concertina
    Click here for a picture (53k) and description of a Chemnitzer concertina

    These should be included in that, even though they have a totally different evolution to Charles Wheatstone's invention, their players refer to them as concertinas. Indeed many of them have the word "Concertina" designed into the fretwork on the ends in very large letters! In fact the Chemnitzer concertina was invented in 1834 in Chemnitz in Germany by Carl Friedrich Uhlig. He called his new instrument the "Conzertina". It is related to the bandoneon, being approximately the same size and shape, square or slightly rectangular; the treble end of a Chemnitzer concertina usually has three rows, and in layout is not unlike an anglo. The bandoneon however has several different layouts, both chromatic and diatonic; the treble end probably has five or six rows. I know of only one player in the UK, though there are many more in North and South America. The construction appears to be accordion like, as is the sound. The Chemnitzer concertina is particularly popular among players of polka music originating in Poland. Steve Litwin's Home Page (see section 12) has lots of additional information about this instrument. There are probably other systems around - concertina makers and players of the 19th century were a very inventive lot.

    Other strange or novel concertinas
    Click here for a picture and description of Colin Dipper playing his new "franglo" system concertina.
    Click here for pictures, video and description of our amazing Lachenal Accordeaphone.
    Click here for pictures and detailed description by Neil Wayne of a superb and unusual Wheatstone concertina. This includes some very interesting material on the relationship between the makers Wheatstone and Lachenal in the 1930s.
    Click here for a picture and description of my square G/D anglo from Harold Herrington
    Click here for a description of a reedless MIDI anglo concertina belonging to myself
    Click here for illustrated articles by Göran Rahm outlining his ideas on the ergonomics of the concertina

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