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If It's Not A C/G, What Is It?

By Ken Coles, Logansport, Indiana U.S.A.
May 2001, Additions February 2002, February 2003, December 2009

I thought it would be fun to prepare a survey of known anglo concertina Keys. I originally used the term "pitches" for this, which I learned in a different musical context. Pitch in terms of tuning is explained in the article by Wes Williams. Here I'm referring to the key of the two home rows on any anglo having 20 or more buttons, 30 buttons being a common configuration. Wes and several other persons pointed out to me that the key could be mistaken if it was in an original tuning that differs from modern A=440 Hertz. Thus, the best way to know the intended original key is to examine the note names stamped on the reed frames. In much of what follows I can't vouch that this is the case. A/E vs. Ab/Eb is one case where modern key might not be the original key (see comments below). It is also possible, though experts say inadvisable, to significantly alter the key of a concertina by drastic filing of the reeds. Again, the stamps on the reeds tell the story.

What key of concertina to use is a trade off between availability of instruments, whether the home keys are suitable (number of sharps or flats), and range. On this last point Frank Downes notes, "The point is often made that the higher pitch anglos are brilliant for solo tunes. Many of Noel Hill's recordings use the higher pitch instrument. There is a lot of clarity and sweetness to it." Conversely, low pitch has been cited, for example by Chris Timson, as great for accompanying songs.

Roger Digby notes,

"Dear Ken,

"Two quick thoughts on reading your list. I think it was always possible to get Anglos customised into any tuning. Since the 'revival', the Anglo's largest role has involved it in sessions and group work so any unusual tunings are likely to have been retuned into more conventional ones. There are examples of retuning through quite alarming distances! Obviously the reeds suffer from such filing. We will need to read the shoes.

"Secondly, what about old pitches? I have a Jeffries in old pitch which plays nearer to modern C sharp but is stamped as a C/F. There are quite a few interesting aspects to your simple idea!"

What follows is what little I've collected as an interested amateur rather than an expert on this topic. (When I asked about this on the Forum, folks debated the usage of the terms pitch vs. key, but also addressed my original query!) I have tried almost none of these instruments myself and some of you have. Thus, I encourage your comments, additions, and reports on this topic. Thanks to Wes Williams, Ross Schlabach, Barry Irwin, Frank Downes, Chris Timson, Russell McKay, Robin Harrison, Roger Digby, Jack Zuraw, Bill Keaveney, and Vic Tromp for comments.


2009: Note that most modern concertina makers will make models other than C/G to special order (including but not limited to Morse, Tedrow, Edgley, Wakker, Dipper, Suttner, Dickinson, Norman, Marcus, etc.). Rather than track all those here, the reader is referred to the web sites of the various makers.

Several people with long experience in concertinas have argued that Lachenal (for example) sometimes stamped reed shoes with C/G notes rather than those for the alternate tuning, contrary to the statements above. Clearly this is an area for further research.


ANGLO CONCERTINA KEYS (for instruments with home rows separated by a perfect fifth) listed in descending order of keys. Here C/G means outer row (20-b) or middle row (30-b) in C; inner row in G (a perfect fifth higher than C).

Piccolo concertinas: I remember trying one at Hobgoblin in Crawley, England in 1999. I believe it was a Lachenal in C/G a full octave above the usual pitch (great for torturing your house pets!). Are there other piccolo key combinations?

D/A (Treble range): Possibly number four in abundance. Found both in old instruments and today in both traditionally-built and Italian models. Irish-style player Grey Larsen uses a D/A, and sometimes so does Noel Hill. Bob Tedrow showed me his Italian concertina in D/A. Unlike other anglo concertinas, the inner, A, row was a fourth lower than the D row rather than a fifth higher. This made possible some interesting alternate fingerings.

C#/G# (Treble range): Juergen Suttner offers this key combination for his Jeffries (A2 and A4) and Wheatstone (A3) models. Flutist Fintan Vallely noted in his tutor that a few flute players have moved from D to Eb flutes, and this concertina would go along with that higher tuning. Bill Keaveney describes a 32-key Lachenal "that is in perfect tune with itself as a C#/G#. Go figure."

C/G: Most common key, I'd guess. Most popular key among some (but not all) players of traditional Irish style. Vintage instruments are in great demand in recent years.

B/F#: Concertinas in this tuning have recently been reported, including a 30-key Wheatstone in B/F# that passed through the hands of a dealer, "a 26-button Lachenal anglo which 'seems' to be a Bb/F, but every reed is exactly a half-step high - right across the octaves, and on both rows! It's perfectly in tune with itself (steel reeds), but a 1/2-step high!" (Bill Keaveney), and finally, a 38-key Jeffries that Jack Zuraw confirms has reed-shoe stamps consistent with a B/F# tuning.

Bb/F: May be second most common key among old instruments (unless it's G/D). Lots of Jeffries and some Lachenals seem to be in this tuning. Listed as an available key by Suttner, Morse, Edgley.

A/E: Mentioned by Bramich (in his tutor, The Irish Concertina) as an odd key that turns up less often than Ab/Eb. Ross Schlabach reports that he has a 30 button Lachenal A/E in "Society of Arts" tuning. Frank Downes owns a Lachenal 41 button anglo in A/E, tuned in an old, flat pitch. Roger Digby reports that his Jeffries 32-button in A/E is the instrument for which the receipt is shown on the Museum page. "Interestingly," he notes, "the receipt makes no reference to the tuning."

Ab/Eb: Juergen Suttner offers this key combination for his Jeffries (A2 and A4) models. Noel Hill plays an instrument in this key on "Noel Hill and Tony Linnane" and I know of at least one Jeffries and one metal-ended Lachenal in this key.

Russell McKay notes: "In Brisbane (Australia) I've come across 2 concertinas in Ab/Eb, neither in modern concert pitch, which does indeed in some cases make it hard to guess whether they are or not in flat keys. Both were Lachenal with metal ends, one with a layout of a Wheatstone 40 key, the other with a button layout (and parallel reed chambers) like a Jefferies or Crabb. I believe that many of the G/D old concertinas from English dealers in recent years have been retuned from the once more common flat keys. One of the above has a large SA incorporated into the metal fretwork, indicating an ex- Salvation Army instrument."

G/D: If not the second most common key (certainly among new instruments), must be a close third. I hear it is favored for Morris and by many musicians in the U.K. G and D are popular keys for tunes played on fiddle in many traditions, and some singers prefer this lower tuning to the C/G for accompaniment.

F#/C#: No examples?

F/C: It seems to me this would be just as suited to a baritone singer (like me) as a G/D, and like it doesn't have too many sharps or flats in its home keys. The description of the Dipper Shantyman in the 1996 Lark in the Morning catalog mentions this as an appropriate pitch (along with G/D) for a custom order.

Robin Harrison of Ontario recently obtained a Wheatstone anglo in F/C and comments, "Why F and C? As you said it seems like the perfect tuning for a baritone voice. I also have a G/D and in many songs the G is just a tone too high. Continuing the discussion about appropriate keys, my view is that the G of the G/D Anglo is too mellow a sound for Morris. I like the C/G as the C can really cut through traffic sounds etc; to me it seems perfectly voiced. It doesn't have the richness of a G/D but you can hear it two blocks away."

Roger Digby writes about his Jeffries: "My F/C is in standard pitch a fifth below C/G as you suggest. I always think of it as a tone below the standard G/D. I don't know if it was originally tuned that way; the shoes are stamped accordingly, but that doesn't indicate the original pitch of the notes. It is a box that defies the understanding of those who see it. It is a 32 button; the ends (raised) bear the Praed St address and C. Jeffries usual oval plate, but raised end Jeffries are not common; the bellows look Wheatstone and the reeds have been thought to be Lachenal. A very strange animal indeed, but it sounds very rich. It has only had one outing for recording purposes - the Watercress Girl set on 'Reformed Characters' where you can hear its distinctive depth."

E/B: No examples?

Eb/Bb: No examples?

D/A (baritone range): A 9-fold, 30-button Dipper baritone in D/A was sold on ebay in late 2001.

C#/G# (baritone range): Mary MacNamara has a 36-button Wheatstone in this tuning. You can hear it on her album "Traditional Music from East Clare."

C/G (baritone range): Chris Timson has a Dipper in this key. He has noted publicly that while it is slower to respond than a treble, it is unsurpassed ("superlative") for song accompaniment. Guens-Wakker and Tedrow concertinas with accordion reeds are now available in baritone C/G, making this range of instrument available at lower cost for players who wish to try it. 2009: Both Morse and Edgley have also made this range to special order.

Bb/F (baritone range): Bob Tedrow had a Lachenal (34 button) in this range on sale in 2000.

A/E (baritone range): I spotted a noted British singer and player using a metal-ended Lachenal in this range in the summer of 2003 - a beautiful sounding instrument.

G/D (bass range): Chris Timson notes that he "Once had the pleasure of playing a G/D anglo that was an octave below the normal. This was...made by Colin [Dipper], who referred to [it] as a bass."

C/G (bass range): Again, concertina maven Chris Timson reports "Once only I came across someone playing a Lachenal bass C/G, that is, an octave below [baritone] C/G. That was fun. [These two basses are] my entire count of low-range anglos that I have seen, so [they are] pretty rare."

 

 
SUMMARY

Common: C/G, Bb/F, G/D

Less common: D/A, Ab/Eb, A/E, F/C

Rare: C#/G# (treble), B/F#, baritone keys, bass keys, piccolo keys

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