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Irish Button Boxes

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"Irish Button Boxes - from Scotland" was the original full title of this topic, but the significant "from Scotland" subtitle seems to have somehow got lost along the way, perhaps in upgrades of the forum software? (Edited to add this comment, 25/2/2016.)





Trying to avoid the dreaded "thread creep", I have opened this new topic. wink.gif


bill_mchale said:
Well, there were certainly D melodeon players prior to the emergence of the half-step Paolos that (IIRC) established the modern style of Irish box playing in the 1950s.



I have made reference to some of those single-row melodeon players, and the instruments they preferred, in the Cajun Accordion Or Melodeon? thread, especially in this post, but 2-row semitone-tuned melodeons/button accordions with a D row do not seem to have been generally available before WWII (though I have evidence that 3-row ones in C/C#/D, described as "English scale", were available in the late '20s/early '30s).


Most were in the original C/C# "Anglo Chromatic Melodion" (sic) system tuning brought out by George Jones in 1883 (trade mark applied for 15th November 1883). He was perhaps inspired to do this by having been a performer on the French accordion in the 1840's (the latter being played from the outside-row-in. having the home-key on the outside row, and accidentals on the inside row). It fits in with what we know of his work on making the German concertina more chromatic - he claimed to have added the first semitones to the German system, making a 22-key instrument, for his own use in 1851 and his "chromatic Anglo-German" with 26 keys three years later, and in 1884 he patented his 42-key chromatic "Perfect Anglo-German Concertina".

The earliest player of the B/C system seems to have been Peter Wyper in Scotland, who played a 19-key "International" melodeon, and patented a 21-key version in 1915. His tutor book, Wyper's Melodeon Tutor for 19 keys (from which the photo of the two brothers is taken), shows fingerings for playing both from the "outside-in" and the "inside-out" on the C/C#, in the keys of C, D, F, G, A and Bb major, though commenting that if you play on the inside row "you are really playing on C#, and so on, always playing a half a tone higher than you are actually reading", which seems only a very short step from changing the inside row to C, and hence the outside one to B, to bring the "inside-out" method down to pitch.


Peter and Daniel Wyper

with 19-key "International" melodeon

21-key P.Wyper's Patent "International" B/C melodeon


To be continued ...

Edited by Stephen Chambers
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aeolina said:
Stephen Chambers said:
To be continued ...


Stephen, tell us more!



Sorry about that Stuart, I had a meal, and a session waiting for me last night. And better still, I went out walking the cliffs at Kilkee today, something I haven't been able to do since I broke my ankle in November, I needed that ! smile.gif


Now, where was I ? huh.gif


Chapter 2


Scottish melodeon players seem to have quickly taken to George Jones' "Anglo Chromatic Melodion" (as it was announced), and as early as 1887 (and again in 1888 & 1890) George "Pamby" Dick, from Edinburgh, "won the championship for the 19-keyed accordion" (there is a photograph of him, with his instrument and the three cups that he won, in Accordion Times, Jan. 1936, p. 10). But Jones' name for it seems to have quickly become corrupted, and it was to be known variously as the "English Chromatic ", "English Scale" or even "English System Accordion", eventually becoming best known as the "British Chromatic System".


These instruments were generally made in the keys of C/C#, which is the system shown on Jones' initial "Diagram and Scale of the Anglo Chromatic Melodion or German Accordion", though he did comment that it is "usually tuned in the key of C", suggesting that even then other tunings might be available:



George Jones' 'Diagram and Scale'


And indeed, I have examples of the professional-quality "International Accordeon" version (made from the late 1890's up until 1933) in C/C#, G/G#, Ab/A and B/C (the latter marked "P. Wypers' Patent").


The Wyper brothers made lots of recordings, both together and seperately, that were sold widely around the globe, and their playing was very influential. I suspect that in Ireland they had almost as dramatic an effect on accordion playing as the recordings of Michael Coleman did on fiddle playing, certainly some of the Wypers' 78's were still available here as late as the 1950's, probably even into the '60's.



Michael Grogan with (probably C/C#)

Hohner, 1938


Also, some migrant Irish players brought back styles, and instruments from Scotland, notably Michael Grogan who was in Glasgow as a young man, and met Peter Wyper there. Judging by a 1931 photograph, Grogan was then playing an "International", and judging by his early recordings it was in G/G# (played on the inside row), as I find that my G/G# "International" (bought in Dublin, but originally sold by Robert Dunlop & Co. of Glasgow) plays along perfectly with it. Even the young Paddy O'Brien, from Nenagh, started his accordion career playing a G/G# with the Lough Derg Ceili Band in the early '30's (before he got his first B/C in 1937), and another well-known player of the system was Joe Mills, who played for many years in the legendary Aughrim Slopes Ceili Band.


To be continued ...


Edited to add the year International Accordeon closed down (learning all the time!), George Jones' 'Diagram and Scale' + Michael Grogan photo.

Edited by Stephen Chambers
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Robin Harrison said:
.................interesting, Stephen. Was the two row semi-tone tuned melodeon a direct forbear of the three row semi-tone tuned accordion ,B/C/C#(melodeon) used by Jimmy Shand and Will Starr and seemingly more popular in Scottish music than elsewhere ?





You could say that it was the great-grandfather of the "Shand Morino", but there were intermediate steps ...


Episode 3


However, even in their lifetime there does seem to have been frustration with the simple German melodeon tonic/dominant basses (for each of the two rows) on the German instruments that the Wypers played, and Scottish melodeon champion James Brown (who died, as a result of having been gassed in WWI, in October 1919) took to an improved Italian Dallapé two-row "Cromatique" model with seemingly Stradella (piano-accordion) type basses, and even to playing 3 and 4-row Paolo Sopranis with full basses in his later years. In fact it seems he may have been the first of the "big box" players.



James Brown and son.




James Brown with 4-row Paolo Soprani and trophies, c.1918


Peter Wyper died in 1920, but his B/C system was taken up by the next generation of players, notably William Hannah, and a hybrid instrument, with a melodeon-style treble end (with exposed pallets) and a 24-button (2 x 12) piano accordion-style bass end was developed and marketed by A.H. Wilkinson & Co. Ltd. of Glasgow, under their "Wilkinson's Excelsior" brand. It is featured in Wilkinson's Accordion Tutor for 19 and 21 key Chromatic Melodeons (Glasgow, 1926), shown being played by "William Hannah, Scotland's premier accordionist" and described as the "Hannah Model": "The outer row of the melody keys contains the tones of "B" major, the inner row those of "C" major; so, all notes of the chromatic scale can be played on these instruments". However, Wilkinson's continued to also sell regular one- and two-row versions with diatonic basses.



William Hannah, with "Hannah Model" B/C, 1926


Probably the next important step was a visit to Charlie Forbes' music shop in Dundee in the early 1930's; when an impecunious accordion player in his early twenties, named Jimmy Shand, was encouraged by a friend to try out one of the instruments, and on hearing him Forbes gave him a job and encouraged him to make recordings.


I don't know if Shand had anything to do with the next important step, but Forbes certainly did, because it was at his behest that Hohner started to manufacture the B/C "Double-Ray Black Dot" which became available in April 1934, along with the "New Forbes Tutor". This made the B/C system much more widely available, in an instrument of good quality, and at an affordable price.


Certainly Shand was involved in the development of Hohner's "Organola" 2-row B/C and 3-row B/C/C# models, with piano accordion basses, in the mid 1930's,, and he used one on 78's for the Beltona label at that time. The 4-voice L'Organola "De Luxe" in my photo is very similar to his 2-row one.




Organola "De Luxe" B/C, mid-1930's, with a regular ("Pokerwork"-size) Hohner of the same vintage for comparison.




Jimmy Shand with 3-row Hohner

"Organola", mid-1930s



Jimmy Shand with 1939 3-row Hohner

"Shand Morino Special" prototype


In the early 1950's, Shand's collaboration with Hohner resulted in the appearance of a new top-class model, the "Shand Morino", a 3-row "British Chromatic" in B/C/C# with 80 piano accordion basses, built by top Hohner craftsman/designer Venanzio Morino. It was by no means the first 3-row accordion in Scottish music, but it came to be the dominant one.


To be continued ...



Edited by Stephen Chambers
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This is great stuff Stephen - thanks for sharing it here. I'm still saving for my B/C/C# with stradella bass :) so i can do full on JK impressions :blink: . (I've got the concertina and melodeon already). Now all I have to do is try and work out how he plays so many notes with just two hands......

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................Sorry Stephen..............I rather jumped the gun with my question.

I'll sit quietly at the back of the room until you've finished.

( I've known that there was always one person in every group who wouldn't shut up, was totally irritating ...........I just never realized it was me !! )

It's just really interesting. Carry on.

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bill_mchale said:
I believe Billy McComiskey told me that the late great Paddy O'Brien (As opposed to one great box player of the same name who is still very much alive) played a large role in the current dominance of the B/C ...



In Ireland he is commonly referred to as "Paddy O'Brien from Nenagh", to differentiate between the two, and it may be no exaggeration to say that probably one of the most important events in Irish accordion history was his fifteenth birthday, on 10th February 1937, for which he was given a B/C accordion that he had asked for (one account has it that the instrument was one of the new Hohner Black Dots, whilst another says it was a Paolo Soprani). He had started to play the fiddle at the age of seven, and three years later took up the G/G# accordion, which he played with the Lough Derg Ceili Band, and for a 1936 radio broadcast with his father Dinny O'Brien on fiddle, and Bill Fahy on flute.



Sonny Brogan


Paddy O'Brien wasn't the first to play the B/C (and Sonny Brogan made earlier recordings on the instrument), but he perfected the B/C style and the handful of 78rpm recordings he made in 1953, before emigrating to New York in January 1954, were to inspire many to take up a whole new, "modern" style of playing that had more to do with fiddle style and ornamentation than that of the melodeon. Reg Hall has commented on how, in the late 1950's, all the young Irish accordion players in London pubs were playing "The Yellow Tinker" and "The Sally Gardens", as learned from Paddy O'Brien's most famous record.


However, from my own experiences of some of those same players, a decade-and-a-half later, I can add that many of those 1950's "young bucks" of the Irish accordion seem to have also been influenced by the recordings of Jimmy Shand around the same time, and were just as likely to know his chart hit "The Bluebell Polka." Indeed some even took up, or experimented with, the B/C/C# "Shand Morino", though it would be very rare to see a 3-row in Irish circles today.



bill_mchale said:
... and that other players like Joe Burke have kept it popular.



Joe Burke was born in Kilnadeema, Co. Galway in 1939, and both his mother Annie, as well as his uncle Pat, played the accordion. About the age of four, he too started off on a Hohner G/G#, on which his uncle showed him a couple of tunes, and I memorably heard him say that "at that time we thought the second row was in case anything went wrong with the other one; a spare" and "I was even told that one row was for jigs and the other one was for reels !"


That was until a man called Martin Grace, an accomplished accordion player who had an unusual style for the time (playing across the two rows), visited the farm with a threshing machine, and was sitting in the kitchen drinking tea when he saw the accordion under the table. He asked who played and proceeded to knock out a few tunes. Joe had never heard this style of playing before and Martin showed him some of the basic rudiments of his accordion technique. Martin Grace was involved with the renowned Ballinakill Céilí Band with Aggie Whyte in the forties, and he played with that band for many years.



Joe Burke and his first B/C,

Gort Feis 1955


It seems that Joe also got his first B/C around the age of 15 (c.1954), progressing on it at such an amazing rate that he won the Senior All Ireland button accordion competitions both at the 1959 Fleadh Cheoil in Thurles, and 1960 in Boyle, before withdrawing from competition. He acknowledges being inspired by the B/C playing of both Paddy O'Brien ("Those 78's had a huge impact on me, especially The Spike Island Lassies/Dowd's Favourite, it was a revelation") and Kevin Keegan (from Ballinasloe, Co. Galway), as well as the C#/D and D/D# player Joe Cooley (from Peterswell, Co. Galway), "because they were the first accordionists I ever heard play like fiddlers" - but the biggest inspiration for subsequent generations has been himself...



Paddy O'Brien and Joe Cooley



Joe Cooley and Kevin Keegan,

with the young James Keane


bill_mchale said:
On the flip side players like Jackie Daley are definitely responsible for making the C#/D popular again.



That is a complex issue, as I said recently :


Stephen Chambers said:
Ironically, the C#/D style of playing is the older one, but accordions in that tuning seem not to have become available until the mid 1950's, so that prior to that it was played on instruments in D/D#, C/C# or B/C and the fiddlers had to tune up, or down, to suit (indeed, I know of situations where they still have to !).



The old style never went away, but "concert pitch"* instruments in C#/D were actually quite rare, so its players were usually playing in the "wrong" key. This no doubt helped to discredit the old style, especially with the rise of the new "concert pitch" B/C, but certainly Jackie Daly has been a major influence in promoting C#/D and getting younger players to take up the old style. There are now more C#/D accordions in circulation than ever before, though the B/C is still very much the dominant system in Ireland.


Paolo Soprani were the first to manufacture C#/D boxes regularly, starting with the "silver grey" 2-coupler models, like the one Joe Cooley was presented with by his friends on his departure for America in 1954 (he'd always played D/D# before that, and again after it when that one met a watery end :o).



Joe Cooley with one

of the first model of Paolo Soprani

to be made in C#/D


* In Irish traditional music terms, "concert pitch" = playing in D.



Edited by Stephen Chambers
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However ... many of those 1950's "young bucks" of the Irish accordion seem to have also been influenced by the recordings of Jimmy Shand around the same time, ... some even took up ... the B/C/C# "Shand Morino", though it would be very rare to see a 3-row in Irish circles today.

And so (of course :rolleyes: ) I was visited tonight by my old friend Brendan Mulhaire, the Galway accordionist and tuner, who tells me that he still performs on a Shand Morino and absolutely swears by it. But he does agree that they are now rare in Ireland.


The old style never went away, but "concert pitch" instruments* in C#/D were actually quite rare, so its players were usually playing in the "wrong" key. This no doubt helped to discredit the old style, especially with the rise of the new "concert pitch" B/C ...


* In Irish terms, "concert pitch" = playing in D.

I cannot emphasise enough the perceived "Irish pitch problem", and how the "modern" B/C style offered a real solution to it. In the early 1950's there were still big problems playing with accordions, and many key systems being tried. Reg Hall has told me of seeing an accordion, in the window of a South London shop at the time, with a sign reading (something like) "At last, the solution to the Irish key problem : E/E#", and quite a few players, including Mícheál Ó Raghallaigh's father, Pádraig, tried G/C at one stage. And then again, there are still people who play the B/C "on the press", that is to say in the keys of B and C !


Having been supplying Irish musicians with instruments for the past 30-odd years, and running a music shop in Dublin for half that time, I have been amazed by some of the accordion players I have encountered who still haven't solved their personal "pitch problem", not even knowing what key their accordion is in sometimes, or why they can't play with anybody else. On occasion I have had to sit them down and ask them to play for me, so that I can try to work out what system they should best be playing !


As some help in understanding the possibilities of the different systems, here is a chart showing firstly the "press" (or "home") key of a straight row, followed by its first and second "draw" keys :


D - A - G

Eb - Bb - G#

E - B - A

F - C - Bb

F# - C# - B

G - D - C

G# - Eb - C#

A - E - D

Bb - F - Eb

B - F# - E

C - G - F

C# - G# - F#


And similarly, a chart of playing across the rows on different systems, showing some of the keys available :


B/C - D - G - A

C/C# - Eb - G# - Bb

C#/D - E - A - B

D/D# - F - Bb - C

D#/E - F# - B - C#

E/E# - G - C - D

F/F# - G# - C# - Eb

F#/G - A - D - E

G/G# - Bb - Eb - F

G#/A - B - E - F#

A/A# - C - F - G

A#/B - C# - F# - G#


So some of these systems start to make more sense :


For example G/C could thus provide D "on the draw", as well as G on both press and draw, and G/G# could have been very useful for some players who might want both the fiddle keys of G and D (outside row), as well as the flat (Saxophone) keys of Ab, Bb, Eb and F sometimes needed in the 1920's/'30's, though it was more usually played "inside row out" a semitone sharp in Ab and Eb !


Finally, the concept of a C/C# as an Eb box for a B/C player, or a D/D# as the same for C#/D is quite a modern one. I hope that it may now be evident that they were never intended for that purpose.

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  • 1 year later...

I think Silvio means "key" when he says tone. (He's asked the question on several different forums over the past couple of days. Obviously not happy with the answers he's getting <_< )


Silvio, if you want to play your differently tuned box in a session (you didn't mention this elsewhere), I would suggest getting a B/C, for two reasons:


1) You may come across "C" sessions, particularly where there is a piper with a set of pipes pitched in C. You can then play your B/C using your C#/D fingering and you'll be in tune with everyone else. Well, actually, probably not with the piper... :rolleyes:


But how many C sessions are there in your neck of the woods? Probably not many...


2) You can use your B/C in a standard session to make playing in certain keys much easier. For example D minor tunes involve a bit of hand twisting and awkward shifts on a C#/D, but on a B/C you could play them in "Em" fingering - easy as pie. Same goes for tunes in C or F - if anybody plays them in your neck of the woods.


On the other hand this rather defeats the idea of having a "chromatic" box - you end up carrying two. That's for D/G players and other, um, unfortunates :P


The other possibility would be D/D# - you'll find, or you used to find anyway, some sessions in Eb in Ireland. But most of these are designed to keep strangers out, so this is not a great avenue.


Realistically, I'd suggest you retune your box to a lower key and use it for playing solo and at home, and just enjoy the mellow tone.



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  • 2 years later...

Good Morning, 

  My name is Miranda and my husband  Has recently inherited an old Hohner Accordion. We have absolutely no knowledge about Accordions, nor any use for this instrument.   I’ve searched the internet forever for any info or listings and haven’t came across an exact match.   Until recently with google images that brought me to this thread.  The image has 2 accordions side by side and I do believe the the bigger one was referred to as Deluxe.  The smaller 2 row accordion is the accordion would be the exact match to the one we have.   Please forgive my ignorance, I do apologize if I’m naming them incorrectly.    I’m Italian and Hispanic, Love music but don’t do or know the instruments.  I do however so much appreciate those who know and make the beautiful music I crave for!!   
   AnyHoo, back to my Mystery Hohner …   If there’s anyone who could contact me via email (mirandadeleon779@yahoo.com) with any information about This Hohner I’d greatly appreciate it. 
   Glancing over this thread I deeply feel that any information provided to me will be information that I can trust to be reliable, respectable,  and truthful. I have no doubts about your facts!   
      Thanking You In Advance, and Hopefully Hearing From You Soon, 
               Miranda Knight       Mirandadeleon779@yahoo.com           

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  • 2 weeks later...
On 4/22/2022 at 2:42 PM, MirandaK said:

   AnyHoo, back to my Mystery Hohner …   If there’s anyone who could contact me via email (mirandadeleon779@yahoo.com) with any information about This Hohner I’d greatly appreciate it. 
   Glancing over this thread I deeply feel that any information provided to me will be information that I can trust to be reliable, respectable,  and truthful. I have no doubts about your facts!   
      Thanking You In Advance, and Hopefully Hearing From You Soon, 
               Miranda Knight       Mirandadeleon779@yahoo.com           


I don't reveal my email address to people I don't know, but I put the information you are seeking into a PM ten days ago - only you haven't opened it yet.


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