The New Crabb
By Roger Digby (Roger@hoppits.demon.co.uk), December, 2004
Photos by Geoff Crabb
When the small shop in Liverpool Rd. Islington, which to this day still bears the name H. Crabb. Concertina Maker, closed in 1989 following the sudden death of Neville Crabb, it seemed that a business that spanned four generations of concertina makers and which John Crabb established first in Clerkenwell (1860) then in the Islington premises from 1891 had come to an end.
Neville's brother Geoff, who had worked full time in the family business from 1974 to 1987 had returned to his job in telecommunications and no member of the next generation was inclined or able to take over the family firm. Now, in the closing months of 2004, Geoff Crabb has made a new concertina and while this does not presage a return to large scale production it is surely worth celebrating the first instrument to bear the Crabb name since 1989.
Geoff insists that he made the concertina "to see if I still could" also "to try to address the criticisms about 'our' earlier instruments and to incorporate some of the suggestions often voiced." It is a 30 button Anglo in C/G following some of the specifications and certainly the external design of an early John Crabb - in Geoff's words "a retro John Crabb".
There are, however some significant modifications. The reed chambers, which follow the parallel arrangement, are aligned 60 degrees to the usual so that the levers are more consistent in length, giving a less variable action, while the uprights are doubled over like flattened staples enabling a pivot pin to be supported on both sides of the lever thus minimising the risk of sideways movement as the result of wear. The upright material, being half the thickness of that employed before, allows the standard springs to act more in line with the levers greatly reducing any sideways bias.
The reed tongues, still utilising a stockpile of top quality Swedish steel and hand filed, are set in 'rectangular' shoes rather than the usual rounded shape and these frames being less tapered and hence, more rigid, have less chance of slippage or distortion.
Another two innovations are more obviously apparent to the player. The wooden hand rests are considerably higher than normal. I found that this enabled me to play on the inside row while still keeping the hand straps quite tight. I normally find, having long fingers, that easy access to this row requires a looser strap so that I can move my palms out and keep my fingers from being restricted. The higher rest worked well for me. I had much more trouble getting used to the final innovation: the wind key is, in fact, a lever requiring a thumb movement towards the palm to operate rather than toward the instrument top.
Of course it is the sound of any instrument that is what really matters. When Geoff drove over to see me with the new instrument it still lacked a final fine tune and a valve or two had not settled down properly. As Geoff said "a finished instrument would be tested every day for a month and any adjustments made before being handed to the customer". Nevertheless I was very impressed by the balance of the notes which all sounded equally with none of the need to work a bit harder on the very high notes, which can happen even on a fine Jeffries. There is also no problem with big bass chords drowning the top end. The balance is absolutely excellent. One or two notes on the left hand were a little strangled (quite likely a simple issue of a stiff valve ) and, as the reeds are cut from the same roll of steel that was used by Neville 30 years ago for my C/G, I have no doubt that the quality will soon show through with time and use.
I enjoyed playing it for an hour though the wind key and the right hand third row were not what I have been used to for the past 30 years, and the bellows were obviously still stiff, which inevitably affects the fluency of playing . What was clear was the overall quality of construction and craftsmanship (though I was a bit taken aback to learn that the wooden pans were the sides of an old drawer! "But it was a very good drawer and well seasoned!")
If Geoff's only purpose in making this concertina was to ascertain "if I still could" then the answer is a clear and unequivocal 'Yes!'
The full specifications are as follows:
- 6 sided 30 key Anglo Chromatic in C&G.
- External appearance reflects that of early Crabb instruments.
- 6-1/4 inches across flats, weight 2lbs.13ozs.
- Polished un-plated nickel-silver tops.
- J Crabb traditional fret pattern and key spacing.
- 1/4 inch OIvorine key caps threaded onto 3/16 inch duralium bodies.
- Bushing woods fitted.
- Wind lever in place of wind key.
- Wrap over uprights (pivot posts) supporting both sides of round levers with floating pivot pin.
- 6 fold gilded leather bellows.
- Top hand strap adjustment screws (incorporating rings for neck strap if reqd.), screwed into brass anchorages.
- Hand rest reshaped and height increased to 1 inch at centre.
- Reeds/notes:- Hand fitted and profiled steel tongues, blocked and screwed onto re-shaped hand cut OHard¹ aluminium frames, traditionally retained in short parallel pan reed chambers.
- Reed pans orientated, lever holes in keys and pivot points in uprights positioned to relieve former 'short lever' problems.
- Each pan comprised of two opposing grain solid wood sections centre joined to reduce possibility of future warpage.