The following pages include information about the different concertina systems, English, Anglo and Duet, and guidance about their care.
The article was written by Dave Elliott, author of the Concertina Repair Manual. Many thanks to Dave for his time and trouble. If you have further questions visit his website www.concertina-repair.org.uk.
A concertina explained
What is a concertina?
No matter what type of concertina, there are some features common to all:
- The sounds are made by free reeds (vibrating metal strips) powered by air flow.
- Bellows (the pump).
- Concertinas have two keyboards (button boards), one each end of the bellows, each with note selector buttons.
- Concertinas are usually hexagonal, but some have eight, some twelve, sides. The ends can be wooden or have a metal insert.
- They range in size from smallish to biggish instruments, are portable (depending how many you are trying to carry), producing clear and pure notes; the notes can be sounded singly or in groupings (chords).
- Concertinas are divided into three basic systems: Anglo, English and Duet.
What is a concertina system?
- Each system has an entirely different button board layout; it is not easy to transfer from one layout to another.
- The Anglo plays two notes on a button, one note on squeezing the bellows and another on opening the bellows. The English and Duets play the name note on a button, irrespective of the bellows direction. Click here to find more details about button layouts.
- English and Duet systems are fully chromatic which means they have buttons for all of the sharps and flats possible. The Anglo is diatonic (they play in set keys), meaning it has the sharps and flats found in particular keys. Anglo concertinas usually cover two keys – for example C and G or D and G or Bb and F.
- All systems have variations in the number of buttons covering more octaves.
The English concertina explained
- Was designed by Sir Charles Wheatstone in 1829 in London, England.
- Was originally based upon the range of a violin – this is the treble. Wheatstone wanted to see his concertina sound as part of the orchestra.
- Is fully chromatic, that is all the sharps and flats in each octave are available. Any musical key can be played, major or minor. It is a versatile instrument. The same note is played on a button for each bellows movement direction, push & pull.
- Is not as easy to ’pick up’ as the Anglo, which some people feel is more intuitive, but far less complex than a Duet.
- Was developed further for band and musical part playing with different sized instruments playing in different pitches:
Treble (violin range): the full range of the treble clef from the ‘G’ below the clef, through the clef and up a couple more octaves.
Baritone: 1 octave lower than treble. Some models have the same number of notes as the treble, some a few less.
Bass: 2 octaves lower than treble, again often with fewer buttons due to the size of the reeds. Most are ‘single action’ which means that they only play when the bellows are compressed.
Piccolo: 1 octave above treble.
Dance & Miniatures: music hall novelty instruments, often playing a limited descant range using 12 keys.
- Used for song, solo, ensemble & band; classical, light music, traditional music, song and dance.
The Anglo (Anglo-German) System Explained:
- Was developed by Carl Friedrich Uhlig in 1834 (5 years after Wheatstone invented the English) in Chemnitz, Germany.
- Are related to the melodeon and the harmonica in the way their scales work.
- Has low notes on the left hand side and higher notes on the right. The rows nearest the player’s wrist form a single scale in one of the set musical keys of the instrument. The other rows are the scale of the other musical key referred to in the instrument description.
- Has 20, or more usually, 30 buttons (adding a third row to each side with all the additional sharps and flats to make the instrument chromatic, but not necessarily easy to play in all keys).
- Is described or designated by its playing musical keys typically C/G; Bb/F etc and by the number of buttons it has, so typically a 30 button D/G concertina.
- Plays different notes on any button depending on which way the bellows are worked. The need to change bellows direction frequently lends its self to rhythmic styles of play.
- Is used for song, solo, some ensemble, session play and prized for rhythmic dance.
- Generally switch instruments to play in different keys.
- Is probably the most expensive of the concertina family.
The Duet concertina explained
- Is fully chromatic.
- Has buttons which play the same note on each bellows direction, push/pull.
- THas low notes on the left hand side, and higher notes on right hand side. As with a piano, the melody is usually played with the right hand and the accompaniment with the left hand.
- Has an overlap in the notes present on the right and left sides hand sides.
- Can have 70 or more buttons and may be very large and heavy. Some of the lowest notes on the left hand side are similar to the bass English system and are very big.
- Is often considered the hardest of the three concertina classifications to master.
There are various keyboard layouts, or fingering systems. It is not easy to convert from one to the other:
Maccann Duet, probably most common.
Crane Duet (aka the Triumph) famed by the Salvation Army.
Jeffries Duet developed by Charles Jeffries, of Jeffries Anglo fame.
Hayden Duet, the most recent system developed (and some think the most logical).
- Concertinas have metal reed assemblies. Reed assemblies are metal, the frames being brass or aluminium and the tongues being brass or steel, sometimes a nickel alloy. Victorian concertina manufacturers used clock spring steel for the reed tongues (stainless steel not having yet been invented) and thus the reeds are very susceptible to rust. Reeds do not like damp storage, or condensation.
- The wood work is Victorian cabinet making, held together by animal glues and is not water or damp proof. The wood work has different types of wood and varying thicknesses making it susceptible to shrinkage cracking, warping etc, some of the features are held together with a wedging action and shrinkage can affect fits between reeds and the surrounding woodwork.
- The bellows are the product of the Victorian book binder’s arts, and are held together by what in essence is wall paper paste.
- The leather components can dry out, split or curl.
- Some of the end bolts are very long and thin and can easily shear off if over tightened of allowed to corrode into place.
- Do not allow a concertina to get wet or very damp.
- Do not expose to excessive temperatures (such as might occur if stored in sunlight or in a hot car).
- Storage is critical to the ongoing playability of a concertina: use a hard case, that holds the bellows firmly compressed, with the bellows horizontal, the concertina should never be stored stood up on its end.
- Avoid knocks and bumps.
- Do not leave a concertina on a chair when you are not sitting holding it.
- Do not drag an instrument out of its box by one end, straining and splitting bellows.
- Do not play a concertina with its bellows resting across the knee; it wrecks the bellows internally as well as increasing leather wear. Rest a wooden end on the knee if that is your style, but not the bendy part of the bellows,
- If bringing in a concertina from outside in the cold, into say, a warm and crowded room, allow the concertina to warm for a few minutes to avoid moisture condensing on the reeds.
Concertina History & Background
- The English concertina is the only truly English invented instrument, as opposed to one that evolved
- The English concertina was ‘invented’ by Sir Charles Wheatstone, the famous physicist and member of the Royal Society, in 1829. The story goes the he heard the Chinese Sheng being played by sailors in the early 1800’s. Shengs had free reeds and he decided that there was room for this sound in the orchestra, so he developed the concertina, the treble having the same range as a violin. The first patents were issued in the mid 1830s.
- The Anglo-German instrument was developed by Carl Freidrich Uhlig in 1834.
- To ‘productionise’ manufacture Wheatstone employed a clock making engineer called Louis Lachenal, who eventually developed his own version and set up in competition. Louis Lachenal was the most prolific manufacturer. Wheatstones were thought to be better instruments, but this distinction eventually blurred.
- There were other manufacturers in the mid 1800s and early 1900s but none were as significant as the first two, although some of their instruments were first class.
- At the moment, reproduction instruments are being made, mainly with accordion reeds. Some of these, so called hybrid instruments, are quite good, but some people feel that they lack the true concertina sound
- Concertinas were used by the Salvation Army and were played in large bands utilising deep sounding instruments and high pitched instruments, much like the brass bands that are still around today
- Concertinas are used for traditional song, playing for dance, playing in sessions, in small ensembles, and for solo work.
- Concertinas were not played by pirates or for jolly sea shanties by Nelson’s sailors
- The bellows were made by bookbinders, the casings by cabinet makers and the metal work by instrument makers, there are no batteries, solid state electronics or non-recyclable plastics.