The British Button Box
The British Diatonic Chromatic Three-Row
Button-Key Accordion

From English Dance and Song, Vol XXIX, No 4, Winter 1967

John Kirkpatrick
John Kirkpatrick playing at a
Barn Dance at the Ecole du
Sud, Vincennes

DESPITE its baffling name, this instrument is really nothing more than an overgrown melodeon. The right hand consists of three ordinary melodeon (push-pull) rows in the keys of B, C, and C. This arrangement gives you all the notes of the chromatic scale, and to play in keys other than these three all you have to do is to pick a few notes from each row and put them together.

The left hand is exactly the same as on a piano accordion and plays the same note whichever way you waggle your bellows. As this was dealt with by Brian Willcocks in his article on how to play the piano accordion in the August, 1964, issue of English Dance and Song I shall say nothing about it here. If you haven't got that copy of the magazine any accordion player can tell you how it should be done. Keep your basses as simple as you can to start with, you'll have more than enough to worry about on the right hand.

The British button box should not be confused with the continental model, which has the usual accordion basses and which can have three, four, or five rows of buttons on the right hand. This instrument is not diatonic and works on a completely different system, although it looks the same. Nor should it be confused with the three-row melodeon which usually plays in G, D, and A, with a simple melodeon bass.

I don't know much about the history of the British diatonic chromatic three-row button-key accordion except that Jimmy Shand has been playing one for about thirty years. Some other Scottish bands have them, but you can count on one hand the number brave enough to attempt this instrument south of the border. The chromatic style of playing seems quite popular among Irish musicians, who like melodeons in D and D, although of course they don't fit in any bass. When I once asked an Irish box player what be did with his left hand, he said "I don't know, I just look the other way."

So much for what it is. Before you rush out to buy one, have a go on a melodeon and see how you get on, with Bob Rundle's article in the April, 1964 issue of this magazine by your side. If it's a hard struggle to knock out a tune you'll have ten times as much trouble with this. box. On the other hand, if you take to a melodeon like a duck to water, then this could be the instrument for you. When you begin to feet that the melodeon's limitations are cramping your style, that is the time to get your chromatic accordion.

The only shop I know which has a good selection of these instruments, new and second-hand, with a wide price range, is Arthur Bell Accordions Ltd., of 137-139 Ewell Road, Surbiton, Surrey, where you may try everything in sight without obligation to buy. Hohner's, of 11-13 Farringdon Road, London, E.C.1, advertise four models of this type of box in their accordion catalogue but don't mention any prices. They also sell tutors to go with them for a few bob each.

Once you've got your British button box you will already be able to play in the three open-row keys of B, C, and C, which are just the same as on a simple melodeon. Only nine keys left to learn! The ones you'll need most are G, D, and A, so let's start with those. As these keys have sharps in them the notes in the diagram are shown either as sharps or naturals. The 'flat' keys come later.

Click here for a larger image
Click on the diagram for a larger view!

This diagram doesn't give the whole keyboard but you'll hardly ever need what isn't shown.

Just before you start, there is one golden rule - never look at what you're doing. All you will see is a mass of buttons on both sides of the instrument, and this will only confuse you.

Now, without looking, find the G on button 10, and play a scale in G like this: G (push 10); A (pull 10); 13 (pull 13); C (push 13); D (pull 16); E (push 16);
F (push 18); G (push 19). I find that the F on the B row (push 18) fits in better for tunes in G than the F on the C row (pull 20), but don't forget it's there in case you have a tune with a lot of successive pushes in it and you run out of air. Generally speaking try to avoid long sequences where the direction of the bellows doesn't change. The whole point of this box is that it can produce music with all the guts and punch of a melodeon, and you won't achieve this unless you make full use of the diatonic action.

When you can play up and down the scale of G confidently, feel about for a few extra notes at each end of the octave, and then try a few easy tunes, such as Rakes of Mallow, The Keel Row, Oyster Girl, and The Shepherd's Wife, which are all in the Fiddlers Tune Books. If they don't appeal to you just play all the tunes you can think of and remember the easy ones. When you play over a tune (this goes for any key) try as many different fingerings as you can till you find the one which suits you best. Most of the notes appear on the keyboard in two places, so try either and take your time about deciding which way you want to play them. It's well worth thoroughly working out a tune like this because you won't be able to stop and think when you're playing for dancing.

When you can easily play in G as many tunes as you can think of, you can go on to D, but don't rush it and don't try to learn in two keys at once. The scale of D starts on a pull: D (pull 4); E (push 7); F (push 9); G (push 10); A (pull 10); B (pull 13 or push 12); C (pull 15 or push 14); D (pull 16). And going on, E (push 16); F (push 18); G (Push 19); A (pull 22). I put both alternatives for the B and C as they both fit in easily, depending on the tune. Easy tunes in D - Astley's Ride, Manchester Hornpipe, The Quaker's Wife, and Bonny Tyneside (Fiddlers Tune Books).

The key of A is the most difficult to play in and however long you've been playing it never seems easy. It is possible to play a scale of A pulling the bellows all the time - A (pull 10); B (pull 13); C (pull 15); D (pull 16); E (pull 18); F (pull 20); G (pull 21); A (pull 22). It is also possible to play it with only two notes (A and D) on the pull: A (pull 10); B (push 12); C (push 14); D (pull 16); E (push 16); F (push 18); G (push 20); A (pull 22). Scales won't be much use in A, and I find the best way to learn is to work out tunes individually until you are sure of where all the notes are. Try, Cock o' the North, A Hundred Pipers, My Home, Kafoozalum, and Scotland is My Ain Hame. There's no short cut round playing in A, and it will demand all your patience to master it.

Now for the 'flat' keys. F is so easy that it's a pity there aren't more tunes in that key. F (pull 7); G (push 10); A (pull 10); B (=A pull 11); C (push 13); D (pull 16); E (push 16); F (pull 19). Holborn March is a simple tune and probably the only one you'll ever have to play in F.

B isn't as bad as it sounds. It's a semi-tone higher than A, so you can play it with the same sequence of pushes and pulls as in A but starting on the C row instead of the C row. B (=A. pull 11); C (pull 14 or push 13); D (pull 16); E (=D. pull 17); F (push 17); G (push 19); A (pull 22); B (=A. pull 23). Have a go at Hole in the Wall.

Similarly, E is the same sequence as D, starting on E (=D. pull 5); A is the same as G, starting A (=G. push 11); and E is the same as F, starting E (pull 6).

You won't be able to play in all these keys at once. You'll be lucky if you can play them all after a year. But as soon as you feel confident on even one key, get out and play with others and try to get the feel of things like phrasing, style, and the way speed and rhythm vary from dance to dance. Intercourse with other musicians will not only give you valuable experience but will also fire you with more enthusiasm for playing than you could ever get at home stuck in front of this article.