The British Button Box or The British Diatonic Chromatic Three-Row Button-Key Accordion, 1967. Letters in response to this article.

From English Dance and Song Vol XXX No 2 Summer 1968

The British Button Box


Sir, - Despite being an admirer of John K's playing of the chromatic melodeon I feel that some comment is called for. In the first place although the instrument is tuned diatonically it is not played in this way except in the name keys. B C and C in the case of John's instrument. I have always understood that the reason for the development of this version of the melodeon was to avoid excessive movement of the bellows especially when playing fast tunes. This is why the Irish favour this instrument. The characteristic 'punch' of the melodeon is not present and the difference in style can be heard by listening to old records of Jimmy Shand when he was playing the 'single row' diatonic melodeon and comparing these with his current style of playing. John may be right about the number of players south of the border although I know of a good handful myself not the least skilful being Brian Heaton who is known as 'fingers cold-off' to his friends because of his skill on a 'Shand Marino.' It is, I think, significant that when Brian was asked to record some music for long sword he deserted his Marino for a diatonic melodeon.

The chromatic melodeon, although a fine instrument in the hands of a virtuoso, is really only a half-way between a piano-accordion and a continental button accordion. All three, I consider, to be extremely difficult to play for dancing because they do not have the built-in punch of the melodeon. When playing this the whole body is involved whereas on the accordion the fingers have to produce the rhythm and any help that comes from bellows action must be achieved by making a conscious effort. The low inertia involved in finger action makes it difficult to sustain the rhythmic quality of dance tunes.

I once discussed this question with Jimmy Shand and he told me that if he had the opportunity again he would change from the diatonic melodeon to the continental accordion.

Surely no-one who has heard Peter Kennedy or Bob Rundle play can accept that the melodeon has any serious limitations.

Yours, etc.,
19 Bitteswell Road,


Sir, - It's gratifying to learn from Ian Stewart's letter that at least one person was encouraged to experiment on his melodeon after reading about the British button box. Since writing the article I have been looking into the history of the accordion family and I am sure that the designers of the three-row melodeon intended it to be played in the ways Mr. Stewart found on his G-D-A model, i.e. of playing sustained passages on one bellows action. Attempts to reduce bellows-waggling have been made ever since the first member of the accordion family appeared in 1822. (This was a one-row melodeon in C, with two bass buttons, patented as the 'Handäoline' by Friedrich Buschmann of Berlin, the man who, in the same year, invented the mouth-organ. An improved version - the 'Akkordion' - was patented in Vienna in 1829. How the name 'Melodeon' became attached to this instrument is a mystery. The original melodeon was an early type of American organ). For example, with the so-called 'Club tuning,' where a second row in F is added to the C row, the arrangement on the right hand is altered slightly so that all the notes common to both keys can be played on both actions of the bellows. In other words the Club tuning is deliberately designed to give on two rows the effects that Ian Stewart described on three.

However, I cannot agree with him on the desirability of this legato, one-way style of playing for folk dancing under any circumstances. Such 'improvements' as these, aimed at reducing wear and tear on the bellows and on the left arm, lose more on the swings than they gain on the roundabout, and anyway are directed at giving the instrument a musical scope for which it is quite unsuited. The accordion is severely limited in having only one hand to make the melody, coupled with the most elementary chords on the bass, even on the most elaborate models of today, and it is useful for very little else but simple tunes of the sort we use for folk dancing. The main attraction of the melodeon, and of its delightful cousin the Anglo concertina, is that if played 'straight' on one row it is an easy means of producing lively, bouncy tunes with the drive that makes ideal dance music. The British button box can pack the same punch and has the further advantage, with a fully chromatic right hand, of covering every key. The addition of the double action (i.e. same note both ways) piano keyboard in 1852 (by a Frenchman called, of all things, M. Bouton. The complete range of basses must date from this time), while it enabled the player to explore melodic possibilities to the full in any key, deprived the instrument of the crispness characteristic of the push-pull button boxes. For the best folk dance music, I hold that the piano accordion can be beaten hands down by these boxes that combine buttons and bellows-waggling. Besides, though pleasant enough to listen to in capable hands, the piano box is overshadowed in most other fields of music by what can be achieved with greater ease on an organ or a piano. Even its use at evangelists' outdoor sing-songs is threatened now we have the Salvation Army's Joy Strings. I'm backing buttons!

Yours, etc.,
7 Wymond Street,