Saturday, June 22, 2013

I Won't Be Getting A Concertina Any Time Soon

I decided overnight to get a tenor banjo back in 2006, and, save for one year-long hiatus, have been at it ever since.  It was about a $350 initial investment to find a vintage 4-string banjo, have new tuners installed, and have it set up left-handed.  There were a few other costs involved - lessons and such - but it was a fairly reasonable cost to start with.  When I got a similar impulse toward concertinas a week or two ago, I assumed that it too would be something I could jump into on a whim.  I had no idea that the world of concertinas was so complex and expensive.  I don't think I'll be getting one straight away.
Irish concertina player Mrs. Elizabeth Crotty
If I were to get a concertina, it would be to play in the melodic Irish style.  Clare is the region of Ireland I first visited and fell in love with, and it just so happens that no other part of Ireland, or perhaps the world, is more strongly associated with the concertina than county Clare.  The type of concertina best recommended for Irish music is a 30 button, C/G Anglo concertina.  Problem is, you need to spend at least $2,000 for a high-quality one.

There is a decent entry-level 30b c/g Anglo called the Rochelle by Concertina Connection that typically sells for between $325-$385 used, and $415-$499 new.  It's priced low to act as an introductory instrument.  Some sellers like The Button Box in Massachusetts offer a full refund when you trade the Rochelle back in for a new, upgraded concertina.  I've seen the Rochelle in action and it's much larger in size than a typical 30 button Anglo concertina, and it also seems to be cumbersome.  Not really what I'm looking for.

Then there's the Stagi W-15, which sells for between $695 and $900, but I haven't seen many glowing reviews for this mass produced instrument. Getting it into good playing condition usually requires setup work by a skilled technician.  You're better off with a Rochelle than a Stagi from what I can gather.  I suppose I could try the the vintage route.  Refurbished 22 button, 24 button or 26 button Lachenals are in the $800 to $1200 range when you can find them, but there may be an adjustment needed for the fingers when moving to the 30 button.  And, for that cost, why play one of those at all if your ultimate goal is to play a 30 button?

Tedrow Zephyr concertina
I love the sound of concertina, but another part of its appeal is the diminutive size.  It's a very compact instrument that fits in a little case.  These starter instruments are often larger than the well made ones, and it's the traditional smaller size that I envision myself having.  I also like how anti-cool people look when playing concertina.  Unlike the posturing of a rock n' roll bassist or guitarist, concertina players sit fairly still in a chair, casually pushing and pulling on the little free reed instrument with buttons on each end that is held across one knee. Very nondescript.  I'm surprised they even included concertina in Riverdance!

The demands of an Irish sessions require a fast and responsive concertina.  With over a thousand parts involved, a truly adequate concertina cannot be mass produced - it has to be hand made and that's going to cost you.  The lowest I've seen for a hand made concertina is about $1800, and they go up from there.  Some builders make "hybrids" using accordion reeds; others make their own custom concertina reeds.  North American makers include Herrington, Tedrow, Morse and Edgley.  I particularly like the Zephyr model made by Bob Tedrow.  At 5-5/8" across the flat sides, it's a bit smaller than usual.  But that one sells for around $2750.
Tony Dixon Trad Irish Whistle - my concertina alternative
To top it off, concertinas are very hard to learn to play.  I'd be going from a symmetrical, logical, instrument (tenor banjo tuned in 5ths), to one with no logic whatsoever to its "system".  It's sort of a catch-22.  I don't want to start with a large, clunky entry-level concertina, but at the same time I don't want to spend $2,000+ for an instrument that I'm not even sure I'm going to want to play!  For this reason I have just ordered a $30 tuneable, Dixon Trad D Brass Whistle.  It's nothing like a concertina, but it meets my need for having a compact repertoire instrument for Irish tunes!

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