How to Teach Yourself the Button Accordion

By Kit Kiefer

The button accordion is a staple of many musical genres--Cajun, Celtic, North European and Norteno. It has a rich, satisfying sound that can cross over to folk and country. It may take a lifetime to master, but by approaching the instrument logically--and casting aside notions of a piano keyboard--you might just surprise yourself at how quickly you pick it up and how good you sound.

Find Your Way Around

Before you play a button accordion, play a harmonica. Why? the most popular varieties of both instruments are diatonic–that is, they play different notes on the in-stroke (the exhale or push) and the out-stroke (the inhale or pull), they are confined to a key or a set of closely related keys, and they do not naturally play all the notes of a musical scale. If you play the harmonica, the musical navigation of a button accordion will seem familiar. If you’re considering buying a button accordion, buy a harmonica first. Play around with it. After you do, the arrangement of tones and notes on a button accordion will make much more sense.

Slip your arms through the straps and position the accordion in your mid- to upper chest so that the long row of buttons is under your right hand and the short rows of buttons are at your left.

Ignore the left-hand buttons. They add bass and can be mastered relatively easily once you find your way around the right-hand side.

Find the important buttons on the right side. The "home" button sounds the root of the tonic chord. For instance, if you're playing a C accordion, the home button will be a C. It's usually ridged or jeweled or somehow marked so you can find it by feel. The "breath" button toward the top of the accordion lets you pull apart the bellows without making a sound. Though most accordions snap shut, some accordions have a "lock" button near the top that locks and unlocks the bellows. Obviously, you can't play if the bellows can't move.

Playing the Accordion

Sound the major chord for the accordion's predominant key. Button accordions are set to a key–often C or G–and are built around the major chords in that key. The tonic is sounded by pushing your hands together and pressing on the main row of buttons on the right-hand side. The seventh is sounded by pulling your hands apart. So for a one-row C accordion, if you pressed the indented (or ridged or jeweled or somehow marked) button, which is C, pressed another button in the same row, and pushed your hands together you would play part of a C major chord. If you pulled your hands apart you would play part of a G chord--a G7 chord, technically. A two-row button accordion would have the tonic (C) and its seventh (G7) on one row and the fifth (F) and its seventh (C7) on the second. A three-row button accordion adds the seventh (G) and its seventh (D7).

As you begin to play the button accordion, hit the “breath” button and pull apart the bellows. Push your hands together and play two-note chords by pressing adjacent buttons or skipping buttons between notes. Move along the tonic row, the longest row on the right side, adding passing chords by pulling your hands apart before pushing your hands together again.

If you lose air in the bellows before the end of the line, hit your “breath” button and pull your hands apart. At a chord change, either pull your hands apart to play a seventh or move to a different row.

Experiment with single notes. Because the instrument does not play every note of a major scale in a linear fashion, it’ll be hard at first to find every scale tone. On one-row button accordions, they’re simply not there–but arpeggios and passing tones are. And for many of the songs that sound best on button accordions, you don’t need every scale tone, but you do need arpeggios and passing tones.

The more you listen to the songs button accordions were meant to play–two-steps, waltzes, polkas, reels and schottisches–the more you appreciate the efficiency of a button accordion.

About the Author

Kit Kiefer has written or contributed to more than a dozen pop-culture books, including the Marvel Encyclopedia, The New Music Guide and They Called It Rock: The Goldmine Oral History of Rock 'n' Roll. He currently writes on travel for The New York Times.