Looking for a Good Squeeze:

The evolution of a concertina player

(Squeezebox fans who came here looking for information about my latest toy will probably want to skip the preamble and go here.)

I've played -- or played with -- many musical instruments over the years, but it wasn't until I started writing a few filk songs and performing with the Walkabout Clearwater Chorus that I had the motivation to actively practice. At that time I started thinking about what instrument might have the combination of portability and versitility I wanted.

(Darth, left hand) (Darth, right hand) While looking around, I happened to stumble upon a cheap Made-in-Germany (East Germany, in fact) Klingenthal 20-button Anglo-German concertina, made still cheaper because it had some cosmetic damage. I'd never played concertina -- though I remembered being baffled by an Anglo at a cousin's house -- but at this price I was willing to buy it on impulse and see if I could teach myself how it worked. So it came home with me, and acquired the name Darth due to the dramatic heavy-breathing sound made by the wind valve.

(Keshlam and Darth, aboard the Clearwater) Darth (shown here aboard the Clearwater) is best considered a high-end toy rather than a serious instrument. For example, you don't have to worry about a Klingenthal going out of tune; that's how they're delivered from the factory. He's also a bit slow to respond, though a beginner won't notice that. And the materials are so cheap that the wood grain is actually painted on! (The ends are pine and plywood rather than the hardwoods the paint is trying to imitate.) Still, Darth's keyboard does follow the proper Anglo arrangement of notes, he looks good from a distance, and he's quite playable within his limitations.

An Anglo seems hopelessly confusing when you first pick it up; each button plays two different notes depending on whether you squeeze or pull, exactly like a harmonica. But as with the harmonica, it's designed to make playing in its home keys (D and A, in this case, plus their relative minors) surprisingly easy. Once you get over the hump of learning how to play a scale on both sides, playing simple harmonies comes almost automatically. There's a trade-off, though: playing in other keys is difficult to impossible, especially on the 20-key version of the instrument.

(Darth, side view) After a year of sporadic practice, I was getting comfortable enough with Darth that I wasn't playing as many wrong notes, was occasionally brave enough to play in public, had started working on more complex arrangements and was trying to learn a reel... all of which both made the tuning problems more noticable and exposed the limitations of the 20-button keyboard. (Don't get me wrong; you can make a lot of music with a basic concertina, but there are things it just can't do and it isn't going to let you play very quickly.) And Darth's D/A tuning was just a bit high for my Baritone singing voice.

So it was time to invest in getting Darth tuned, and/or to start looking for a fancier instrument. Tuning and a bit of fixup at The Button Box set me back about $100 -- well worth it, especially considering how cheaply I got the instrument originally. But shopping for an upgrade led to a severe case of Sticker Shock!. If you want details, follow this link to the Concertina FAQ... Basically, it boils down to the fact that a good concertina just isn't amenable to mass production. At the time I had the choices of an affordable but uninspiring mass-market box, a custom-built masterpiece with price to match, or (if I could find it) an older instrument -- where "older" may mean from 50 to 150 years. The situation has improved somewhat since then, with several "serious" midrange manufacturers -- including The Button Box, as it turns out -- but I had no way of predicting how long I'd have to wait for them to start production.

(Jeffries, Left side) (Jeffries, Right side) So after I picked my jaw up off the floor, I started trying to talk myself into buying a mid-range used-and-renovated instrument, for only about three times what I'd originally hoped to pay. But The Button Box had just finished reconditioning a Jeffries 38-button Anglo, and these don't become available all that often. I decided to grab the opportunity while I could.

Press the buttons for a closer look. Warning: The next page has several large bitmaps, and may load slowly as a result.

(Maker's mark)

Walkabout Webmaster: Joe Kesselman / keshlam-nospam@comcast.net (sic)