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The Concertina

A member of the free reed family of instruments (and the baby of the family at that), the concertina is a hexagonal-shaped instrument invented by the English physicist Sir Charles Wheatstone circa 1830.

The concertina (called a squeezebox by many) is played by squeezing its collapsible bellows between its solid ends, while pressing buttons on each end to produce the notes desired. In contrast to its relative the accordion, which was invented almost simultaneously, there are no chord buttons; each button on a concertina plays just one note at a time. Don't make the common mistake of underestimating concertinas. They may be small and light, but their sound can be surprisingly loud and powerful as well.

The concertina comes in three distinct types—English, Anglo, and Duet. The variations in how each instrument is played can be so substantial that a player who wants to switch kinds may have to learn the new instrument almost from scratch.

English, Anglo, and Duet concertinas each have their staunch supporters. But here is a chart with some overgeneralized guidelines about which kind of concertina might be the best fit, based on the musical purpose and goals of the musician.

Purpose Type
To perform instrumental solos Duet
To provide song accompaniment Duet
To play from sheet music Duet, English
To compose for concertina Duet, English
To keep up with exceptionally fast melodies English
To play in groups with other concertinas English
To play folk dances Anglo
To learn to play by ear Anglo
To learn on the easiest instrument of the lot Anglo

In the hands of the truly competent and talented, of course, all things are possible; great concertina players can get around the apparent limitations of the instrument, and can manage to squeeze any kind of music out of any kind of concertina. The Anglo concertina, for example, is the instrument of choice across the full range of the standard Irish repertoire—solo playing to duets, groups and dance bands—but Irish players have been known to resort to some pretty tricky cross-fingering between the button rows in order to make every note come out exactly the way they want it to.