So I understand, Edward, that you tune accordions too?
That’s correct - Most recently those belonging to Jason Sparkes, Georgia Lewis, Hannah James and Jim Molyneux.
Accordionists from the BBC Folk Awards scene?
Yes, that's correct. (But I also tune melodeons and concertinas too.)
Tuning accordions doesn’t seem to be a common skill. What made you decide to learn? Where were you taught?
About 20 years ago, my own accordion needed tuning. Actually, it had never been tuned in it's life, and at that point there wasn’t a single combination of notes that resonated nicely.
So, I took it to a man who was, at the time, one of the most reputable professionals in the UK. But when I got the instrument back, what the man had done was to simply change the pitch of the worst reeds. Which meant that most of the intervals were still dissonant.
Of course – you want the instrument to be in tune for every chord, not just some….
Right! So a couple of years later I decided to learn how to tune an accordion myself, and went to visit an accordion factory in Italy. (My tutor was a world-renowned master accordion craftsman, and he showed me every aspect of accordion tuning – and then it all made sense to me.)
But what I also learned was that an accordion takes literally days to tune thoroughly. Do you know that it takes longer to tune an accordion properly than to actually build one!?
Really? Why does accordion tuning take so long?
Well, with a piano or a harp, you are essentially given a tuning peg, and you twist it left or right until the pitch of the note resolves. It takes a while, but actually it’s not a complex process. But with an accordion reed, it’s a piece of metal that requires shaving with a tool. And there are many other factors to consider too which affect the tuning.. leakage, debris, valve degredation..
Right. To make the note sharper, you need to remove material (i.e. weight) from the tip of the reed. And to make the note flatter you need to remove material from the top of the reed (near the rivet where the reed is hinged).
And these reeds can be very small and are not easy to manipulate – like harmonica reeds.
So you are saying you have to scrape material away from the reed to make it both sharper *and* flatter? Doesn’t that mean the reed gets thinner over time?
Yes, quite. So it's it’s important to minimise contact with the reeds as much as possible to make the reed live as long as possible.
I suppose you see a lot of old accordions, then.
Yes..quite often I will get presented with an older accordion for which the player wants to use for recording but can’t because it’s so sharp and it jars with the other instruments. And for an instrument that is so far away from concert pitch, it takes me much, much longer to scrape each reed down to pitch.
Incidently, in the olden days, they used to tune accordions very sharp, so that an accordion’s concert ‘A’ was around 444 Hz and the tremolo reeds were even sharper than that. This was okay if you were playing with other instruments tuned to that pitch (with other accordions, I guess), but this sharper tuning was horrible for playing with any other instruments (which were usually tuned to 440Hz.)
Also, I have found that the reeds have sort of a memory and try to find their original pitch after the instrument has settled for a few days. So tuning will generally require a second and possibly a third pass a few days later to make sure the reeds stay at their new home pitch.
So, for the older, sharper instruments, the tuning whole tuning process can actually take a couple of weeks, but if the instrument is already basically already around concert pitch, then tuning can be a relatively quick process, typically taking just a day or two.
Right. So do you prefer to work on modern instruments then?
Generally, yes, but not necessarily. Occasionally I will get in a nice-looking modern instrument only to discover it has really cheap components inside.
In what way are they cheap, and how does that affect the process of tuning?
With experience, you get a feel of how much scraping is required on a reed of a certain thickness to bring it down by a measured amount. But if they have used metal that is cheap low grade, I find that the effect of the scraping behaves inconsistently - which makes achieving the correct pitch very difficult!
Also, the valves can be a huge problem: if the valve is cheap and flimsy, simply touching it with a tool may deform it enough to cause it to start popping thereafter. (If this happens, the valve will need to be replaced, which puts up general maintenance times exponentially.)
So you avoid cheap accordions if you can?
Well, it certainly sounds much more complicated than just turning a tuning peg. How on earth do you perfect a skill like that?
It takes years. And a lot of patience – there is a lot to know. For example, the way I tune low reeds is very different from the way I tune higher reeds (I actually have a different set of tools for each range.) And if there is a problem, very often it’s due to an issue not visible to the naked eye. So then it becomes a process of elimination.
Also the reeds aren’t always to be found in an intuitive place inside the instrument relative to the note’s pitch or key location. There are no labels internally so I have to find my way around by pinging each reed with a plectrum and listening to the pitch.
So what is involved once you’ve located the reed?
Well, once you’ve located the reed, you need to remove the reedblock the from instrument and place it on the desk ready to scrape. Then once you’ve made an adjustment to the reed (an educated guess), you need to replace the reedblock back in the instrument, put the instrument back together and play the note again, measuring it on an electronic tuner to see how close you are.
You mean that each time you make an adjustment to the note, you need to take the whole instrument apart, then put it back together and remeasure?
Yes. And it’s quite a physical process too – half an accordion weighs about 7kg. And it’s often necessary to make several attempts to adjust any one reed – which often feels like trying to sink a golf ball on a putting green.
Are you saying that for each reed, this requires the accordion to be opened up several times?
All that for one reed? So how many reeds are there in an accordion?
In a standard full-sized accordion, around 50 on the left hand side and over 150 on the right hand, depending on the model – so no fewer than 200 reed plates. And there are 2 reeds on every reed plate. So that’s 400 reeds in total (and it’s unlikely I would get a ‘hole in one’ for more than a few!)
That’s intense. Can’t you tune the reeds outside the accordion? Wouldn’t that be easier?
Actually, that’s what the big companies do. They tune each reed block on what they call ‘bench bellows’. And it is much quicker, I admit. But the problem is that once the reeds go back into the instrument, their tuning changes slightly due to the change in air pathways.
And that sounds like a big deal.
Depends. If you are after a big fat Scottish sound, then your tremolo can be as wide as 10 percent of a semitone and no-one bats an eyelid.
As a rule of thumb, tuning reeds on a bench bellows as opposed to inside the instrument can create an error of up to 3 percent, so relatively speaking, the error is hardly noticeable against the 10 percent tremolo of a Scottish accordion.
However, if you are a professional player and you want to sound like Andy Cutting...well, I happen to know he tunes his tremolo to 1.5 percent. So to get an error of 3 percent from a bench bellows would utterly ruin that slim fizzy sound which he’s become famous for.
So there really is no way around it: I have found if you want an instrument that sounds perfect, the reeds absolutely have to be tuned inside the instrument, which simply takes longer.
Wow. Okay, it sounds a long job. And it’s not as if you can listen to music whilst you do this, or watch Youtube!
Absolutely not. I’m combining all my senses to hear whether a note is starting right, or whether there is any loss of air pressure. As well as getting the pitch right with my scraping tools. Everything is very precise. And a momentary lapse in concentration will generally result in another 20 minutes of repair work.
It sounds as if it requires a lot of concentration and experience, quite apart from taking a long time to do a thorough job on hundreds of reeds. And accordions aren’t lightweight instruments, so I imagine it’s physically demanding too. How do you manage tuning all 400 reeds without going insane?
Whilst I can (and have) tuned an accordion in a couple of days, I have found it to be quite a grueling ordeal. So I generally prefer to spend just a few hours a day tuning, and stretch the task over a week or two. This also gives the reeds a chance to settle into their new pitch.
Don’t players (especially professionals) usually need their instruments back quicker than that?
Most players would prefer that, yes. But actually, most serious players have more than one instrument they can fall back on. (And actually I have one that I can lend people if they are really desperate.)
And how much do you charge?
I charge basically 100 pounds for each reedblock on the right hand side plus 100 pounds for the left hand. So if you have a standard three-voice accordion, that’s 400 pounds. If you have a two-voice accordion that’s 300. If you have a four-voice accordion, that’s 500. It basically takes me a day per reedblock (though ideally stretched over several days, to ensure the new tuning has settled).
I imagine that feels like a lot of money to most people, especially if they only paid 200 pounds for their accordion on eBay!
Quite. And I meet a few of those. And I wouldn’t be in a hurry to tune an instrument like that either as it would probably take me twice as long to tune as it would a more quality instrument.
But compared to the cost of a new accordion, 400 pounds is not a lot, right?
Right. A professional accordion these days is rarely less than 3 grand. And if you are in any way serious, 5 grand is the going rate. So 400 quid on top of that is a relatively small price to pay to have a quality instrument that plays perfectly in tune.
For more information, email Edward at