Help With the Left Hand

Left Hand: Le Grand Mystère
During my hiatus I received the following letter from a person I'll call John because that's his name. John is a newish player on the button box, asking for help getting a handle on the bass end of the instrument. Uniting the left and right hand is always sort of Kierkegaardian Leap of Gosh I Hope This Works. Here's John's letter, followed by my response. If anyone out there has advice or encouragement for John (or corrections for me) be sure to post it in the comments.

John's Letter


I am writing because I have very much enjoyed your blog as an amazing resource for the sounds of French Accordion music. I am new to the accordion, having started just last spring, but am playing every day and progressing slowly. I however have been enthralled with the french accordion music (some accordion is just too much oom pah oom pah for me!), perhaps because of the years I spent living there.

I see that you recommend a specific book Bal Folk: Traditional Dance Music From Central France for learning some French tunes. My question to you is this: From the google images of the pages, I see that the music scores for that book have no notation for the bass notes. Is there some theory on how to add these in, or does it become intuitive at some point? Any thoughts on how this works? Am I missing something here? I notice the ABC notation format also has this same issue (I like listening to Lester Bailey's tunes, but wouldn't know how to add the bass to those either.)

I think I could get the right hand down for some of these tunes, but when it comes to just guessing what bass notes would work and when, this might be still a bit difficult for my ear to render...

Thanks for considering this email. Any thoughts you have would greatly help this new accordion player.


And my response ...

Hey, John,

Thank you for your kind words about my blog … it is amazingly gratifying to hear that people get something out of it. I didn’t do it for attention or some obscure form of fame. I was just stoking my own fascination with the instrument and the repertoire.

To answer your question about the basses … these are easily the hardest part for people to come to grips with. Getting the left and right hands to go together. The good news is that it not only becomes intuitive, but the system is actually built into the mechanism of the two row box. But how to go about getting there? You have a number of options. Here are your bass/chord buttons:

1 2
3 4
5 6
7 8

The even buttons are closer to the bellows. The higher numbers are closer to the floor. 

First you can recognize some basic tenets: the inside right hand row TENDS TO go with buttons 5 and 7 (Bass/chord); the outside right hand row TENDS TO go with buttons 1 and 3. If you start there, playing one row tunes just using those bass buttons, that will start you to hearing how the Tonic (I) and Dominant (V) work together. Second (meanwhile), start boning up on some basic theory around folk music … it may seem obscure and cryptic, but it’s really not. You only have six bass/chord combinations to deal with on the box. I once wrote a tune for a student that used all of those combinations. It is tricky, and requires you sometimes to squint and think a bit. But not too much. Don’t think too much. Third, I would urge you to find a French tune book (or web site) that had some accordion tab in it. I find I still learn stuff from tab, which tells you where to put what finger when.

I don’t really know what’s in print anymore. But there are a lot of websites out there. I would start with the CADB website (Collectif Accordeon Diatonique Bretagne). Another source is Bernard Loffett, an accordion builder in Brittany, he’s connected with CADB, but has his own great page here. He’s also the very first person I wrote about when starting this blog. Doing these three things, it took me about a year to know what to do with the basses, even if I wasn’t doing it well.

The other thing to do would be get a teacher, but I understand that everyone learns in different ways.

Gary Chapin

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