The accordion has always been super special to me because of my Mexican, German, and American backgrounds. These three countries have a really rich musical tradition that prominently features the accordion.
In the United States, bluegrass music is a big deal, while in Mexico, Norteño and Cumbia music steal the show. In Germany, the accordion is a key part of folk music, like polka.
The accordion is widely considered the most famous and well-known squeezebox instrument. But you know what? There are a few other lesser-known squeezeboxes that are even more interesting for music production.
Here are a few I’ve used in the past with really interesting results.
The Concertina is a type of squeezebox that uses reeds and bellows to make its sound. Unlike a regular accordion, its buttons are not in front and perpendicular, but on the side and parallel, usually played with the left hand.
This instrument was mostly developed in England, where it became a big part of Irish folk music, and in Germany, where it’s widely used in polka music. The German concertina is bigger than the English one and produces a louder and more powerful sound.
Lots of concertina players also play accordion and bandoneon. One of the most famous concertina artists in the world is probably the Irish player Noel Hill. Actually, he’s so famous that he opened a bunch of schools all over Ireland called the Noel Hill Irish Concertina Schools.
One of my favorite indie bands is Arcade Fire, and I had the pleasure of seeing them perform “Neighborhood #2 (Laica)” at a show many years ago. Even though I had never seen a concertina being played live, Arcade Fire member Regine Chassagne switched from her regular accordion part and played it on the concertina, which really caught my attention.
The bandoneon is a very popular squeezebox instrument that originally came from Germany and became extremely famous in Argentina and Uruguay. The amazing Astor Piazzolla is the most well-known master of this instrument.
Piazzolla played a significant role in introducing the bandoneon to the world of tango in Argentina, and his music, along with the compositions of the great composer Carlos Gardel, is celebrated as one of Argentina’s coolest contributions to world culture.
While the bandoneon is technically part of the concertina family, it is considered its own type of squeezebox. Unlike a regular accordion, the bandoneon produces all its sound using the same reeds, so you don’t have to switch between registers. This unique design gives the bandoneon a smoother and more beautiful sound compared to a regular accordion.
When I was in Boston, I had the opportunity to see the amazing guitarist Al DiMeola perform live during his world symphony tour. Sadly, Piazzolla had already passed away by 1992, but everyone agreed that his successor was the incredible Dino Saluzzi.
I had the chance to see Dino perform with DiMeola, and I was completely amazed by his talent. Later on, I also had the opportunity to hear Dino’s beautiful playing on Latin superstar Luis Miguel’s version of Gardel’s “El Día Que Me Quieras,” which was recorded for his highly successful Grammy-winning album “Segundo Romance.”
You should definitely check out a clip of Dino showcasing his skills with Al DiMeola.
Now let’s talk about my favorite squeezebox instrument called the harmonium. I actually own a really cool one that a good friend brought back for me from a trip to India.
The harmonium was first invented in France back in 1840, and it has gone through many different versions since then. There are basically two main types: the foot-pumped harmonium, which is kind of like a reed organ, and the hand-pumped harmonium, which I’m going to focus on here.
The hand-pumped harmonium became super popular in Hindustani classical music and Sufi music, which made a lot of people think it actually came from India. What’s interesting is that my friend used this harmonium at an ashram retreat, so it has even more sentimental value for me.
As a pianist and keyboard player, I really dig the harmonium because its keyboard is set up just like a regular piano, with the keys facing up. You just pump with your left hand, so it’s pretty easy to play.
Another thing I really love about the harmonium is how versatile it is when it comes to combining it with effects. Since you can play with one hand while pumping air to hold down chords and melodies, you can use your left hand for all sorts of cool stuff like delay pedals, Kaoss pads, and other ways to totally transform the sound of the harmonium.
I’ve actually played the harmonium live a few times with a Strymon Big Sky Reverb. The audience was totally blown away by the amazing, beautiful, and dreamy pads that were created, especially when the Strymon’s reverb went on forever.
If you’re a fan of The Beatles, you might know that George Harrison was really into Eastern meditation and religion, which led him to learn how to play the sitar and other traditional instruments from India. The Beatles were one of the first big acts to include the harmonium in their music, using it on songs like “We Can Work It Out” and that famous final chord in “A Day in the Life”.
By the time they made “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” in 1967, The Beatles had brought a lot of Eastern influences into their sound, including the swarmandal and the harmonium, along with the sitar. This actually inspired a bunch of other artists at the time, like Pink Floyd, Elton John, and Queen, to start using the harmonium in their own music.
There’s an amazing clip of Paul McCartney going back to Abbey Road Studios and playing the Harmonium.
In electronic music, groups like Portishead, Zero 7, and Air have also used the harmonium, layering it with really cool electronic and ambient effects. As a fan of a lot of these electronic acts, my love for the harmonium runs deep, and I’ve found it to be an incredibly versatile instrument in the studio too.
By working the bellows and playing around with the keyboard, you can create a unique and distinctive sound that you just can’t get from any other squeezebox, especially not the accordion.
The flutina is a quirky squeezebox that resembles a typewriter or Morse code machine with a bellows, rather than a traditional accordion. Despite its distinctive appearance, it is considered part of the concertina family and produces sounds using reeds.
Interestingly, during the Civil War, some remaining flutina instruments were sent to the United States as props for photographers. They were specifically used for taking pictures.
The Chromatique flutina, created in France around 1831, was one of the first accordions capable of playing melodies. It featured not only a diatonic scale but also sharps and flats, thanks to its dual keyboard.
Personally, I discovered a flutina as a child at a Civil War Museum in Washington. It was absolutely fascinating. Surprisingly, there is still someone in Germany who records the flutina through remote cloud collaborations.
We actually collaborated with him on a film score about four or five years ago, and he showed us the primitive yet incredibly intriguing inner workings of the instrument. It also sounds great when paired with strings and a felt piano.
With instruments like the harmonium and the bandoneon, I particularly enjoy capturing the sound of the keys clacking. Many people consider these clacks as mistakes and tend to record these instruments from a distance to avoid them.
However, I personally love the percussive element that the key clacks bring to these squeezebox instruments. They add a lot of character.
I have experimented with passing bandoneons through distortion pedals and treating them with lush reverbs and delays from the Eventide H9. This combination produces incredible drones and other interesting sounds that are highly useful for adding mood and character to film scores, as well as various types of recordings.
If you are curious or interested in using accordions or squeezeboxes, I highly recommend experimenting with treating them using ambient effects. You will be pleasantly surprised by the results!