Introducing, “The Black Box”!


The Mean Green Machine Folk Machine (TMGMFM, pictured left) is a Saltarelle Rivage III tuned DG (the outermost row is in D, and the second row is in G) with a five-button row extending the chromatic possibilities of the treble side. It is a LMMH, meaning it has one set of low reeds, two sets of middle reeds, and one set of high reeds. It’s a “fourth button start” (meaning the tonic D or G is the fourth button down from the chin). The bass-side has four extra buttons, giving F#/F, and A/G. Here’s the layout chart:

Screen Shot 2019-12-24 at 16.26.56.png

Here’s a video showing some of the chromatic possibilities with TMGMFM:

TMGMFM is well worth what I paid for it at Hobgoblin Music in London in January 2018. It is the first accordion I have played that I don’t have to fight against to make music.

I took TMGMFM to the 2019 Joe Mooney summer school. (Here’s my relevant blogpost.) Of maybe 50 accordionists, I was the only one playing a DG. All others were playing a BC, or a C#D. During the week I learned about what traditional ornaments are possible on TMGMFM. Cuts are no problem. Most triplets are fine. However, I found some rolls to be impossible. When I got back home I decided to study TMGMFM and see what was actually possible. Here’s a picture showing all pitches reachable by TMGMFM on the press (notes highlighted green) and on the draw (notes highlighted red):


The pitches covered in black do not exist on TMGMFM. There is no middle C natural (C4), or G below middle C (G3). The arrows point to pitches that can be rolled in a traditional Irish style. That is, rolling A4 involves playing A4-B4-A4-G#4-A4 all in the same direction. TMGMFM can roll G on both press and draw.  It can also roll F#, which is not possible on the BC accordion, but is on the C#D. One of the most common rolls, the high D roll, is not possible on TMGMFM. The rapid press-draw succession to get the right notes breaks the flow. This became clear in the first tune we learned at the summer school. All the other kids were happily producing their D rolls, while I had to settle for just the D, and at most a triplet.

So I began searching for an instrument that could accommodate Irish ornamentation. I could go to the BC system, but I would have to relearn just about everything again because the scales are quite different. Since I have spent many years learning to play the DG system (over 1000 hours on TMGMFM alone), I wanted to find a way to build from my hard-earned implicit knowledge.

A better possibility is the C#D system. I would already be familiar with the D row, knowing how to play in D and B minor. All the typical Irish rolls would be possible, but I would have to learn the other common modes, like G major, A dorian and E minor. So, I borrowed a C#D accordion for a month and immediately found all common rolls to be easily executable: the pattern stays the same for press or draw— one need only shift hand placement to roll different notes. But playing tunes that are not in D or B minor was difficult. Also, I found the harmonic possibilities on the treble side to be too limited, which makes it difficult to play English and Swedish traditional music.

I started to consider ordering a custom-built accordion, drooling over the possibilities with Castignari, Saltarelle, and other makes. But the cost would be about €4000. Then I realized something: in my collection (five accordions) I had a Hohner accordion with a lot of keys (pictured below). This Hohner has 7 more buttons on the treble side than TMGMFM, but 4 fewer on the bass side. It also has a flat keyboard. I love how it feels and sounds playing (it is a LMMMH), but it is a CF tuning, with a “club” system. I bought this used in 2011 in Copenhagen, not really understanding what it would entail to learn it. It moved to London with me, and then Stockholm; and at various points along the way I tried to sell it. Could modifying this accordion provide the solution I needed?


For a few weeks over summer I tried to figure our how I can adapt the tuning of this box such that it preserves what I have learned on TMGMFM, but accommodates traditional Irish ornaments. Starting with the layout of TMGMFM, I determined that the new box should be a fifth button start. Otherwise the treble side will have some very high “squeaky” pitches. This makes it possible to add the low notes missing on TMGMFM, e.g., the middle C. The major requirements that the new design must meet are the traditional rolls. To make D rolls I need C# on the press. I also wanted a D5 on the draw.

I tried out a variety of layouts, printing them to paper and physically testing the mechanics of the rolls to see if they are possible and not awkward. I devised a way to describe the fingering pattern of each roll based on what was comfortable to execute (described below). Considering these patterns as I changed pitches here and there helped me aim for sensible patterns that are somewhat uniform for each pitch. After maybe four designs, I finally settled on the one below:

Screen Shot 2019-12-24 at 16.42.00.png

The buttons in green are identical to those on TMGMFM (the bass side has no thirds). Most of the changes are in the third row. This seems to optimize the ornamentation possibilities and minimize the amount of new things I need to learn. Here is a comparison of the pitches available with this system and the rolls theoretically possible (pointed to by arrows) with those of TMGMFM:



We can see that the maximum length chromatic run in press or draw is now 11 notes instead of only five. And it can now reach all the traditional rolls, plus a few others that cannot be performed on either BC or C#D (e.g., rolls on G# roll, Eb, and Bb). All the low notes are there, but a squeaky F6 is not. All possible traditional rolls are tabulated below, with the different patterns involved in executing them.

Buttons (Pattern)
Pitch Press Draw
F#3 III3, II2, III1 (II3, I2, II1)
F#4 III6, III7, I5 (III2, III3, I1)
F#5 III9, III10, I8 (III2, III3, I1)
G3 II3, III4, III3 (I1, II2, II1)
G4 II6, III7, III6 (I1, II2, II1) III6, II6, II5 (II2, I2, I1)
G5 II9, II10, III9 (I1, II2, II1) III10, II10, II9 (II2, I2, I1)
G#3 II2, II4, II3 (I1, I3, I2) III2, II2, III1 (II2, I2, II1)
G#4 I6, II7, II6 (I1, II2, II1)
G#5 I9, II10, II9 (I1, II2, II1)
A3 III4, II4, II2 (II3, I3, I1) III3, II3, III2 (II2, I2, II1)
A4 III7, II7, I6 (III2, II2, I1)
A5 III10, II10, I9 (III2, II2, I1)
B3 II4, I4, III2 (II3, I3, III1) II3, III4, II2 (I2, II3, I1)
B4 III7, III8, I6 (III2, III3, I1)
B5 III11, III12, I10 (III2, III3, I1)
C4 I4, II4, II3 (I2, II2, II1)
C5 II7, I7, III7 (II1, I1, III1)
C6 I10, II11, II10 (I1, II2, II1)
C#4 III4, III5, I4 (III1, III2, I1)
C#5 III8, II8, II7 (II2, I2, I1)
C#6 III12, II12, II11 (II2, I2, I1)
D4 II5, III6, I4 (III2, III3, I1) II4, III5, III4 (I1, II2, II1)
D5 III8, III9, I7 (III2, III3, I1) I7, II8, III8 (I1, II2, III2)
D6 III11, III12, I11 (III1, III2, I1)
E4 III5, III6, I5 (III1, III2, I1)
E5 III9, III10, I8 (III2, III3, I1)
F5 I9, III10, III9 (I1, III2, III1)

Row I is closest to the bellows, and row III is furthest from the bellows. Button 6 is the 6th button down from the chin on row III, the 5th button down on row II, and the 3rd button down on row I. As an example, there are two ways to roll G4: with buttons II6, II7, III6 on the press or III6, II6, II5 on the draw. The patterns involved with the G4 rolls are (I1, II2, II1) on the press and (II2, I2, I1) on the draw, which are shown below (green for press and red for draw). The first element of the tuple is the position of the rolled note, or the “fulcrum”. The patterns for the G3 and G5 rolls on the press are the same as for G4 on the press. Most patterns that don’t fit within this configuration of buttons are not  comfortable to perform.

Screen Shot 2019-12-24 at 00.49.33.png

Satisfied with the design, I took the box to the accordion specialist Eric Simmons at Stockholms Dragspelsservice and showed him what I was thinking. He said he could do the work, reusing many of the reeds in the box, and adding a few others he had; but he looked very confused at the layout of the pitches. He asked a few times whether I was absolutely sure.

He finished the work after a month and I rushed to the shop to try it out. From my very first squeeze of The Black Box (TBB), I knew this was going to be almost perfect. Everything I learned to play on TMGMFM was easily playable on TBB. Most of the ornaments I had learned were the same, and some were a little different, but nothing difficult. And I could finally do the D rolls I had to skip over at the Joe Mooney summer school. Plus the bass side has some wonderful low notes! It’s got a big sound that really resonates small rooms. The loss of the four extra bass buttons is not a major one.

All the roll patterns that I would have to learn with this layout are shown below (G3p means rolling G3 on the press). It looks like a major amount of effort, but many patterns are quite similar. For instance, the patterns of the E4 and E5 rolls are just slightly different. Plus, I don’t need to learn all rolls in press and draw. All pitches of the D and G scales can be rolled. I list tunes that can feature some these rolls.

Pattern Notes Observations
(I1, II2, II1) G3p, G4p, G5p, G#4p, G#5p, D4d Very easy; practice in The Shaskeen Reel; The Gold Ring (jig); Ballydesmond #2 (polka)
(III2, II2, I1) A4p, A5p Very easy; practice in Christmas Eve (reel); Harvest Home (hornpipe); Tom Billy’s (jig)
(III2, III3, I1) D4p, D5p, F#4p, F#5p, E5d, B4d, B5d Very easy; practice in Crossing the Shannon (reel); The Humours of Tulla (reel); The Five Servants (polka)
(III1, III2, I1) E4d, D6p, C#4d Very easy; practice in Drowsy Maggie (reel)
(II3, I3, I1) A3p Easy; practice in The Gold Ring (jig)
(II2, I2, I1) G4d, G5d, C#5d, C#6d Easy; practice in Christmas Eve (reel, part C)
(II1, I1, III1) C5d Awkward but doable
(II2, I2, II1) A3d, G#3d Easy
(I2, II3, I1) B3d OK
(II3, I2, II1) F#3p OK
(I1, I3, I2) G#3p OK
(I1, III2, III1) F5d Difficult, but possible
(I1, II2, III2) D5d Awkward, avoid; use (III2, III3, I1) on the press instead
(II3, I3, III1) B3p Awkward, avoid; use (I2, II3, I1) on the draw instead

I have been playing TBB for about two months now, and have found only three downsides. First, it is heavy! TMGMFM weighs 5.4 kilograms, but TBB is 7.7 kg. It has a heavier case, and two more sets of reeds. This means there’s more mass I have to move when going from press to draw and vice versa. TMGMFM feels far more responsive and quick when I play it; but when TBB gets going, it sounds like a train — reminding me of the usual BC Paolo Soprani boxes. Addressing this downside involves some work in the gym, and maybe a bit of adjustment to the reeds to make them more responsive. The second downside is that TBB is physically big. This makes playing a little awkward at the low end in terms of wrist ergonomics. I have had to learn a different way of sitting with the instrument, and taking care of any pain I notice in my right thumb and wrist and making corrections. Because the instrument is so heavy I was at first relying on pressure from my right thumb to stabilize when going from draw to press, which was causing pain. So some conscious effort not to apply too much pressure on my thumb, and using my inner leg to provide some leverage and stability, makes the experience more comfortable. Traveling with the instrument (as I did to the US for winter break) was tiring, but the overhead space in the large transatlantic airplane was just large enough. (I wonder what will happen going to Ireland this summer.) The third downside is that playing TBB involves different roll patterns. This means I just have to spend more time working to make them uniform. But keeping the DG system and building upon what I have already learned is worth it!

I was excited to show off TBB to my accordion teacher. He was amused, saying it looks big and heavy, and that having to learn the different patterns for each roll is something he wouldn’t want to do. But after a few lessons he mentioned that my playing on TBB sounds far more traditional than on TMGMFM, and it seems the extra weight is providing a taming influence to my playing. Here’s a video of me playing some tunes on TBB (keep in mind I’m still learning!):

I am extremely happy with TBB — but of course, I’m looking for the next accordion: one that is physically smaller with the same button layout as TBB, but having only three sets of reeds (MMM). This would make it lighter and easier to travel with.

3 thoughts on “Introducing, “The Black Box”!

  1. Pingback: Coming soon … | Folk the Algorithms

  2. Pingback: Introducing Bosca Dubh! | Folk the Algorithms

  3. Pingback: Tunes from the Ai Frontiers | Folk the Algorithms

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