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Slovenian-Australian accordionist

Category: Accordions

What accordion will give you the typical Slovenian sound?

When I started my search for a piano accordion with a typical Slovenian (Oberkrainer) sound (see Avsenik, Alpenoberkrainer, etc), I had no idea what to look for. Further information was hard to obtain through research of my own, so I had to turn to contacts from central Europe who were happy to explain what they use and what makes the sound that we know and love (as well as using Google Translate on German and Slovenian accordion forums).

I hope the following information can assist anyone who is looking for that sound and not sure where to start, particularly outside of central Europe where it is difficult to find this information. Please note this also applies for chromatic button accordions.

Please only take this information as guidance; there’s no solid rule about the accordion you should use. If you’re able to, try as many as you can for yourself and choose the sound and feel that you like. There’s no right or wrong.

Which alpine sound are you looking for?
Do you prefer the Oberkrainer sound, or the button accordion (Steirische) sound? Both are available on piano accordions, but it will affect the accordion’s tuning, construction, weight and price range.
If you aren’t sure, look around on YouTube and give different bands or accordionists a listen. Once you are able to hear the subtle differences, you will eventually notice two distinct types of sounds: some boxes sound like Steirische/Slovenian button accordions, and some have a distinct, different, Slovenian Oberkrainer sound to it.
If you don’t mind either sounds or don’t have a preference, that’ll make your purchase a lot easier (the cheaper one!). On the other hand you may prefer one over the other, as many do. If you do, here’s what you will need to look for.

Button accordion sound

Piano accordions which emulate the steirische harmonika sound feature a 3 reed musette tuning and helikon basses. Most alpine accordion brands offer these types of accordions in their non-casotto variants, often using the naming convention of MH (musette and helikon).

These accordions are typically cheaper as they do not feature cassotto, and often feature high quality Tipo-a-mano reeds instead of the more expensive and higher quality A-mano reeds. I believe some cheaper brands use lesser quality reeds than either of those, which you may as well avoid. Higher quality reeds will give you a louder, richer, brighter sound compared to the lower quality reeds.

The main specifications shared between these accordions include:

  • Full 3 reed musette: 3 middle octave reeds tuned apart from one another to produce a degree of ‘wetness’ or ‘tremolo’. These boxes aren’t tuned too wet though, otherwise they’d be heading into French musette territory. Often abbreviated as MMM.Additional reeds such as the lower or higher octave can make the accordion more versatile, as it can produce different sounds suited to more styles.
  • No cassotto (also known as tone chamber).
  • Helikon basses: larger and wider bass reeds which produce a deeper sound, like the steirische harmonika basses. In my opinion they don’t sound identical to a real button accordion’s helikon basses (but I loved them until my tastes changed). However more recently, they are becoming louder and deeper with newer developments.

Many brands currently offer these accordions but they are also available second hand. Earlier on, only Zupan sold these, however nowadays many brands offer these accordions. Those brands include but are not limited to: Beltuna, Fismen, Rutar, Alpengold, Rutar, Mengascini, Kaerntnerland and so on. There is also the Weltmeister Monte from Germany which served me well until my tastes and needs changed.

Oberkrainer sound
This is the sweeter, mellower sound that you will hear from most Oberkrainer style bands who use a piano accordion. It’s become the standard for this style of music, and really suits it well. That’s not to say you can’t play this music on a non-cassotto accordion; in fact, don’t let anyone persuade you to get a certain accordion because of what they think. Follow what sound and style you love the most.

If you are looking for this sound, there are many different options, but they all share the one feature: 3 reed musette tuning with the straight tuned reed sitting inside a tone chamber or ‘cassotto’, mellowing the sound emitted from that reed (here’s a link to a Wikipedia article that provides a great summary of cassotto).

The musette-cassotto combination dramatically changes the musette sound, creating a smoother, sweeter, mellower sound that you will hear from most Oberkrainer bands from Europe since around the 1960s onward. Slavko Avsenik got onto it early in the 1960s with the Excelsior 1320s. Before then, it was more common to choose dry tuned musette boxes including the Hohner Verdi and Hohner Atlantic. In fact before Avsenik moved to musette-cassotto accordions, he performed and recorded for several years with a Hohner Verdi III B.

The basses on these accordions are typically not helikon bass. They are however, 4 to 5 reeds, and often feature bass cassotto, which to my understanding is not an actual tone chamber, although the reeds are positioned differently to produce a richer sound. This technique is called Winkelbass in German. My Fismen Proline has this, and the basses sound chunkier and brighter than other accordions – I  like it a lot.

Different brands and models will use different reeds, construction, wood and tuning, therefore all accordions will vary with how they sound and feel. Below the most common musette-cassotto accordions that are used.

Older commonly used Oberkrainer accordions include

  • Hohner Morino VM – produced in the 50s and 60s in Germany. 5 reeds on bass and treble.Slavko Avsenik played it in most recordings from some time in the 1960s till his final recordings.

    This is still the go to instrument for the classic Avsenik sound, although apparently the mechanics are dated and its wooden keyboard is an old ‘waterfall’ style, hence some find it not ideal for playability, and some prefer it.

    Many accordionists still aspire to own a Morino VM. The Morinos are also popular in other types of music as they are extremely versatile (as most 5 reed cassotto accordions are).

    I’ve tried a Morino VM before, and the sound was just incredible – loud and full, just on the 3 reed musette register. The keys would take getting used to for me, but this is because I’m used to playing newer accordions with smoother, narrower keys compared to the VM. You can see lots of demos of the Morino VM on YouTube.

    The VM has also inspired some newer oberkrainer style accordions in looks and sound. I will discuss these later.

  • Hohner Morino VN and VS – produced in Italy by Excelsior (and possibly some of them in Germany) in the 60s to 80s. 5 reeds on bass and treble.Apparently they don’t resemble the VM in construction or materials, and it is also heavier.
    Some people describe the feeling of the keyboard something to get used to (but it depends on the individual). However many bands have performed and recorded with these accordions since the 1960s, and it has the very round, sweet sound that has become the standard.

    In my opinion the sound is thicker and wetter than the classic Morino VM.

  • Excelsior 1320s – produced in Italy by Excelsior.Although this isn’t as common as the Morinos or Zupans, it can be heard on many of Avsenik’s recordings from the 1960s, before he moved to the Morino VM. In my opinion it too had a thicker, wetter sound.
  • Zupan Alpe V EA or IV EA – initially produced in Slovenia and then in Italy. The V models are 5 reeds bass and treble, and the IV models are 4 reeds bass and treble. Usually the EA models treble range span from E to A (unlike the Morinos), and feature musette with cassotto.This became the standard in the 90s and has influenced most of today’s oberkrainer style accordions in sound, feel and aesthetic.

    The sound is closer to the Morino VN/VS than the Morino VM, but it is still its own sound in the end. After so many years I can tell apart the Zupan sound from the rest.

    I’ve tried a 90s V EA (I believe made in Italy) and it felt only as heavy as my current 4 reed 96 bass Fismen. The sound was bright and Morino-eqsue, and the mechanics were smooth. It didn’t feel very different to my Fismen at all.

    These are still being produced, however to my knowledge by a different manufacturer than previously.

  • Hohner Alpina – produced in Italy. All sources indicate that it should be very similar to the Zupan Alpe. Its aesthetics and sound is inspired by the Zupan. There are also button box style Hohner Alpina piano accordions.
  • There are others which have been used for this style of music, including the Hohner Gola, Hohner Imperator and others.

If you live in Europe or are planning to visit soon, I personally recommend going for second hand rather than new accordions, since their availability seems so high and it’s a much more affordable option for not much of a sacrifice.

In my opinion, there aren’t many advantages of getting a brand new accordion. The benefits of getting a used one however include the dramatically lower price, and the fact that it has already been ‘played in’ – it has already reached its loudest and fullest sound, and its best playability.

However if you are looking to buy a brand new accordion, here is what I have learnt from my own experience.

Currently produced accordions
  • Many brands sell (not necessarily all of them produce them) variants of 3 to 5 reed accordions with musette and cassotto. These brands include but are not limited to:
    Beltuna (Italy), Fismen (Italy), Rutar (Slovenia – but have recently moved to Austria), Zupan, Munda (Slovenia), Alpengold (Austria), and so on.Every now and then a new brand pops up, and it’s hard to tell whether they simply order accordions from Italy to their own specifications (or very little specifications), or actually play a part in manufacturing some part of the accordion. This is the hardest information to pin down, as some companies will lie about their involvement in manufacturing the instrument.
  • Most Italian made Oberkrainer accordions follow the below naming convention for their models:
    Number of treble reeds, number of basses, M for musette, and C for cassotto.For example:
    496CM: 4 reeds, 96 bass, cassotto and musette.
  • They are also available with helikon bass but it is not the typically chosen option.
  • Most of these come with A-mano reeds – apparently the highest quality reeds produced in Italy at the moment. From my own experience, these take the longest to develop their fullest, brightest sound, but are brighter and louder than the other types of reeds.
  • I’d like to mention Alpengold, whose Krainer models I am eager to try due to their sound. You can find videos on YouTube of the Krainer VM model which I think sounds very close to the classic Hohner Morino VM. The visual style of the accordion also seems to be inspired by the Morino VM.
  • Rutar, Munda and Fismen also seem to sell some accordions which seem inspired by the Hohner Morino VM in terms of looks and sound. Keen to try these too.
  • Hohner still makes variants of the Morino, however many people say that these to not resemble older Morinos in any way, and still bear the high price mark, despite some of these models carrying the Avsenik name. 
I hope this can assist anyone with their hunt for a Slovenian or Oberkrainer style piano accordion. Please leave a comment if anything I’ve written is factually incorrect, or if you have any questions or additional information that could be helpful for other accordionists!

Edit: There is a third Slovenian sound which is utilised on piano accordions; the ‘Cleveland’ style sound most utilized by American Slovenes. This seems to be typically achieved on a musette, non-cassotto accordion. However the difference here is that the musette is ‘dry’ tuned – that is, with less tremolo than the musette sound used in Europe.

Slovenian (Steirische) button accordion – how to start?

This is a list of resources I’ve compiled for learning and finding a Slovenian or Austrian diatonic button accordion, targeted to those who live outside of central Europe, where it can be difficult to find the resources and assistance to get started with it. I’ve been asked a few times for help on how to get started, what instrument to get and where to buy one, so I hope this can assist others wanting to take up this instrument.

How they work

This Wikipedia article gives a great summary on how they work, it’s only a very quick read: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steirische_Harmonika

Like any other accordion, the left side (if you were holding it) is the bass (harmony/accompaniment), and the right side is the treble (melody).
Labelled treble and bass sides of a button accordion

 
These accordions are bisonoric, meaning that each button on the accordion produces a different note depending on the direction of the bellows’ movement (push or pull). 

Helikon bases are the deep sounding bases unique to this type of accordion. The bases are typically constrained to the tuning of the box, and only allow major chords (bright tunes only, as is the style of music). Almost all of these accordions have decorative horns on the bass side but have no relevance to the sound at all.

Terminology
In Slovenia and Austria, musical notes are referred to by the German alphabetic system. Names of the tunings for the accordions follow the German system. 

For example:

CFBb would be CFB.
BbEbAb would be BEsAs.
C#F#B would be CisFisH.
 
What to look for
While there are other ordinary diatonic button accordions around, and easier to find, they don’t have the same keyboard and bass button layout as the Slovenian accordion or steirische (not to mention the unique sound and aesthetic). So you would need to look for an actual Slovenian or Austrian diatonic button accordion.
 
In Slovenia, these accordions are called frajtonarca or diatonična harmonika. They normally have 3 rows on the treble side, which means you can play songs in the 3 keys you’re given. 

For example on a CFB box, you are limited to playing songs in the keys of C, F and Bb. But that’s never an issue, as songs are normally written within the constraints of 3 keys.

They come in 4 to 5 row variations as well, however that’s much more common in Austria. The most common keys in Slovenia seem to be CFB and BEsAs. I used to own a less common ADG but found it too low for chirpy Slovenian songs.

I won’t list brand names as there’s so many of them around today and are still actively produced by both small and large companies. Nowadays, some brands assemble accordions themselves, and others contract Italian producers. 

In Austria they are known as steirische harmonika and are also manufactured in Austria. They are the same as Slovenian, but are typically found in 4 or 5 row variations, often tuned just a little differently (wetter or drier), but they have the same music style, sound and appearance. Austria too has so many active brands, however to my knowledge there are more brands that produce their own rather than outsource to Italy. 

How to find one
These may not be so easy to obtain where you live (for example UK, Australia, Canada, etc) but there are a few avenues to consider before buying online from Europe:
  • Visit a local Slovenian, Austrian (may be worth trying German as well) social club, and ask around for someone who may have a button accordion for sale, or someone who may play one. From here you may be able to find one second hand and not so expensive.
  • Talk to your local accordion dealer if you’re lucky enough to have one! They might know someone to order from, or even have one in stock.
  • Look at local online trading sites like Gumtree, eBay, etc. Use search terms like slovenian accordion, austrian accordion, diatonic button accordion, steirische. If you’re not on a hurry, you can set up notification emails so that you get alerted as soon as someone starts selling one in your area (or within a radius).
For beginners, there may not be lots of value in spending too much on the first accordion, as you don’t know how it will pan out. You may find that you don’t like it or lose enthusiasm to learn. Typically as skill and interest progresses, people turn to better accordions, but start off with a cheap box. You won’t notice the difference between a basic box and a great box when you start out.
 
If you’re planning on visiting Slovenia or Austria any time soon, it may be worth checking the local Gumtree/Craigslist equivalents like bolha.com using Slovenian keywords (diatonična harmonika, frajtonerca, and rabljena which means used) or willhaben.at with keywords used in Austria (steirische harmonika, and gebrauchte which means second hand). It seems that decent used boxes start at around 800 Euro. Whereas brand new range from 2,000€ through to 6,000€ and beyond. 

Here’s a link to the button accordion section on bolha.com, and here’s a link to the steirische section on willhaben.at

There would also be dealers and manufacturers willing to ship internationally. Here’s some examples of dealers from Slovenia and Austria stocking some used boxes however I can’t vouch for them personally:

 
Learning resources

At the time of writing this, the most promising resources I’ve found are listed below, with an emphasis on resources in English.

Instruction books by Al Jevsevar

I haven’t used it but it sounds promising and it’s been around since the 70s. It’s written by Al Jevsevar from Pennsylvania, in English, catered for the Slovenian button accordion/Steirische, and doesn’t require any prior ability to read sheet music. It comes in three books, starting with a beginner level one that goes through all the basics. It’s available on eBay (here’s the link).

There’s an app for this too
At the time of picking up the button accordion, I used a desktop app VSLN (Vsak se lahko nauči, translates to Anyone can learn) to get started, and it did a great job in place of a teacher. I believe it was only available in Slovenian at the time, but now there’s an online version called GoterPlay and is also available in English. The person behind both is Slovenian button accordion teacher and champion Robert Goter. 

But he’s gone further than that, and gotten a mobile app done as well. It’s free and available on both iOS and Android. I’m really impressed by it. Here’s a link to the Android app and iOS app.

Goter demonstrating the app in Slovenian

To start learning, you choose a song from a numbered level, and it will start playing it while highlighting the buttons that need to be pressed (both bass and treble), the names of their notes, and the bellows direction.

It also allows you to switch between English, German and Slovenian, change the (virtual) accordion’s tuning/keys to match your accordion, and the song speed, so that you can follow along at your desired pace. I believe extra songs are available through purchases. If you have a large enough device (or tiny fingers on a smaller device) you can play on the app’s accordion too (see below).

This isn’t Slovenian style but it’s fantastic and this guy is rocking it on his tablet

Learn your first song with this video
Here’s a tutorial video by Fred Ziwich. I found that this was an easy song to start off with (this was my first song), and learning it made me familiar with the keyboard layout and common button combinations. He’s not using a Slovenian style button accordion here, but the one he’s using shares the same layout it seems.
 

I’ll add the disclaimer that I started button accordion after years of learning piano accordion, which probably made it easier for me to pick it up. You may find that this video might be more helpful after covering the basics, it just depends on the individual. If you’re already familiar with another type of accordion, you might like the challenge of jumping into this tutorial.

Sheet music

Slovenia and Austria both have books available with sheet music and different types of notation.

If you’re looking at Austrian books, it’ll probably use the Griffschrift tabulature system that the Austrians have developed. There’s an in depth explanation of it in English: https://www.volksmusikschule.at/enggriffschrift1.htm

Sheet music from Slovenia usually has normal music notation for accordion, with the corresponding button name above each note (eg. B3 for 3rd button from the chin on the 2nd row from the outside), as well as indicators for the bellow direction.

Additionally there’s free sheet music available online:

Keywords to help search for sheet music:

  • Slovenian: frajtonarca note, frajtonarca tablature
  • German: steirische harmonika griffschrift, steirische harmonika lernen, steirische noten
 
Other resources
  • Here’s a video in German explaining some basics: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q1mZD4BRPb0
  • This link from Austria covers lots of information (in English), including how it works, sheet music examples, techniques, etc: https://www.volksmusikschule.at/english.htm
  • This guy blogged about his learning over a period of weeks: http://steirische.blogspot.com
  • You may also want to watch or listen to some accordionists who helped shape this style of music and the instruments themselves over the past 50 years. Among them are Lojze Slak and Franc Mihelič from Slovenia, both of which have written countless of popular compositions and even influenced extra buttons to be added to the instrument for ease of use and better play-ability
I hope this can assist you in getting started. If you have any additional resources you’d like to share or any questions please don’t hesitate to leave a comment.

An easy way to clean metal accordion grills

After researching methods to clean metal accordion grills without successfully finding an easy and not so risky approach (commonly discussed methods included having to remove the grill cloth then using a metal polish such as Brasso), a fellow accordionist recommended the Mayflower Metal Care Cloth which apparently can be used on your accordion’s grill without affecting the grill cloth underneath.

 
Eager to try something quickly, I found an alternative stocked in Australia, Cape Cod Fine Metal Polishing Cloth (contains petroleum distillate, whereas the Metal Care Cloth is non-toxic) available for around $13 AUD. I can only imagine the non-toxic alternative would be a better and safer solution, however the Fine Metal Polishing Cloth worked wonders. If choosing the Australian alternative, I highly recommend doing this in a highly ventilated area, such as an outside space.
For optimal results, I recommend polishing the grill twice, buffing in between each round with a soft, dry cloth. This process took all of 10 minutes, without the need to remove the grill cloth, and left me feeling as though my accordion was brand new.
Hopefully this can help anyone looking for an easy way to make their dulled accordion grill shiny again.
 
See below before and after shots. 

Before
 
After

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