Bass layouts commonly found on Irish button boxes.

(all buttons are notated "press/draw")

Paolo Soprani Irish system bass layouts

One brand that has (until the demise of the company due to financial problems) dominated the Irish music scene when it came to button boxes for serious use, was Paolo Soprani. They made boxes especially for the Irish market, and they have also set the standard for a useable bass layout on their boxes.

Paolo Soprani bass layout for the B/C system.

The tuning that is most commonly found, especially in ceili bands and sessions, is B/C. Since the scale for the most common key for Irish music, D, is played across the rows, the bass layout is somewhat of a compromise. But it works most of the time.

Paolo Soprani B/C

(top of instrument)
outsideinside
chord G/D E/A
bass G/D E/A
chord C/G C/F
bass C/G C/F

American-Irish boxplayer Billy McComiskey has introduced a modification of this layout, where one of the pressing C's (the inside pair)is retuned to a D. This makes sense, since about half of the scale of D is played on the press.

A further modification is the configuration that I've been told is used by Joe Burke and his wife, Ann Conroy, at the moment:

Joe Burke's B/C

(top of instrument)
outsideinside
chord D/D E/A
bass D/D E/A
chord G/G C/F
bass G/G C/F

Paolo Soprani bass layout for the C#/D system.

This tuning is a lot less common. It is found quite frequently in the older, usually grey, 3-voice boxes (no couplers), but these models are rarely found anyway. This system is older than the B/C, and is often referred to as "press and draw" since it is basically played as an extended melodeon.

Paolo Soprani C#/D

(top of instrument)
outsideinside
chord A/E F#/Bm
bass A/E F#/B
chord D/A D/G
bass D/A D/G

Paolo Soprani bass layout for the D/D# system.

These seem to be even more rarely found. The only one I 've seen up close was Mairtin O'Connor's old red Paolo box (the one he used to record his first solo album, and which he also used during his time with De Danann), and that one had basses similar to the normal C#/D basses but a half step higher. But I have no idea if this is standard or that boxes in these keys normally have their basses laid out to match the (outside) D row.

Paolo Soprani D/D#

(top of instrument)
outsideinside
chord Bb/F G/Cm
bass Bb/F G/Cm
chord Eb/Bb Eb/Ab
bass Eb/Bb Eb/Ab

Hohner bass layout.

Hohner systems have a different bass layout. They seem to be intended for playing on the OUTside row, using the INside row for accidentals, while the usual way of playing these boxes is the exact reverse. (Nowadays, that is. Keep in mind, the system was originally derived from the one-row, driven by the wish to be able to play accidental notes. C/C# and D/D# are the oldest tunings, really, and Hohner's assumption must once have made sense. There are still a lot of smaller Hohners around in these tunings.) This arrangement is now considered quite unsuitable for playing Irish music by most. Most Hohner players that actually use their bass buttons will have their basses replaced or retuned.

Hohner bass layout for the B/C system.

The 2-row Hohner in B/C tuning is usually found under the name "Double Ray", which looks similar to the Erica model, except that it has a black button in the middle of the outside row. Sometimes they are, for this reason, referred to as "Black Dot".

Hohner B/C

(top of instrument)
outsideinside
chord B/F# D#/G#m
bass B/F# D#/G#m
chord C/G F#/E
bass C/G F#/E

Hohner bass layout for the C/C# and D/D# systems.

This, and the D/D# tuning below, are the systems most commonly found in the Hohner Erica and the (bigger, 3-voice) Hohner Corso. They are not too useful if you want to play in the normal keys, but you might want to have one anyway since a lot of recording artists play tunes a half step up, probably because it sounds lighter, and gives the impression that they play faster than is actually the case. Some also claim that fiddles (used an awful lot in Irish music) sound better when tuned a half step up, due to the increased string tension.

Hohner C/C#

(top of instrument)
outsideinside
chord C/G E/Am
bass C/G E/Am
chord C#/G# G/F
bass C#/G# G/F

Hohner D/D#

(top of instrument)
outsideinside
chord D/A F#/Bm
bass D/A F#/Bm
chord Eb/Bb A/G
bass Eb/Bb A/G

Hohner bass layout for the C#/D system.

This tuning is not so frequently, if at all, found in the smaller Hohner boxes. But Hohner has in the past made a few models specifically for the English and Irish market. And the first Irish box I ever owned was one of these: a 4-voice Hohner Primatona IV, which is similar in setup to the big Paolo Soprani models. Hang on to them if you ever find one - they're good value for money. But the basses, like all their other models, are useless.

Hohner C#/D

(top of instrument)
outsideinside
chord C#/G# F/Bbm
bass C#/G# F/Bbm
chord D/A G#/F#
bass D/A G#/F#

Bass layout of the Hohner Trichord system.

It's somewhat of an odd-ball in this overview since it's a) not a 2-row, and b) actually quite rare. But I've put it in here anyway because it completes the summary of what Hohner has ever produced in the field of boxes suitable for Irish music. The basses on this one give the same chords on the press and on the draw.

Hohner B/C/C#

(top of instrument)
outsideinside
E bass E chord
A bass A chord
D bass D chord
G bass G chord
C bass C chord
F bass F chord

Bass layouts for 2-row boxes with 12 basses.

There are also 2-row instruments that have 4 additional (so 12 in total) bass buttons. Unfortunately these systems are usually custom-made, so there is no standardized bass layout for them. The extra buttons are found above the standard 8 buttons on some instruments, and below them on others. The basses & chords provided by these extra buttons also vary. You may even find some with a totally off layout, or with a bidirectional bass setup like the Hohner Trichord.
The first example of this is the bass layout I found on a very nice, wooden-cased Hohner from the 1930s, that originally was a C/C#, but has been reworked (by some previous owner) into a B/C.

B/C tuning with 12 basses

(top of instrument)
outsideinside
chord F/F Bb/Bb
bass F/F Bb/Bb
chord C/G A/Dm
bass C/G A/D
chord G/D E/Am
bass G/D E/A

As a second example I'll give the bass layout I 've chosen some years back when I had a C#/D box custom-made for me. I must admit, though, that I rarely use the extra basses, except for the C, which comes in handy at times.
The chords don't have 3rds, so can be used as either major or minor. Saves a fair bit of weight too !
[NOTE: I've since had it modified to have a G/G instead of the D/G, and C#/F# and F/C for the lowest 2 pairs. This is slightly more useful - not a lot.]

C#/D tuning with 12 basses

(top of instrument)
outsideinside
chord A/E F#/B
bass A/E F#/B
chord D/A D/G
bass D/A D/G
chord G/C F/Bb
bass G/C F/Bb

As a third example here's the bass layout Jackie Daly has installed in his C#/D Saltarelle box. This box has 23 keys on the treble side, with the (inside) D-row having 12 buttons, and the outside row 11. Jackie gets his very unique and recognizable sound by having a piccolo reed as the 3rd reed on each note, rather than the usual low octave reed.
He has a stop on the bass side of his box to take the 3rds out of the chords, so that all chords can be used as either major or minor.

Jackie Daly's C#/D box with 12 basses

(top of instrument)
outsideinside
chord A/E F#/B(m)
bass A/E F#/B
chord D/A G/G
bass D/A G/G
chord C#/G# F/C
bass C#/G# F/C

And for the B/C players, here's the bass setup as used by John Williams, formerly of Solas, as he uses it in his 2 1/2 row Saltarelle box (thanks to Joe Root for posting these):

John Williams' 2 1/2 row B/C box with 12 basses

(top of instrument)
outsideinside
chord E/E A/A
bass E/E A/A
chord D/D G/G
bass D/D G/G
chord C/F B/B
bass C/F B/B

BTW Here are the notes John has in his extra half-row (also provided by Joe):

John Williams' 1/2 row notes

(from low end to high)
D/F# A/G Bb/C D/D# F/F#

More than 12 bass buttons.

There are not too many boxes around with more than 12 basses, but a notable player of such a box is (living legend among box players) Joe Derrane. The Gaillard box he currently plays has 14 bass buttons - he wanted 16 but that simply wasn't possible in a box this size. And it's a pretty clever setup too, with which he can do almost anything. But it's not really diatonic, like most of the other bass layouts I've described here; there's only one press/draw style chord/bass pair, and the rest give the same note or chord in both directions. This is what it looks like:

Joe Derrane's D/C# Gaillard box with 14 basses

(top of instrument)
outsideinside
bass F#/F# C#/C#
chord B/B E/E
bass B/B E/E
chord A/A D/D
bass A/A D/D
chord F/C G/G
bass F/C G/G

BTW All chords in this setup are without 3rds.

Relevant literature:

The Box,
(A Beginners Guide to the Irish Traditional Button Accordion)
by David C. Hanrahan, published by Ossian Publications, Cork, Ireland, 1989

The Hohner Melodeon and Button-Key Accordion Tutor
(for 1, 2 and 3 row instruments in British Chromatic tuning)
by Capt. J. Reilly, published by M. Hohner Ltd., London, England, 1954

Memories of a Music Maker,
by Willie Reynolds, published by Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann, 1990

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(Modified: Fri Sep 13, 2002, 22:16pm by han / hspeek@xs4all.nl).