Using the basses on the Irish Button Box.

by Han Speek © 1996 (based on an earlier version - in Dutch - which was published in the Dutch squeezebox magazine "Diatonisch Nieuwsblad" Feb. 1993)

[Note: Most examples in the text are based on the C#/D system, since this is the system played by the author. The basses and chords available on the B/C system differ, but the same playing styles are possible.]


Most people who own a box, will at some point attempt to use the buttons on the left-hand side. But especially when you want to play Irish music, it's not so trivial what to do with them. The "Oom-pah" type of bass line that is common in German polka music or English Morris music is not too suitable for Irish music. It is too loud, too up-front, and thus obscures the tune you're playing (this is even worse with the vamping bass style some piano-accordion players use). And in Irish music, the tune is all that matters. So you have to learn to apply the basses sparingly but tasteful. I'll outline a few options that I've come across.

No bass at all.

This is, of course, the most obvious option. Most people find it hard enough to squeeze a tune out of a box at full speed. And many players also prefer learning tunes to working on technique. Figuring out the proper basses to a tune is sometimes quite complicated, as the bellows hardly ever moves in the same direction for a whole measure.
Also, the number of bass buttons on most boxes is limited, and for some keys you won't even HAVE all the basses you need. So why bother to figure it out at all ? [Some owners of Hohner boxes are even more handicapped. Until only very recently the Hohner boxes in tunings suitable for Irish music were fitted with basses that matched the wrong (outside) row. On these, only 2 of the buttons had useful chords, and then only for one key. The rest was useless.] So, you will find many Irish box players who never bothered to learn to use the basses - among them even recording artists such as Johnny O'Leary and Dennis Doody.

"Rhythmic" bass usage.

This "style" of bass playing is found quite frequently on older recordings (many immigrant box players recorded in America earlier this century tend to do this) of box players. They tap the bass buttons on the beat, mostly sort of staccato, and not necessarily the appropriate buttons for the tune being played, and sometimes even the same 2 buttons all the time, like a sort of percussion instrument. This style is probably derived from the melodeon (which in it's most familiar form only has 2 bass buttons), and is very unsuitable for Irish music - it makes it sound mechanical, and, even worse, it makes playing with other musicians almost impossible. Fortunately this style seems to have gone out of fashion, and I strongly advise that you either learn to play the basses properly, or leave them well alone.

Sympathetic bass usage.

Here the bass is used mainly to accentuate notes in the melody that the player wants to stress. A very nice example of this can be heard on several tracks of Jackie Daly's first solo album, well-known for his Kerry polkas, but a very tasteful musician all-round. He selectively uses bass notes, chords, or both, depending on how much he wants to add to a note. A technique that's often used within this style is to hold a chord as long as the bellows goes in the same direction. This form of bass usage does not have any rhythmic structure, but follows the melody line. This gives a result quite similar to that of the regulators on the Uilleann pipes. For slower pieces such as slow-airs this is the only acceptable bass style (listen also to Tony McMahon, one player who has mastered playing slow-airs on the box).

Alternating bass with "afterbeat".

This style is the predominant bass style since the great box pioneers Paddy O'Brien (the original one from Tipperary, who is no longer with us) and Joe Cooley (also dead) of the 50s. This involves trying to find the appropriate basses for the keys your playing in, as far as possible within the limitations of your box, and keeping the rhythm as much as possible. Very frequently the basses on the beat are skipped, but the "afterbeat", so beat 2 and 4 for a reel and beat 3 and 6 for a jig, is always present. IF a bass is played on the beat, it is usually played rather staccato, so that it's present but not too loud (and doesn't take up too much air), unless a special effect is wanted (in which case often both bass and chord are pressed simultaneously).
This is not the easiest style of bass usage, but it is the most advanced (and the most satisfying if you manage to work it out for a few tunes).

[Note: when playing in sessions, or in other settings with a group of fellow musicians, it is often better to leave the basses out. It makes it harder for others to hear what you are doing (especially the person who is sitting at your left !) and it will very likely conflict with what others playing a backup instrument (guitar, bouzouki, piano) are doing. ]

Relevant literature:

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

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(Modified: Sun Dec 8 10:40pm by han /