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The Rio Grande

Tuning the Conjunto Accordian

Accordian Innards
The following is an interview transcription from the 1998 Smithsonian Folklife Festival with participant, Amadeo Flores, accordion player and lead of Amadeo Flores y su Conjunto. Interview by David Champion, presenter and interpreter at the Festival.*
DC: We are going to talk to Amadeo Flores from Alice, Texas which is in south Texas. He is an acordionisto, an accordion player, bajo sexto guitar player, a performing artist, a recording artist and he is also, among that, an accordion tuner. What does that mean? Well, we are going to find out what that means. The accordion is a musical instrument, so it does require some maintenance, just like a guitar or any other type of musical instrument. So let’s get into it with Mr. Flores here and discuss a little bit about tuning. First of all, how did you get into tuning? What prompted you? Obviously you have been playing your musical accordion for fifty years now, but what happened that made you tune your own instrument?

AF: Well, in my time when I picked up on the accordion, there weren’t that many tuners. And, in fact, some of the tuners at times didn’t want to tune for other people you know, the better their accordion sounded, the better it was for them. So when I got into the accordion in 1950I think it was in 1955 if I am not mistake I had problems with my accordion, and I started monkeying around with them. I would say that is how I got to learn. I am self-taught in other words. I finally found out the means and the how to tune an accordion; what it needed to either bring the sound up or bring the sound down; or to control the vibration. Then as I went down the line on it, I picked up some more on it, learned how to change keys even on the accordion.

Our type of accordion has got keys just like a harmonica: there is a G, C, F accordion; there is a F, B flat, E flat accordion; there is an E, A, D accordion. There are people that can’t afford to buy another accordion. They can work with one accordion, but the key is too high. There is a low tone or low key accordion, and they want it higher, but they can’t afford to buy another one. So most of the time I tell them you had better pick it out how you want, because once I tune it, it stays tuned there and you can’t move it back and forth. After a while you start wearing out the reeds. They can only sustain so much tuning and then after that you have to buy a new set of reeds, or stop playing, I guess.

DC: Ok, welcome folks, what we are discussing here is accordion tuning. Amadeo Flores is sitting here with me and he is an accordion player. We are from Texas, by the way in case you can’t tell and we perform a particular style of music down there called conjunto. Conjunto refers to actually a music group as an ensemble, but also refers to a particular style of music that is accordion-based. And, in addition to being a performing artist and a recording artist he also tunes accordions. What we are trying to do here is get an idea, an insight, into what it takes to tune an accordion.

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DC: For some of you who have never seen what is inside of an accordion, these are what you call the musical bars. It looks something like a harmonica. In fact if you were to look through these holes here on the side, you would get some sounds emitted from there. In the old days, I guess Amadeo, the standard method of tuning was you would actually it was mouth blown you would actually blow through these things, something like that. You would actually tune the accordion to the pitch you heard in your ears. You would either have to go higher or lower, whatever the demand was. And then from there they moved into what? If you were not using the hand blown or the mouth blown method, what did you do after that?

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AF: Well, eventually some of the accordion tuners that are in Texas started using a bellow from an accordion to produce air or for pushing in and out. What they do is take a bellow take it off an old accordion— put a board on this side. Make it air-tight. Put another board on this side, and make holes or square out, depending on the type or system of tuning they use. The tuning device, the mechanism, the instruments of tuning, are so sensitive, that if you pull too hard on the accordion, it is going to register high. If you don’t pull hard enough, it is going to register low. You can actually pull it to a certain point, make the machine say it is tuned, and it is not tuned. So I developed an electric device,to help tune the accordion. And it turned out to be accurate. So that is one of the things that gives me a lot of work. I get work from all over the United States, as far as Washington, Oregon, Idaho, California. I get accordions— not the accordions— they just send me the reed blocks, because with this kind of system I don't need the whole instrument. And as I was saying, I get them from all over the United States. I really lucked out. I have a friend that I tune for in Austin, and he had a visitor from Australia. He heard my tuning, and he brought his accordion and I tuned it for him. And I’d imagine he is supposed to send me another one. I even have an offer from a guy from Italy. I said, you know, you got tuners over there, and he said: "Yes, but that is Italian style of tuning— too much vibration. The Texan accordions don’t use as much vibration." That is what I do, knock down vibrations to the specifications. That is what keeps me busy.

DC: Ok, so you got away from using the bellows of the accordion to tune accordions. Because bellows don’t always give you the same type of air pressure all of the time. Because the bellow opens according to how much you pull it, you may not pull it exactly the same every time. Consequently, you are going to have that difference in tuning.

I think one of the things to note also is the fact that even though the accordion is an Old World instrument coming from Germany, it is it is tuned differently throughout the world. The Germans play different, the Polish people, the Czechs, the French, the Italians, the Cajuns—each one of those particular types of music requires a different style of tuning. Within the state of Texas, and for that matter throughout the world, there is only a handful of tuners that actually tune what we call Tex-Mex style or that would work within the conjunto music variation. Amadeo has been tuning for some forty years now since the 1950’s, since 1955, so consequently he has developed a good ear for that kind of stuff. In addition to that, he has been able to incorporate that into the music. He has made stylistic changes that have persevered.

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AF: I use two types of tuners. I’ve got one that is a meter type that I brought with me. And I’ve got one that is called a strobe: a little wheel, with a lot of little. . .it has about three or seven lines of little black dots, square black dots. And if the key happens to be low, the wheel will turn to the left, and you raise it up until the wheel stops at a dead stop. If it goes to the right, that means it is high. So you lower the key down till it stops to a dead stop also. So, it is vice versa. If it is high, you raise it up to a 440 or bring it down to a 440. Then, on the factory tuned accordions, they use a lot of vibration which is standard for them. Like I say, in Texas, the accordion players don’t like too much vibration. Right now they use a combination of keyboards. In an accordion, the keyboard doesn’t have vibration. They want the lowest possible vibration so it will jive or blend in with the keyboards. Right now, I am going to tune about two or three reeds to show you more or less how it is done. I don’t want to tune it all, because I only got three bars for the rest of the week. It only takes me, actually, about an hour and a half to tune an accordion and to give it a fine tune. I am only going to do two, maybe three reeds.

Jesse in the Band Amedo Flores y su Conjunto
Amedeo Flores y su Conjunto perform at the 1998
Folklife Festival’s Rio Grande/Rio Bravo Basin Program.

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DC: These reed bars, or these particular reeds, are held onto this board with wax, beeswax. Now, you said in the old days you had to pop those reeds out and you had to file them and put them back in.

AF: Yes, we used to have to use air from our mouth. There was no way—we didn’t have the knowledge of how to tune by leaving it on, so we had to pop it out and work it on the inside; and then, we put it back on and then try it again. And if it was low, pop it back on, and it was a continuous thing until we got it tuned. And, at first when I first started to tune, I didn’t know what kind of a wax it was. And so we used to use play putty. The accordion tuners used play putty because they didn’t know what kind of wax it was. It just happened that I have a female cousin that has a flower shop, and I asked her what it is. She says, "that’s beeswax." That is how I found out what it was. Then, and now, that is what we should use. It keeps it in place. It creates enough suction to keep it in place without having to use any kind of —before, they used to have tacks on there and now they did away with that.

DC: OK, now why do you think the beeswax is used? Is it the components of it? Does it stay in place a little better than other waxes? It doesn’t get as brittle, but it is not resistant to heat. It will melt if you leave it in the heat long enough, right?

AF: It sure will, I had accordions brought to me with the reeds fallen off inside the accordion. Sometimes they are salvageable, but sometimes the reeds get full of wax, and the little brackets get full of wax where. You can salvage it, but I mean timewise, it takes about four or five days just to clean all of those, and nobody wants to pay for the time. That is the only reason they just go out and buy a new set of reeds or reed blocks and just put them into the accordion.

DC: Let’s talk about that now. These musical reed blocks on this accordion I am holding here, which is a standard three row, is what we call diatonic. Diatonic means that it is a button accordion. It has thirty-two buttons on the treble side, twelve bases on the bass side, but offers you sixty-four different sounds. Diatonic also means that you get one sound in if you push in the bellows, and another sound if you pull out with the bellows. . . .

* transcript edited for clarity

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