Buying a bandoneon

A question I get asked a lot is “where can I buy a bandoneon”? The answer is a bit complicated because there are options, and because it’s not like buying a piano or a trumpet where you can just go into a shop and walk out with one (or maybe you’d have the piano delivered). In most places outside of Buenos Aires there are no retail outlets for bandoneons.

So let’s talk about the options first of all. These are basically:

  1. Type
  2. Age

What’s your type?

Most people want a bandoneon to play tango music, either traditional, nuevo (Piazzolla), or both. The instrument played by Piazzolla and in the great tango orchestras is the tango bandoneon, which is denoted by the figures 142/II/II. This means: 142 voices* (= 71 buttons, 38 on the right and 33 on the left), two reeds per note on the right, and two reeds per note on the left. The two reeds are tuned in octaves except for the very top of the range, and this creates the unique sound heard in tango. Because most people want one of these bandoneons, prices are significantly higher than for other types. The tango system is also called Rheinische Lager because it was originally manufactured in the Rhineland, although the centre of production moved to Saxony in the late 19th century.

Tango bandoneons are the obvious choice if you want to play tango music, but plenty of people play tango on other types of bandoneon, typically ones with the same reed setup (II/II), so they have a similar sound, but different note layouts.

What other types are there? The two main types with similar ranges to the tango bandoneon are the French chromatic system (Peguri and others) and the German Einheitsbandonion. The tango bandoneon is famous for its crazy illogical note layout, whereas the French chromatic system is logical and based on the Chromatic Button Accordion. The German Einheitsbandonion is crazy like the tango one, but it’s a different crazy.

The German Einheitsbandonion is a 144 voice instrument – one more button than the tango (i.e. 72) – and may have a II/II, III/II, III/III etc reed configuration. It may have switches to change the number of reeds in play and alter the sound. Obviously the II/II version is the one with the tango sound, and additional reed plates make the instrument heavier.

Confusingly, the standard Chromatic layout is 142/II/II. Yes, it looks exactly the same as the tango instrument, but the notes are in a completely different order. So you have to be careful that you know what you are buying. Learning the chromatic bandoneon and then trying to play the tango can lead to a profound existential crisis, I am told.

If you were buying a bandoneon to play some other style of music – jazz, or atonal music, or video game themes for example – it would make a lot of sense to look at the chromatic because 1. it could be cheaper and 2. quicker to learn where the notes are. Plenty of people in France play tango beautifully on the chromatic, and some people in Germany and elsewhere play it on the Einheits because they didn’t want to splash out more money to get a tango bandoneon. If you have a teacher in mind, you will want to learn on the same type of instrument that they play to get the most benefit out of your lessons.

Apart from the number of reeds per note (and their tuning), The other thing that affects sound is the reed plate material: zinc or aluminium. Zinc is the preferred material. If you look at the plates, zinc can have a bluish tinge and aluminium is more silvery.

Unfortunately there are many other types of bandoneon than the three I have mentioned. If you search for bandoneons on a popular internet auction site you will see a whole rogues gallery of them, so study the button layouts of the type you are interested in and learn to recognise them. And if possible ask an expert for advice before you take the plunge on a purchase.

Old or New?

For a lot of people the preferred instruments are the old ones made by the factory of Alfred Arnold (AA) before WWII. After the war the factory closed as that area of Germany was in the Russian occupied zone and they had more “important” stuff to make like tractors and pickled cabbage. Instruments made in the same pre-war period by Ernst Luis Arnold (ELA) (yes, they were related) are not as favoured and consequently cheaper, although there are some good ones.

The problem with the old instruments is that many of them are pretty knackered and need a lot of expensive work to get them into top playing condition. You might spend about €2000 on top of the purchase price for a tune-up and new bellows, so this should be factored in. You should also consider who you would go to for maintenance and restoration, as in many countries there aren’t any specialist bandoneon luthiers. In the past I have regularly sent my instruments abroad for repairs.

The alternative is to order a new one from one of the manufacturers. There will normally be a lead time which you should determine when ordering. It might be a few months or years … one English concertina manufacturer told me he had a 16 year waiting list! Fortunately bandoneon makers aren’t that bad … yet…

The main makers in Germany, Belgium, and Argentina.

As regards my own preference, I play both old AA instruments and also modern ones (by Hartenhauer), and I enjoy playing both sorts. If I am playing a programme that includes non-tango music I am more likely to use a new instrument, but I am very comfortable playing tango on them as well.

One advantage of new instruments when you are learning is that the mechanics will be very good and you can actually learn a lot quicker if you are not having to cope with air leaks and sticky, wobbly notes. I started learning on a pretty good AA but my learning really kicked up a notch when I acquired my first new instrument.

So what do these things cost?

Old tango instruments in good playing condition might cost anything from €3000 up to about €12000 for the very best instruments in museum quality condition. Chromatics and EInheits can be had for significantly less than that, but as the market fluctuates a lot I won’t put a figure on that. This gives an idea of the price range that you should be paying for a playable instrument: in tune, no air leaks, with even button action.

New instruments direct from the factory start from around €5000. Sales tax or import duty would be payable on top of that depending on your jurisdiction.

Where do I buy?

For new instruments, order direct from the factory. I have put the main manufacturers and dealer/luthiers on my links page.

My strong recommendation before buying is to speak to a bandoneonist. You are probably going to want a teacher so get in touch with one in your local area or country or nearby country … or at at least the same continent…

They will know or be able to find out what instruments are available for sale from other players and teachers. This is by far the best way to get an old instrument in playing condition.

* when we count voices we count one voice opening and one voice closing, so each button = 2 voices