A Musician's Guide

to the

Tex-Mex Accordion / Acordeon Tejano / Acordeon Conjunto Norteño


Jacques "Jax" Delaguerre


Copyright © 2002 - 2004

All Rights Reserved

Last updated: 2004-01-28



This guide was written to help experienced musicians, especially those with a good music education, quickly teach themselves to play the three-row diatonic bellows-driven free reed button instrument called the Acordeon Conjunto Norteño , also known as Acordeon Tejano, Tex-Mex Accordion , all being variants of the International System style of accordion . It's a fun instrument to play, described subjectively by its adherents as being easier to learn and feeling "more natural" to the hand than piano accordion. It's also a interesting instrument from the point of view of music theory and the evolution of the family of diatonic bellows-driven free-reed instruments.

This guide is not a graduated method book, nor is it a guide to the Tex-Mex or Norteño musical styles. It is a explanation of the minima which the experienced musician, one hopefully with some bellows-driven free reed instrument experience, needs to know to arrange, practice and perform his or her own repertoire on the Acordeon Conjunto Norteño.

This guide assumes that you already know (applied to any instrument, e.g., piano or guitar):
  • General music theory, including such terms as
    • chromatic
    • half step
    • whole step
  • Major and minor scales
  • Relative (I, II, III, etc.) numbering of scale steps.
  • Chords
This guide may not be complete and it may contain errors. It was written in a burst of enthusiasm which the author felt for the instrument, and no guarantees are made! Good luck!

Please report errors and corrections to Jacques Delaguerre .


We employ the following conventions in presenting information in this guide:
  • Items which appear at first mention in italics and which are also links are glossary entries.
  • Note names are shown in fixed-width font, e.g., F# , when they are actual notes which may be played. When note names are the names of a key or a row of an instrument, e.g., the key of C, they are shown in the normal variable-width font used by this document.
  • Individual notes are arbitrarily and even occasionally inconsistently referenced enharmonically as sharps or flats.
    • E.g., when we say D#, of course we are referring the same note as Eb and we may say either.
  • The expulsion of wind by the Accordion is called press and the drawing in of wind is called draw .
  • Where press and draw notes for a button are shown together, the press note is first and separated from the draw note by a slash, e.g., C/D.
  • Octaves:
    • An underlined letter name for a note means the note is found in the octave below middle C, e.g., A (A 220)
    • An unadorned letter name for a note means the note is found in the octave which begins with middle C, e.g, A (A 440)
    • A letter name for a note followed by one or more apostrophes means the note is found as many octaves above middle C as there are apostrophes, e.g., A'(A 880) A'' (A 1760)
    • Where note names are relative (e.g., I, II, III) octave markings are relative to scale represented by the I note (the tonic note of the scale).
  • Our examples are mostly given in terms of the G/C/F version of the instrument.
    • All examples in terms of the G/C/F version of the instrument will be found identical to the layout of any other tuning if transposition is made.
      • E.g., to apply a G/C/F example to an A/D/G instrument, raise every note in the illustration one whole step.

The Continuum of Button Accordion

There are all kinds of button-actuated bellows-driven free reed instruments in the world. Those curious about the wider context of accordion and concertina should visit the Jax RCFB Free Reed Musical Instruments Page . The present guide makes simplifying assumptions and broad generalizations in order to facilitate the discussion.

The Acordeon Conjunto Norteño is a member of the family of the one-row to five-row diatonic , bisonoric button accordions. This family originated for the most part in Central and Western Europe. The instruments of this family share a general scheme in their fingering system.

The basis of these Central and Western European button accordions is the same diatonic arrangement of notes found on the harmonica or "blues harp". This arrangement has at its core ten playing positions which each play two different notes, one when wind is expelled at the playing position, one when wind is drawn in at the playing position.

The Single-Row Melodeon

As embodied by single-row melodeons such as the Cajun accordion, the notes of this 10-position instrument are the notes of the major scale whose root is the third press note of the ten. In the table which follows, the 10-position diatonic system is shown relative to the key of C.

The 10-position Diatonic System (with notes for the Key of C )

There are seven notes in the scale; three (C-E-G or I-III-V) are found on press, four (D-F-A-B or II-IV-VI-VII) are found on draw. The system is rooted on a middle tonic, e.g., Middle C for the Key of C. Since there is one more draw note than press notes, the draw sequence precesses with respect to the press sequence. The 1st position draw note is anomalous in the above diagram, though it reflects accurately many one-row Cajun-style melodeons; if the 1st position draw note were consistent, it would be A. F is, however, rather useful on a single-row instrument.

Along the same lines, if there were an extra button before the 1st position, the pairing would be C/F for the system to stay consistent.

The Two-Row Button Accordion

A two-row button accordion has two rows instead of one, each consisting of the above system, but in two different keys. The most common system of a two-row button accordion is to root the inner row (closer to the bellows) a fourth scale step up from the outer row. Thus, one commonly finds C/F, G/C, Bb/Eb and D/G two-row button accordions. The two-row button accordion will usually have eleven buttons on the outer home row and ten buttons on the inner row. A pair of helper accidentals are found in the first position instead of the diatonic scale pair, e.g., for a C/F box, the C row will have in the first position F#/G# and the F row will have in first position G#'/F#' . The first notes from the system in the C row will be G / B . Also, the eleventh position has one extra step conforming to the system, e.g., on a C/F instrument the C row will have an G''/D'' .

Playing a one-row melodeon requires alternate press and draw movements of the bellows in rapid succession in order to play the melody. A two-row button accordion, however, allows the player to hop from row to row and lessen the number of bellows reversals required to play the melody. For instance, on a C/F two-row button accordion,
  • the major scale (and relative natural minor scale) for either key C or F can be played entirely on the draw, and
  • the sequence E F G A B C' can be played all in press notes.

The Three-Row Button Accordion

A particular scheme of three-row extension of the system mentioned above is sometimes called the Hohner ® System, or the International System .
Note: The Hohner System is not to be confused with the Hohner Club System, which latter is a somewhat modified two-row system with a third row of two to ten helper accidentals . The very interesting Club System, a clever bisonoric, diatonic layout which approaches the fully chromatic, is covered in The Musician's Guide to the Club System Accordion.
On a G/C/F International System accordion:
  • Three rows rooted scale fourth intervals apart, e.g., G/C/F, are provided along the lines of the harmonica-like system described above.
    • G is the lowest-pitched tonic.
    • F is the highest-pitched tonic.
  • The three rows appear from farthest from the bellows towards the bellows in the order G - C - F.
    • The home row of such an instrument is the center row of the three.
    • e.g., in the case of a G/C/F instrument, the C row.
    • Thus the rows are relatively arranged V - I - IV.
  • Helper accidentals are provided on the first (leftmost) button of each row.
  • The home row is eleven (11) buttons as in the case of the home row of a two-row instrument.
    • The home row may have twelve (12) buttons on some instruments.
  • The other two rows may have eleven (11) buttons on some instruments; more common is ten (10).
  • The lowest note is found on the V row on the second button
    • It is the tonic of the first full octave of the V row
    • In the case of the G/C/F instrument, this note is G below middle C, the same as the violin's low G .
  • The highest note is found on the IV row when pressing the last (10th, or 11th if present) button.
    • On a G/C/F instrument with ten-button secondary rows, this note is A above second high C.
    • On a G/C/F instrument with eleven-button secondary rows, this note is third high C .
      • The same third high C is found pressing the last button on the twelve-button home row.
This three-row system allows all the steps of the scale of the home row to be obtained either press or draw without reversing the bellows. The steps of the two secondary rows can all be obtained in either direction with only one exception on each of the secondary rows, e.g., on the G/C/F instrument the Bb for the F row and the F# for the G row can be obtained only on the draw. This last statement is to meant exclusive of helper accidentals; generally, either press Bb or press F# usually appears as one of the helper accidentals but unfortunately generally not both, this being one of the most noticeable limitations of the standard modern instrument. (The most noticeable limitation is the absence of a high G# key.)

The tradeoff of the three-row button accordion versus other members of the family is that in return for weight and size the instrument provides more notes and less need to reverse bellows direction. Of course, the size and weight of the instrument itself makes reversal of bellows direction more difficult than it is on the smaller and lighter members of the family.
Note: There do exist other three-row, four-row and five-row systems. For example, one four-row system popular in Central Europe consists of the straight diatonic system analogous to the harmonica without helper accidentals. The diatonic scale is repeated four times in keys in a cycle of fourths, e.g., G/C/F/Bb. There is also the chromatic button accordion based on three long columns of three-button rows of half-steps, with four rows making up an octave. Again, these systems are beyond the scope of this guide; visit JaxRCFB Free Reed Musical Instrument Page for links to more information on these systems.

Acordeon Conjunto Norteño

Acordeon Conjunto Norteño / Acordeon Tejano / Tex-Mex Three-Row are all names for the same instrument, a three-row International System button accordion
  • whose design and construction is typically optimized for lightness
  • two of whose two or more reeds per note are typically tuned offset by 4 Hz for a brilliant, warbling tone.
    • That is, on a two-reed instrument, the pair of reeds sounding in for A above middle C will be tuned to some delta on either side of the official 440 Hz frequency, for instance, 438/442 which produces a 4 Hz beat, with other reeds tuned the same distance apart.
      • Some instruments may increase the offset in the higher octave, e.g., to 6 or 8 Hz.
      • Other offsets are used in various popular tuning styles.
      • This subject, " wet tuning", is worthy of a volume of its own and has not been treated here exhaustively.
A player will often apply one further characteristic optimization, that of removing the left-hand reed blocks which play bass notes and chords, since they are rarely used for modern music and they weigh down (and slow down) the motion of the left side.

Perusal of the remainder of this guide should give the experienced musician enough understanding to commence to apply his or her skills and repertoire to the instrument. We cover the following topics:

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Jacques Delaguerre