The Free-Reed Journal
Articles and Essays Featuring Classical Free-Reed Instruments and Performers

The French Stradella System
Hugh Barwell, accordionist
York, England

As a nation, the French excel at minimalism! Consider the Citroen 2CV, a car stripped to the bare essentials. They also invented the hot air balloon, which obviated the need for explosive hydrogen, and improved (in my view) the bikini, by dispensing with its top half! Their accordions follow the same idea; since the "dim" button can play a Dominant 7th, let's get rid of the row of Dominant 7th buttons.

It is perhaps worth mentioning that this French Stradella system has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that many French players also have a Continental Chromatic Treble Keyboard rather than a piano keyboard! We are only considering the chord and bass buttons here.

The "Italian" system is almost without exception what is offered by dealers in these fair isles to anyone seeking a full size accordion, though most manufacturers offer the French system if required. Having heard visiting French professionals extolling the virtues of the system, and performing brilliantly upon it, I was among those British players left wondering if our dealers were overlooking a superior system, and decided to investigate further.

In the Italian system, the button we call " G dim" makes a perfectly good C7 chord, consisting of the notes E, G, Bb. Occasionally (in certain classical arrangements) it may be preferable to the C, E, Bb construction of the normal C7 button. If you have an ordinary Italian system accordion, with 3 note Dominant 7ths and a row of "dim" buttons, you can try, (at no expense!), what the "French" 7ths sound like by substituting G "dim" for C7, C "dim" for F7 etc. This gives the "French" chord construction, but not the exact physical feel, for the French put this "G dim" button in the C row, in the place we would find our C7.

From this example, it should be clear that, in the French system, all the "dim" buttons are moved one row physically DOWNWARDS or "FLATWISE" as I prefer to term it. So a player who is already used to the position of the "dim" buttons and their relationship to the bass and counterbass buttons would need to adapt, though one who has yet to progress to the use of the "dim" row would have no problems learning the system.


The row of dominant 7ths being omitted either makes for a more compact bass button board with five rows of buttons, or the space saved can be occupied by an extra row of counterbasses instead. This new row plays the Minor 3rd. Thus, in the row containing the marked C bass note, you have the normal Major Third counterbass note E, as on the Italian system, and you additionally have the note Eb available in the extra counterbass row, which is the row nearest the bellows. Some variants of this system displace the extra counterbass row by one position; but the essential advantage is that the minor third bass note is nearby. On the Italian system, playing a first inversion of Cm, ie Cm button with Eb bass note, is a job for a hardworking little finger. So out of the way is it that many average ear players never use the first inversion of a minor chord !

For those who more methodically study the bass side, a hurdle which has to be jumped is the extremely common chord progression:- C/e Cdim/eb Dm/d G7/g It is a progression which occurs in all styles of popular music, from Ragtime through Dance Band, Polkas and Musette. Because the C dim is being used as an abbreviated Diminished 7th chord, whose construction is symmetrically built out of Minor Third intervals, it follows that any other "dim" button 3 rows away will be an inversion of the same chord, though with a different note omitted in its abbreviation. Thus, the progression could also be played:- C/e Ebdim/eb Dm/d G7/g

There are other possibilities, but none which strike me as being physically more convenient.

Much musette music uses this chord progression as a commonplace. Here is an extract from "Reine de Musette", in a quite decorated version:-

[well known tune harmonised with that sequence C/e Cdim/eb Dm/d G7/g transposed to A major]

This progression and many others should be much easier to execute on the French System with the minor third counterbasses. Complex Bass Solos should also lie more under the hand.


As discussed above, the sound of a "dim" button used to voice a Dominant 7th chord differs from our normal 7th buttons. But leaving aside any personal preference for either sound, the Italian system offers some extra chordal possibilities.

Since the Dominant Seventh buttons on the Italian Stradella omit the perfect fifth, the button can be used as the basis for such chords as G7+ (where the augmented fifth can be added in the right hand without a clash), and G7b5, where the flattened fifth can be played on the basses or the right hand. As far as I can see, these Seventh chords containing a major third and an altered fifth are the only ones which the pared down French system cannot cope with.

For the folk players and other less harmonically demanding accordionists, the 5-row French system, constructed without the extra row of counterbasses, might be suitable. A letter in the Feb 94 issue from Werner Fehlhaber, no stranger to this magazine, advocated lighter, more compact accordions, asking "for our daily enjoyment do we really need diminished seventh?" Yes, most emphatically we do !! By far the better candidate for the chop would be the Dominant Seventh buttons. The casing around the bass mechanism could be approx 1cm shorter, though the weight saved would be negligible in comparison with leaving out one octave of bass reeds.

The 6-row French System, with the extra counterbass row, is the choice of many French accordion stars, so it is obviously not too restrictive !

Devotees of this system maintain that the use of their "dim" buttons as a Dominant Seventh is more sonorous and rounded than our "Italian" ones, and willingly demonstrate that their "dim" row (being identical to ours except in being displaced "flatwise" by one position ), is obviously just as versatile. A recap on its various uses:- The "dim" button to be found in the C row on an Italian system accordion, or in the F row on the French system, can be used to voice a 3-note version of the eight following 4-note chords, with a suitable bass note underneath:-

C dim, Eb dim, F# dim, A dim, F7, Am7b5, Cm6, D7b9.

The first four are all inversions of the same Diminished Seventh chord; the F7 has no tonic ( name-note); Am7b5 and Cm6 both contain the same notes, though in Am7b5 it is the 7th which is omitted, and in Cm6, it is the fifth. Finally D7b9 consists of any inversion of a C Diminished Seventh Chord played over a D bass note.

I asked a couple of experts for their thoughts on the French system. Albert Delroy, who sadly died in February 1996, was the leading authority on chord systems, having studied even the one-off systems commissioned by individual artistes. His view was that the Italian system, or "Modern Stradella", sold here, is the best possible, provided one plays music suited to the instrument. He felt that the essential, defining feature of a Dominant Seventh chord is that crunch of the Tonic heard against the Seventh, and this is missing in the "French" Seventh. He added that in Northern France and Belgium, the so-called "Belgian System" is popular. This has exactly the same three types of chord as the "French", though the layout is different.

Charlie Watkins, dealer, inventor, and accordion enthusiast, agrees about those Sevenths. He does not know of any British players who have adopted the French or Belgian systems, and feels that the extra counterbass row is probably confusing. He likes the sound of the four note sevenths which formerly were built into most accordions, and still are in East European accordions, but agrees that some harmony is precluded by this.

In conclusion, the compact 5 row French system might be attractive to: (A) Players who have not yet progressed to the "dim" buttons. (B) Those who have, but are willing to seek them in a new position. Anyone contemplating this system should be aware of the different sound of the Seventh, and reconcile themselves to avoiding 7+ and 7b5 chords. Je regrette, ce n'est pas pour moi !

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