Saturday, February 19, 2011

The many faces of the Hohner Double-Ray

Offered in several half-step tuning systems and built specifically for the Scottish and Irish markets, the venerable Hohner Double-Ray - or Black Dot, so called for its distinctive keyboard marker - has been a mainstay of Hohner accordions for the better part of a century. Here is what it looks like today. Note the vertical Hohner typeface which is used on new Hohner accordions made in China.


Throughout the years, Hohner made numerous changes to the body style and graphics before settling with the current design. Early on, a three-voice Double-Ray was introduced and dubbed the Double-Ray Deluxe. Early versions of this accordion shared a chassis with the "pre-Corso" models and the later examples shared a chassis with the Corso. For both the Double-Ray and Double-Ray Deluxe, basses came in several configurations. The Double-Ray is most commonly found with 8 bisonoric basses. Standard Double-Rays having 12 basses, sometimes referred to as a mini stradella system, are comparatively rare but seem easy enough to find if you look around.

It's worth mentioning that the original bisonoric bass layout is considered obsolete. It is understood that most players of a half-step system like B/C or C#/D want to play in D, G, A and other keys that are popular with fiddlers tuned to concert pitch. Although Irish players use their basses sparingly, the old layout was pretty much useless for accompanying tunes in those commonly used keys. Formerly, Double-Ray players had to modify their bass systems if they wanted to use the basses for these keys. Some people still do this and there are a variety of sensible options for customizing the bass layout to fit your particular style.

Shopping for a new bass system? You can view keyboard diagrams for half-step and other popular tuning systems at melodeon.net by clicking here.

Another distinction between old and new Double-Rays is in the keyboard construction. The original instruments had a wooden keyboard cover that was routed from a single piece of timber. Like the wooden covers on Pokerworks, these were prone to splitting after years of regular play. Such covers remained in production even after the modern body style was introduced in the 1950s but were eventually phased out when plastic was introduced. The early Double-Ray Deluxe also had a wooden keyboard cover, and some models had a keyboard with removable faceplate like the purple example below.

It is difficult to date old Hohners that lack paperwork like original receipts or other known provenance, but qualities like body style, keyboard, grille, and graphics yield clues to its production date. Here is a very early black Double-Ray from the 1930s, and below it is a Double-Ray Deluxe that was probably built shortly thereafter.



Today if you want a Double-Ray, you can have it any color you like as long as it's red. But in the past there was a wider variety of colors and finishes to choose from. Note the mini stradella system on this Double-Ray and its sexy black finish, which is no longer available. I can't understand why black Double-Rays and Ericas are no longer offered by Hohner when Hohner continues to produce chromatics and PAs in black celluloid.


Here is a Trichord III, a discontinued three-voice, three-row instrument in BCC# tuning that looks similar to the Double Ray above. Its chassis is shared with the Hohner Corona III. The body dimensions and celluloid finish are the same although the Corona III has different basses. This allowed multiple models to be produced from a single design. Very economical.


For further illustration of the "many from one" idea, below is a Hohner Corso (the photo on top), below it is a Deluxe model with a mini stradella system, and on the bottom is a Deluxe model in the same color with 8 standard basses. Hard to tell them apart, if not for the black dot and different paint. The Double Ray Deluxe on the bottom with standard basses is currently for sale by Rees Wesson of Welshpool, Wales. He also builds his own line of accordions and you can visit his webpage here.




Another variation Hohner used is visible in this photo, where the model name is written in a classy flowing script. This accordion is currently being sold by Antiques Plus of Armadale, Australia. The body style is characteristic of Hohners from the late 1930s and 1940s, shortly before introducing the modern body styles and model names that are still used today. I'm still a little unclear on when this body style stopped being produced. It may have been in production shortly after the war until the new body styles were introduced.


In recent years, the Black Dot has assumed the somewhat diminished status as a beginner's instrument. Its price and former reputation still bring in buyers but limitations like wet factory tuning and sinking treble buttons have brought the once respectable accordion close to disrepute! The three-voice Double Ray Deluxe is discontinued although as with other discontinued Hohner models, replacement parts are available from Hohner or obtained from other instruments. Other Hohner accordions like the Morgane are preferred over the Double Ray because of the wood finish, improved playability and dry tuning. But if you want the classic look of red celluloid set off by a jet black keyboard then the Double Ray is still waiting for you. Be prepared to pad the keyboard, bush the bass buttons, have the tuning dried out.... but hey, it's a Hohner! Besides, fixing things up is fun! I'd rather push my Hohner than drive a Jaguar.

Pound-for-pound, I believe the Double Ray is still one of the best accordions on the market. I'll take the Pepsi challenge any day! There is something alluring about the Hohner sound or appeal whether it is the sound of the reeds or the look of the cabinet that keeps generations of players returning to the brand. The Double Ray is easily refurbished, widely available, and can be retrofitted in a variety of ways without much trouble. The results are very rewarding.

Among professional musicians there are staunch adherents to the school of the tricked out Hohner - such luminaries as Brendan Begley, Tufty Swift, Alan Morrisroe, Johnny Connolly, John Kirkpatrick, and Sharon Shannon have all been spotted slinging a Hohner from their shoulder.

Here is Brendan Begley sporting at CeltFest Cuba, photo by Ryan MacDonald...


Sharon Shannon...


When I was a beginner and looking for my first accordion I ruled out a Hohner and opted for a more expensive instrument. I think that was a mistake, but I learned a lot in the process and somehow managed become a convert to the Cult of Hohner. If you're looking for a project with a rewarding end, have a cruise around Ebay for an old Double Ray. With the money it takes to fixs it up, you might come out ahead of purchasing a new one and certainly ahead of buying a new instrument of European manufacture. Happy squeezing.

8 comments:

  1. Monk, this is fantastic. You've got a great way of combining OCD with great writing. So glad you've come out of hibernation!

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  2. OCD - that's about the most accurate way to describe being Hohner-mad! I'm glad you enjoy the writing, it's nice to know someone out there is reading it. :)

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  3. Thanks for educating me on the Hohner button accordions. I have a Corso, but need a Double Ray / other accordion in B/C. Is it true to say that the Corso is valued a little higher than the Double Ray? (I know it depends on a lot of things, but generally) (I am hoping I don't have to spend any more $$)

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  4. Prices vary wildly in the used market depending on an accordion's condition and other factors. A NEW Double Ray will cost approximately $1100 - a new Corso will cost approximately $1300. Instruments generally get more expensive with each additional set of reeds. The 'standard' Double Ray has 2 sets of treble reeds, and the Corso has 3 sets. But you have to consider that half-step tuning is less common and so it commands a premium, hence the similarity in price between these two accordions. For better value in an inexpensive BC box, I would look for a used Saltarelle Irish Bouebe or something comparable. Try contacting the Button Box to see what they recommend.

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  5. You suggest a totally dry tuning ? All the 3 reeds tuned to 440, zero tremollo.

    Thanks for your answer.

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    1. When an accordion's reeds are tuned closer to unison, its timbre loses character in some areas and gains character in others. How you like the tuning is up to you. I'm not a big fan of excessively dry tuning although it works for many players that I enjoy. On the other hand, excessively wet tuning may offend people in sessions. If you're worried about flexibility, get an accordion with a few switches. MMM+ LMM+ etc., all provide options. Better yet, buy another accordion :)

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  6. Hey just so you know I brought that Double Ray from Armadale Australia in 2011/12 around the time of this article! After working as an apprentice stone mason for 5-6 months the boss refused to sign my papers yet kept paying me an apprentice wage. Got my union onto him, got backpaid as a labourer and spent all my money on new instruments :)

    It's a great instrument as well, got a better sound than any other accordion I've played (though I've never met a Paolo Soprani) and is still in perfect condition.

    Apparently it was brought over by a Scotsman in the 40's or 50's I think. He loved it and played it regularly until he died, couldn't get hold of any recordings of the guy though.

    The serial number on it is 5096 with a bunch of other scribbles on it under the reed plate (reed plate?? Cover thingo)

    Thanks so much for this article, it was a great read and seems to be the best of it's kind on the net for Black Dot info.

    Thanks again :)

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  7. Superbly written article with lots of info I didn't know. I now realise I have a perhaps 60's ?era Corsa sized instrument It has a celluloid treble button cover with 21 grill slats.Its labelled as a Double Ray Black dot Deluxe. It's in b/c tuning with three voices and the original discontinued eight bases. It has been refurbished but left as .standard. Only just began to learn to play so it's all new to me....thanks for the info...Robert. Staffordshire uk.

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