A very common situation for beginners that are learning to play the mandolin, is to have their mandolins failing to stay in tune. This is very frustrating, especially if you are not able to recognise the root cause. I have met some beginners that were so disappointed by this, that were even thinking to quit playing.
I have to be honest and admit that I faced the same problem when I was learning the mandolin, but being very-very young, it was obvious to me that I was doing something wrong and I asked advise from my older brother and other experienced mandolinists. This saved me from spending a lot of time trying to figure out what is wrong and I quickly learned the pitfalls that may affect mandolin tuning stability.
Old strings cause tuning issues. You will recognize this if you use a digital tuner to tune an old string, as you will notice that the string tone will not be stable. Also you will notice that it will be increasingly difficult to tune the two strings of the pair together.
You should replace mandolin strings at the first sign of rust, or as soon as you notice a bad tone.
Replacing the strings often is a good habit that helps avoid tuning issues, but also you must take care to select the string type appropriate for your mandolin.
One of the most common issues that cause tuning problems and is very common between beginners, is related with restringing.
The problem rises when you use too much string or too little string when you string your mandolin. The following tips are important when stringing, with regards with the number of winds of string wrapped around the mandolin tuner:
- If there are too many winds then the string will cross over itself.
- If there are too few winds then the string will barely hang on.
In both of these cases the additional pressure applied on the string by just playing the mandolin will throw the string out of tune.
Beginners find it boring and difficult to properly string. I have found that using a good tool such as the Planet Waves Pro Winder String Winder and Cutter can help you do the job right.
This tool is an inexpensive peg winder with a built-in string cutter. The difference of this string winder from other ones, is that the string winder doesn’t come unscrewed constantly like every other one I’ve owned before that. But the component that will really make your day is the string cutter. The ‘blade’ is not that sharp, but easily whacks the end even of the low G string.
Since there is only a little exposed metal, all of which is smooth and rounded, the risk of scratching your mandolin is minimal, and the small cutting head makes it easy to trim the string very close to the peg.
The third pitfall that can cause a mandolin to repeatedly fall out of tune is construction problems. Here, the problems may source from:
- Bad quality tuners used, typical in low-cost mandolins.
- Problem with the mandolin neck.
- Problem with positioning of the bridge.
The Importance of Tuners Quality
Obviously, cheap tuners can be one source of problems. If you suspect an issue, check to see if the tuners wiggle around a bit, and if so use a small screwdriver to tighten them, if possible, or consider replacing them entirely.
Issues with the Mandolin Neck
A bad neck is another big source of tuning issues. If the mandolin notes seem to shift up in pitch when pressure is applied to the neck (even in normal fretting), then you’ve got a neck issue that needs to be treated by a music shop.
The Position of the Bridge for Intonation
You should also regularly test your mandolin’s intonation by checking each string’s notes at the twelfth fret and played open and make sure that they’re both equally in tune. If they aren’t, you may have bridge or neck problems that a music store can help you handle. A good time to check intonation is a few hours after restringing your mandolin.
For more information about the bridge, please also check “How to setup the Mandolin Bridge”