Many mandolin players get confused when it comes to mandolin strings. This is easily explained, as there is a variety of terms (jargon) used, that has to do with things not of a musical nature (materials, construction etc.)
A frequent question that I hear (or I ask) is:
“which strings are right for my instrument?”.
Although there’s no single answer to this question, a first step for me was to research the terms used by strings manufacturers and then to try to understand what really affects sound, playability and durability of the strings.
Having understood most of these terms, has placed me in a better position to decide which strings to buy.
Mandolin Strings Overview
My research has shown that the most important things to remember about mandolin strings are:
Gauge and subsequently tension is an important characteristic of strings; there are string gauges that can even damage some types of mandolins (especially bowlbacks).
String materials and construction can have a dramatic impact on tone, feel and string life. Therefore it is advised to experiment with different types of strings, till you decide the type of strings that suits you best.
Replacing old strings with a new set will in general improve the sound and playability of instruments. A rule of thumb is to change strings every 1-3 months, depending on playing frequency.
Continue reading below to see the detailed results of my research.
Mandolin Strings Materials
The selection of materials used for the core and the wrapping of the mandolin strings is important. Here is a nice image (Source: D’Addario) that shows how the string is constructed by a core and a wrap wire.
String Core Material
Mandolin strings tend to be steel core (and mainly solid steel). All options are:
- Nylon core
- Spiral steel core
- Braided steel core
- Solid steel core.
There is no reason to spend more time on the core material, as what is really important is the wrapping material of the mandolin strings.
String Wrap Material
Strings wrap material is important. Electric and acoustic mandolin strings are typically made using a steel core wire with a “wrap wire” wound onto the core.
The type of alloy used as the wrap wire determines the tonal quality of the strings. It affects tone (from mellow to bright) as well as projection. It also affects playability (combined with construction) and durability (combined with coating).
Five types are typically used as following (from mellow to bright). Here’s a quick reference guide:
- Silver-plated Copper – Typically used for classical and folk due to their soft, comfortable feel and warm, mellow tone
- Phosphor Bronze – pioneered by D’Addario in 1974, they are known for their full, rich, acoustic tone. Phosphor bronze provides a warm (mellow), but at the same time bright tone.
- Brass (or 80/20 Bronze) – 80/20 Bronze (also referred to as brass) acoustic instrument strings provide a brighter tone than phosphor bronze. They have great acoustic clarity coupled with extra-bright, loud tone.
- Stainless Steel – provide an even brighter, more cutting tone than brass strings. They’re generally used on electric instruments, but can be used on acoustic instruments as well.
- Nickel – provides great overall tone and sound and is used by best-selling strings of electric instruments. For acoustic instruments not preferable.
The best idea here is to experiment with all types, till you find which type you prefer. Note also that not all brands are the same. That means your experimentation may take … more time!
Mandolin Strings Construction
Round wound strings are the most popular and are offered by almost all manufacturers. They deliver a textured feel most players are familiar and comfortable with.
Flat tops are constructed from finished round wound strings. They are further processed to carefully flatten the tops of the windings through a polishing technique.
Flat Tops are known to deliver a smoother feel and reduced finger noise with the flexibility and tension of a round wound string.
Flat tops are sometimes preferred by professional artists for recording. They are also used by classical orchestras to minimize “noise” picked up by microphones during live performances.
Silk and Steel
These are made of silver-plated copper wrap wire interwoven with silk-like fibers for soft, easy fingering and a mellow tone. They are preferred by many folk and finger style players.
Mandolin Strings Characteristics
The thickness of a string’s diameter as measured in thousandths of an inch (e.g. 0.11, .16 etc.).
It is better to start with sets of strings with predefined gauges. As you experiment more, you may find that you prefer a specific chord (e.g. the E string or the A string) to be of a specific gauge. It is then when you start buying strings in pairs instead of sets.
As gauges come with many varieties, the industry quickly realized that it needed to categorize gauges to few categories to help buyers easier select strings. Thus, the tension term came into use. Strings tension is typically labeled as low, middle, high.
Typically, bowlback mandolins will use light tension strings, flatbacks will use medium strings and carved f-type will use high tension strings.
This rule of course is not strict. Many classical mandolinist playing in concerts, select high tension strings, as these tend to increase the projection of their instrument, something very important when giving concerts. Of course high tension strings may damage a mandolin neck on the long run, so the advise of a luthier should be asked before such action.
On the other hand, as high tension strings require more strength (at the left-hand fingers), some players will select to use lower tense strings to improve their speed!
Strings End Type
String length is defined as the sum of three distances:
- from the ball or loop end to the bridge
- from the bridge to the nut (i.e. the string‘s vibrating length)
- from the nut to the tuning peg.
When playing custom instruments, the scale of the instrument may vary. It is then when you need to measure the scale (from bridge to nut) of your instrument but also the distance from nut to tuning peg and string end to the bridge, summarize them and use the result as your guide to select strings with the proper length.
Before clicking on the below resources, an important disclosure.
Silver-pated copper mandolin strings are typically used for classical and folk music due to their soft, comfortable feel and warm, mellow tone.
Replacing Mandolin Strings
You should replace your mandolin strings frequently. The frequency depends on your playing and maintenance habits. Keeping the strings (and your hands) clean and dry will probably lengthen the string lifecycle.
If you put strings on an instrument which is smaller than the one which the string is designed for, there will be a considerable loss of tension and sound quality. Apart from this, the thicker playing length of the string will end up being wound around the tuning peg, which – especially with thicker strings – will result in damage to the core, loss of tonal quality and strings breaking. This is one of the most common mistakes.
If you put strings on an instrument which is larger than the one the strings are designed for, e.g. on a large viola, it will have the same effect as tuning the string to too high a pitch, or starting tuning from the highest string to lowest instead of the other way around. Doing this even once can severely fatigue the string or break it.
How to avoid damaging the mandolin strings
Sharp edges on the bridge, the nut or the tailpiece will damage the string, and can lead to breakage.
The same can happen if the channels in the nut are too narrow, so these should be of sufficient width and prepared with a little graphite from a soft pencil.
Another mistake to avoid when re-stringing the instrument is improperly winding the string around the tuning peg. The correct number of windings is between four and five, without any bending of the string between nut and tuning peg and without jamming it against the peg box.
Achieving the right tone
The strings should be the ones whose tonal characteristics (mellow or brilliant) the player considers more important for his or her instrument.
It should be noted that on particular instruments a given string may respond differently than one would expect. For example, a brilliant G string can produce a brilliant or dark sound depending on the instrument, since sometimes the frequency characteristics of the instrument itself do not match those of the string.