How To Tune A Mandolin?
The mandolin is a versatile instrument that can produce great-sounding tunes for various genres of music. A mandolin can add the much-needed tone to the entire tune, be it American or Bluegrass. The mandolin can sound brilliant if it is tuned right and played well.
Ask a professional mandolin player or a teacher, and they are bound to tell you how difficult yet very crucial tuning a mandolin is. Well, it is just like tuning any other string instrument like the violin or the fiddle, right? Then, why should it be so complicated?
Yes, it is very similar to tuning the violin or other string instruments, with one tiny difference. You just have to tune twice as much. While the violin has 4 strings to tune, the mandolin has 4 pairs! Yes, you read that right – four pairs, meaning 8 different strings you need to tune to get the best out of that delicate instrument.
Do You Need To Tune Your Mandolin?
Do you really have to tune a mandolin? Why can’t you play it just like that?
Well, you can play it just the way it is if you want to hear bad music or get shushed for creating all that off-key racket. Unless your mandolin is in tune, you cannot get any of those tunes right. No matter how hard you practice or how great your tutor is.
Like any other string instrument, the mandolin will also go out of tune over time. There is nothing to worry about as you can’t do anything about it but retune it.
Frequency of Tuning
You will need to retune your mandolin as and when the wood expands or contracts, causing the strings to get too tight or lax. The frequency of your mandolin requiring tuning depends on three factors:
- String stretch
- Humidity level
- The temperature of the area in which you are playing the instrument
So, if you are playing the instrument in a very warm and humid area, you may have to tune it within just 30 minutes of playing it continuously. Since the place is already warm, playing it can increase the heat in the instrument, causing the wood to contract.
Tuning Key Points
When you tune a mandolin, keep these points in mind:
- Ensure the peg you are altering, or tuning is facing the right direction.
- Tune from the top and move down. You need to always start from the large string.
- Always use a pick to ensure you are on the right string and the other string is not touched.
- Always tune your string to a pitch below what you want. You can always tune up from here until you reach the correct pitch. The higher the pitch, the tighter your string will get, so starting at a high pitch and then tugging and then tuning the string might cause it to snap or go out of tune faster.
- Take note of the scale length. The scale length is generally varied in a mandolin.
- The longer the scale length i.e., the more the distance between the nut and the bridge, the more tension it will require to get the pitch you want.
- No matter how different the string lengths are on your mandolin, you will tune them just like tuning any other mandolin.
Now, if you want to tune your mandolin, you have the following options:
1. Electronic Tuners
When you use an electric tuner to tune your mandolin, follow these steps:
- From the list of mandolins, select the one you want
- Attach the tuner to the tuning pegs
- Now start plucking each string one by one until it matches the tuner.
- Pluck and let the first string on top until it matches the note on the tuner – virtually. You will see a green line once the string matches the tune on the tuner.
- Isolate each pair of strings and use resting strokes to get the tune right. When you tune one string, the other may go off-key. So it is essential to move slowly and keep checking each string of the pair properly.
- Hit the top string and rest your pick on the lower string to isolate just that top string and get it in tune with the note on the tuner
- Once your top string is in tune, pull the lower string and let it sit on the top string to match.
- Repeat this process with each set of strings.
- It is not a great idea to just go by the visual green light. Play the strings and hear them to ensure they sound in tune with one another.
- Next, you need to check your octaves. Play a high and a low note on two different strings. You will be able to gauge how in-tune your mandolin is.
- Be careful when you check your 12th fret, as they will sound a note higher than the unfretted notes. To ensure the 12th fret is in tune with the strings’ harmonic version. This should sound an octave above the open note version.
- There are different octaves and harmonics you can tune your mandolin to. You can try a few until you hit the notes you are aiming for.
2. By Ear
Mandolin is music to the ears, so it is best to be tuned by the ear rather than seeing lines and light on an electronic tuner. However, this type of tuning is suitable only for those who are experts in playing the mandolin and have enough experience to make out the mild sound variations in the pitch, just by listening to it.
You can use a piano to guide you for the right pitch.
- Start by playing the G string on the piano or the reference source. Now play the same on your mandolin. If it sounds higher, tune it down and if it sounds lower, tune it up. It is advisable to tune it up by starting at a few notes below the pitch you are aiming at.
- Now, repeat this process until your G strings are in tune and hit the right note.
- Once your G strings are in tune with your reference source, you can move on to the other strings and do the same.
- Now you will play the next string in reference to your G string and move down one by one. You will not keep referencing the source instrument. You will tune the string in reference to your own mandolin.
- Once you have completed all strings, double-check one last time to ensure they sound in tune when you play a note.
3. Guitar Tuner
This is fairly simple since most guitar tuners can match the mandolin’s pitch. The octave you choose to play in will not impact it as long as you tune it following the basic principles.
Points to remember when you tune using a guitar tuner are:
- The upper mandolin strings, apart from the G string, will have a higher pitch than the guitar tuner. This could be a challenge for those who are new to tuning.
- You can tune the lower strings using the guitar tuner and then use your ear to tune the upper strings.
4. Tuning To Its Strings
- Place the instrument on your lap in the playing position so that the first E string is closest to the wall.
- Now take your left index finger and place it on the A string or the 7th fret- the second string. It should sound similar to the first string unfretted.
- Next, move your left index finger to the 7th fret of the D string and tune it to sound similar to the A string when played unfretted.
- Repeat the process with the other two sets of strings as well.
- Once you complete all the strings, do a final check to ensure tuning one string has not altered another string due to the impact of tension on them.
Best Mandolin Tuners
Now that you know why and how to tune a mandolin let’s look at the various tuners available in the market to help you. Before we go into details about the tuners, let’s first go through some tips to choose the right tuner.
- The quality of the tuner you are investing in is very important. You may think getting a starter’s pack will suffice. However, as you progress, you might want to reconsider. Tuners are not very expensive. So, investing in a high-quality tuner will save you a lot of tuning time.
- Buy a tuner you can clip on to your mandolin with ease. Most of the mandolins are not electric, so the chances of you directly connecting your mandolin into a tuner are low. Pick a small tuner that you clip onto the head of your instrument. These will be just as accurate as of the large ones, and you won’t have to worry about the position of the mandolin to project the sound right into the tuner.
The Snark is a very popular clip-on tuner. The processing chip and pitch calibration are redesigned in the latest model, enabling more accurate tuning. The clip is very tight, and the display is better and brighter in this new model, thus aiding a better tuning experience.
- The redesigned hi-definition display screen allows you to read from any angle, making tuning much easier
- The redesigned processing chip is faster, thus saving you a lot of tuning time
- Works very well with almost all instruments- a good investment with multiple uses
- It is small and weighs just 1.27 ounces, making it very compact and easy to carry around
- Has tuning to suit folk or classical music
- Has a vibration sensor which can be useful for beginners
- A little expensive
- Tuning apart from A=440 might be difficult
- Does not tell you the octave you are playing at. This can make it difficult to fine-tune your mandolin.
D’Addario is known for its specialized accessories for acoustic instruments. The D’Addario guitar tuner is a highly precise clip-on tuner, which can be used with almost all instruments. You can not only carry it easily with you without taking up space but can also stealthily use it with your instruments.
- A high precise micro clip-on tuner
- Not very expensive
- Delivers value for money
- Very small and compact. Does not take up any space in or add much weight to your instrument case either.
- Back-lit screen with three colors to help you read and tune better. You can know if you are very far, close, or in tune.
- You can adjust the padded clamp to fix on any instrument
- 360-degree swivel mechanism enables easy viewing from any angle and positioning flexibility
- Both left and right-handed instruments; large or small headstocks.
- Long-lasting battery included
- The design of the tuner head does not fit all mandolins properly. You need to check compatibility before buying.
- Since it is an acoustics-only instrument, it can be challenging to tune your mandolin using this tuner in a noisy environment.
- Might be difficult to pick low notes
The Korg TM50BK is a single unit that can be used for both pitch tuning and rhythm training. You just need to invest in one tool and get multiple benefits, making this a favorite instrument among many musicians.
- Can use both the tuner and metronome independently or together
- Highly responsive newly designed meter with an LCD needle
- The newly developed model with a two-level backlight enables better visibility.
- The LCD needle shows the levels very precisely. So you can tune more accurately, easily.
- Latest-model comes with a sound back function that generates the tone closest to the input sound.
- Advanced technology to help you not only develop but also refine your pitch accurately
- The meter scale indicates pure major and minor thirds, just by tuning. It makes it very convenient to play in an ensemble and produce harmonious music.
- You cannot clip this tuner onto your instrument.
- It can be very difficult and tricky to position the mandolin in such a way that its sound goes into the tuner’s microphone. In the case of surrounding noise, it is even more difficult to ensure your instrument’s sound is fed into the microphone without the outside noise.
- It is not easy to read the display screen from a distance.
- The metronome is not loud enough.
- It falls on the expensive side of the tuners at over $20 for an instrument that can’t be clipped on
The Boss TU-3 is designed for heavy-duty. It is a preferred tuning pedal for electric guitar and bass players who use a pedalboard. It is a classic tuner that can be a good investment for electric mandolin players. If you are a professional player looking for something better than the standard tuners available for amateurs in the market, this could be a good option.
- You can plug it into a tuner or switch to a PA system with just one stomp of the pedal. It makes it very convenient for the player to tune and immediately switch to playing in a concert or other open spaces.
- The pedal does not allow any distraction by the surrounding noise. It can be the perfect tuner for loud environments like a performance or a concert, where you cannot avoid the noise around you.
- High brightness mode enables the user to view the screen even from a distance. You can change the brightness to suit your location – indoor or outdoor.
- Visual sign to show verification when you are done with tuning
- Chromatic and a guitar/bass mode to tune a guitar with 7 strings and bass with 6 strings
- The flat tune option lets you drop the tune-up to 6 semitones below the regular standard pitch.
- Very expensive. It can be a good investment only for professional players
- No microphone. It would be best to tune based on electronic signals, making it difficult as tuning by the ear is best for an experienced player.
- Not suitable for acoustic instruments
The Fender clip-on tuner is a small and compact tuner that can be used with different instruments such as the Ukulele, Guitar, Bass, Violin, banjo, and Mandolin. Known specifically for their instrument-building capabilities, Fender has ventured into accessories. Since they know their instruments very well, one can expect their accessories to be well designed too. For many years, being in the market has given this company experience and insight into what the end-user requires and expects.
- Very low priced – lesser than $10
- Can easily clip onto the mandolin
- It’s a basic tuner with no fancy settings
- Chromatic tunic enables you to use it with various tunings
- It’s small and compact
- It can tune between the ranges of B0-B7
- Tuning is color-coded and makes it easy to know about your tuning progress
- It shows which string you are tuning, making it very convenient for beginners
- Putting the battery can be time-consuming
- The battery is not the usual model either
- Not a very sophisticated tuner
- Not suitable for other low pitched instruments, so you cannot use it for tuning other instruments
Finding the right tone and pitch for any musical instrument is the key to playing it well. When you play a delicate instrument like the mandolin, you need the right tuner and the knowledge to tune it properly. There are a variety of tuners in the market to suit varying needs. Whether you are an expert and experienced mandolin player or just a beginner, you need to tune your instrument, and there is a tuner for everyone. Spend some time, do some research, and you are bound to find the right tuner.