Mandolin setup is all about positioning the bridge in the proper place to achieve intonation, i.e. the mandolin to sound “in tune” when you play higher on the fretboard, up to the 12th fret or even higher.

  • This is  especially important in mandolins where bridges are “free-floating” and therefore have a tendency to move.
  • For best results, you must place the mandolin bridge in the correct spot, which is unique for every instrument.
  • See steps below for mandolin setup and how to check the intonation.

For this discussion, intonation means that the instrument should produce a correct octave higher pitch at the 12th fret. If the bridge is in the wrong place, the intonation will be wrong and the instrument will probably sound somewhat ”out of tune” as you play various chords.  especially as you play chords at the middle or higher positions up the neck.

5 easy Mandolin Setup steps – Introduction

The bridge can generally move along the mandolin towards the neck or to the tail, sliding over the soundboard if the strings are in place. Of course, if the strings are removed, the bridge will drop, since mandolins are built using free floating bridges for better sound transmission.

Before proceeding to the next steps, I suggest that you place your mandolin at a convenient and safe place. A good spot is usually a tall table, empty of objects, covered with a soft cloth.

Let’s start!

 Initial Bridge Setup

We only need these two steps if the bridge has been removed, e.g. if all strings have been removed, for changing and simultaneous maintenance and / or cleaning of the instrument.

  1. Place the strings but without fully winding them – so that in the next step the bridge can be placed without falling or scratching the soundboard.
  2. Place the bridge in about as follows:
    1. If the manufacturer has put marks -> between the marks OR
    2. If there is a mark the bridge has left on the soundboard from use -> to cover the mark OR
    3. Measuring with a ruler or tape, according to the scale of the instrument, e.g. usually 33 cm from the nut OR
    4. if there are f-holes, set bridge between notches at f-holes OR
    5. ONE INCH from the edge of the sound-hole

Continue with the 3 steps below

Minor Adjustments of the Mandolin bridge

The following steps are the minor adjustments we make either as a follow-up of the two previous steps or independently in case the instrument has lost its “intonation” from use.

The process requires just 4 strings to be checked: the 2 G strings (the thickest strings or SOL strings) and the 2 E strings (the finest strings or MI strings). The other 4 strings (A and D or LA and PE) do not need to be checked, since if the external strings are correct, then the internal strings are automatically corrected.

Here are the steps:

  1. Tune all strings, preferably with a precision digital tuner.
  2. Hit the (one) string first open (zero fret) and then on the 12th fret and see if the note is correct in both cases (e.g. the tuner shows a green indication)
    1. If it is correct you finished with this string => go to the next (GO BACK TO 2) OR THIS IS THE END if you did all 4 strings
  3. If the note is not correct in both cases
    1. If the open string is not correct => the string is now out of tune (GO TO 1)
    2. If the open string is correct, but at 12th fret is low => slide the bridge towards the neck and repeat the process for all 4 strings (GO TO 1).
    3. If the open string is correct, but at 12th fret is high => slide the bridge to the tail and repeat the process for all four strings (GO TO 1)

Notes

  • The photo above shows a violin-like bridge used by Richard Morgan instruments, not common in mandolins.
  • Other models may have a compensated bridge that includes gears that can lift or lower the bridge. You can adjust height to improve fret clarity at 12th fret, 13th, 14th, etc.,  and above. Note that most musicians like lower action and usually do not want to raise the strings higher. The mandolin in the photo above does not have a compensated bridge.
  • There maybe other reasons for intonation to fail. Please check a related article Why some mandolin will not stay in tune.

MANDOLIN RESOURCES – TUNERS

The following resources may be helpful to make sure the intonation is correct, in case you feel that doing this by ear is too much.

D’Addario NS Micro Clip-On Tuner

    • Highly precise clip-on tuner for a wide range of instruments including guitar, bass, ukulele, banjo, mandolin, and more
    • Discrete, highly compact design hides behind the headstock and is small enough to leave on every instrument you own – get one for each case
    • Extremely accurate chromatic tuning based on vibration, no sound or cable input required
    • Adjustable ratchet mechanism and reversible screen allows for placement on front or back of headstock
    • Visual metronome feature for additional practice aid
The feature-packed tuner your audience will never see.
True to its name, the NS Micro Clip-On Tuner features a low-profile design that can barely be seen by the audience while the clear and bright display can be seen easily by the player. The highly compact design even allows the tuner to be kept on the guitar while stored in its case. At a stealthy 1.25 inches, it’s the best performance they’ll never see.

SNARK SN-8

The SN-8 Snark Super Tight Chromatic Instrument Tuner provides a solid stay-put clip-on direct connection to your instrument. Has more precise tuning, and advanced features! Power saving feature: tuner display will dim after 5 seconds of no sound detected. This conserve battery power. Display returns to normal brightness when a note is detected. If no notes are detected for 2 minutes, tuner will shut off.

Improved Full Color visual display with larger improved frequency lines making it an easy read. It can be used in practice or live giging situations. Other features: tap tempo metronome, pitch calibration, and a transpose feature for tuning guitars with capo. Internal vibration sensor detects notes by clipping on directly to instrument.

  • Snark SN-8 Super Tight Tuner
  • Super Tight Tuning
  • Faster Brighter EZ Read Display
  • Display Rotates 360 degrees.
  • Tap Tempo Metronome.
  • Includes ChromaCast Guitar Pick Sampler.

CHERUB TUNER-METRONOME

Τhis Cherub WMT-555C is a versatile little equipment, as it is:

    • a mic-based tuner
    • a tuner that senses the vibrations of the instrumentvia the clip-on pickup
    • a metronome that supports a great variety of tempos and note values
    • a silent metronome realised via the included earphone
    • a multi-instrument tuner with the supported tuning setting

So, this tuner is a valuable tool for practising at home and also for tuning even in noisy environments (yes I consider a gig to be noisy!).
You will find the tuner to be very versatile, as it can be set for standard tuning, all notes, common alternate tunings, including F, Bb, Eb. You can even set the reference pitch. The default reference pitch is A=440.0 Hz tuning, but pro musicians, especially classical musicians, can set the reference pitch from 435Hz to 445Hz.