Mandolin tuning has been a frequent asked question I was asked ever since I started playing the mandolin and understood how I can tune it. This became more frequent especially after ending up tuning all 25 mandolins and mandolas of the Mandolin Orchestra I was a member; people have been asking me for details about my method and tools I’ve been using.
There are several methods one can use to easily tune a mandolin and the one I’m going to explain is just one of them.
Mandolin Tuning Overview
Before starting I will give an overview of the steps involved in mandolin tuning:
Before tuning (prerequisites):
- Make sure you understand the parts of the mandolin used for tuning
- Make sure you have available a reference sound
- Take all necessary security precautions to protect your eyes
Mandolin tuning steps:
- Check the intonation of the mandolin
- Tune the ﬁrst string using the reference sound
- Tune the ﬁrst string of each pair using the tuned string as reference
- Tune all pairs one by one, using as reference the tuned string of the pair
Each one of the above steps are explained in the paragraphs below, so keep reading.
The mandolin parts that you need to be able to identify and handle in order to successfully tune a mandolin, are:
- The mandolin tuning pegs used to tighten or loosen up the strings
- The bridge that affects the mandolin sound (see intonation below)
- The pick required to strum the strings
You need a reference sound for mandolin tuning. Your options are:
- Use a tuning fork, a digital tuner, or a clip-on tuner
- Use your mobile with an app like the excellent iphone/iPad Guitartoolkit
- Use your PC / Laptop with a software application
- Use an on-line tuning reference application, like the one I provide at Step #2
- Use another instrument, such as a piano, a guitar etc.
- As a last resort, you may use your telephone’s dial tone, if nothing else is available.
A word regarding safety from Chris:
Take all necessary security precautions, namely hold the mandolin properly to protect your eyes against string breaks.
If you prefer to hold the mandolin facing toward you, wear glasses to protect your eyes in the event that a string breaks. Protect your eyes!
Note that if you want to learn more about the mandolin parts, their role in producing the famous mandolin sound and how to handle them, check my blog post understanding the mandolin parts.
Step #1: Check Intonation (and fix it if required)
The first step towards a successfully tuned mandolin, is to make sure the intonation of the mandolin is good.
In case the intonation is not good, check if the bridge is setup correctly.
Note that if you want to learn more about how to position the bridge in order to achieve the
best intonation, check my blog post:
5 easy steps to set the Mandolin bridge
Step #2: Tune the first string (reference sound)
When you start to tune the mandolin, start (first) by listening to a reference sound so that you can get your ear acquainted with the pitch of the string, in order to lessen the risk of breaking strings due to over-tightening.
Listen to the reference G sound and try to match your first G string. In case there is no match, use the tuning peg displayed below to adjust till you get a perfect match. Use the image to understand what the notes are for each string. Remember that the mandolin strings are tuned in pairs. The 2 thickest strings on the mandolin would be the G Strings, hence the thinnest pair are the E strings. So pluck a G string on the mandolin and tweak the pegs on it until you match the reference sound.
Check here the reference G, D, A, E sound samples: G reference sound
Step #3: Tune the first string of each pair
The seventh fret of a string (when tuned) is the same pitch as the open next string. For example:
The seventh fret of the “G” string (when tuned) is the same pitch as the open “D” string. So, if you have it tuned up, then if you press down on the seventh fret on the G string, the G and D strings should have the same pitch. If one is off, then you will need to tune one string up, or the other lower.
Repeat this for all pairs.
Note: the term ‘open’ means that you are not pressing down on the string.
Step #4: Tune all pairs and check
During previous steps, we tuned just one string from each pair and we were not concerned with the second string in the pair.
Now, after having one string on each pair tuned, we come to the last step, i.e. to strum both for that pair of strings and bring the second string into tune.
Once this is done, we are ready to make the last check, by repeating the whole process and we are ready.
A tip from Chris:
Make several passes with each of the strings. You might have noticed that after you have tuned all the strings once, if you go back to the first one you tuned, it might be off a little bit. This is because you are increasing or decreasing the tension on each of the strings as you tune it and the mandolin body might bend ever so slightly due to this difference in tension. This causes the other strings to slightly change in pitch. So make sure you keep on checking and tuning the strings until all are in tune, so make several passes.
I use an electronic tuner when tuning the mandolin but when it comes to intonation my ear and the can disagree.
Correction: ….my ear and the tuner disagree.
Hi Uinsin,thanks for the comment.
What type of tuner do you use? Is it accurate?
The Intelli Chromatic Tuner IMT-600 and a Red SNARK.
Intonation by ear can be tricky. I think you need a very well trained ear to do that.
I personally prefer to rely on a tuner for intonation, and I use a black SNARK SN-8 to do the work. So, my recommendation is to trust your tuner in this process.
I have to note that at least for tuning, I start with the SNARK or my iPhone app, but as a final step I use my ear for micro-tuning, i.e make sure that the strings of each pair is in unison.
Hope that helps,