The mandolin is an instrument that has been with us for quite some time. Its original versions predated much of what we use as our instruments today. It has changed its design in various ways over the years, but how to tune a Mandolin has always been a bit of a problem.
From Italy, Of Course
It first appeared in the 15th century in Italy as a Mandora. Why do I say “of course”? Where else could it come from? It was a period when the Italians created and made the best instruments in the world. And in some cases, the best there has ever been.
It became closer to the mandolin we know today in the middle of the 1700s, crafted in the instrument building workshops of Naples. However, it was a master craftsman, Pasquale Vinaccia (1806–82), who formalized the round back design and overall dimensions of the mandolin that we use today.
A Revolutionary Technique
The design of the mandolin made a new style of playing possible and created a new sound. This new technique was given the name of the “tremolo technique.” Four sets of two strings with strings “paired” next to each other that had the same pitch.
This meant that when they were struck with the plectrum, there were two rapid sounds of the same pitch. This was especially noticeable when playing up and down on one of the “pairs.”
It arrived in America, as did many other instruments, courtesy of immigrants. But this time from Italy. Arriving in the 1870s onward, they brought their mandolins with them.
Tuning Has Never Been Easy
The mandolin has always presented a challenge to tune and to keep it in tune. They have shorter strings than guitars. Therefore, the pitches and the degrees of pitch are closer together. That can make the notes hard to distinguish at times for accuracy. Tuning is a cautious and very careful procedure. It can take time.
As I have already mentioned, there are four sets of paired strings, with each pair tuned to the same pitch or note. It is quite a task to get them tuned exactly the same.
Any slight deviance in pitch becomes immediately noticeable. This sometimes means tuning and re-tuning after every song you play. I am painting a very bleak picture. You can, of course, tune your mandolin, so it sounds great. Let’s take a closer look.
What is the Tuning of the Mandolin?
It has the same setup tuning-wise as the Violin. That is, from low to high, the strings are tuned G, D, A, and E. The difference being, of course, that the mandolin has eight strings and the Violin just four.
As I have already said, the mandolin has four pairs of strings, with each pair tuned to the same note. Treating the mandolin as an eight-stringed instrument, the tuning would therefore be G-G-D-D-A-A-E-E.
Confusing for Guitar Players
For guitar players, this can be a little confusing. To them, the tuning is upside down. The guitar from the bottom string is tuned E-A-D-G, the Mandolin is the reverse. This means many chords on the mandolin that are the same on the guitar but in reverse.
Some players over the years have developed a series of alternate mandolin tunings. That can be fun when you try to play along with what they have recorded with your standard tuning.
The most common alternate tunings are from low to high, A-D-A-E, G-D-G-B, G-D-A-D, and G-D-G-D. These are still paired tunings, with paired strings tuned to the same note.
It is also possible to drop the tuning for each pair of strings. This could make it easier to play the mandolin for some songs. Or even just to change the key of the song to help with the vocals.
However, you have to ensure that the relationship of the notes between the strings remains the same. That is, each string needs to drop the same amount of halftones. Having looked at some background, let’s now take a look at…
How to Tune a Mandolin
Before we start, let me just make a couple of points. Firstly, just like any stringed instrument, the tuning action will to a certain extent, depend on the quality of the instrument. A well-made Mandolin is probably going to hold tune better than a budget version.
Secondly, you also need to be aware if there is a truss rod running inside the neck. A truss rod will provide the instrument’s neck with some stability. A lack of a truss rod could hinder the way it holds its tune.
Up at the headstock, there are the tuners. As there are eight strings, there will be eight tuners. These will usually be placed in a four-by-four pattern. That is four on one side of the stock and four on the other. Ideally, they should be in order from lowest string to highest in a clockwise direction.
Usually, you should find the tuners for the two G strings and the two D strings on the top. The G strings should be closest to the mandolin body.
Using a Digital Tuner
If you are a beginner, I would recommend using a digital tuner to tune your mandolin. They are inexpensive and easy to use. It is probably best to get a chromatic tuner rather than a guitar tuner. Guitar tuners only recognize the six guitar strings.
Of course, the pitches you need to find are the same as four of the strings on the guitar. But if you want to try alternate tunings, a guitar tuner won’t find the notes. However, Chromatic tuners can find any note. This means you won’t have to set it by ear. The tuner will have a digital display of the note you are playing on a screen. This tells you when the pitch is right.
Let me just remind you. If you are used to tuning a guitar, this is going to be different. I mentioned the strings were shorter, which means careful, gentle adjustments to get the pitch correct.
Start with the two G strings using a pick. Get them in tune first and tune both of them as a pair. This will be the first of several times you may have to do this. So start by getting as close as you can with both strings without necessarily getting them exactly in tune.
You can make a brief audible check by playing both one after the other. They should sound the same. If one is slightly out, just adjust it. Then proceed to the D string and do the same. After you have turned a pair of strings, quickly go back and check the two you did before.
Losing the Tune When Tuning
Because of the tension applied by the strings when tuning, a mandolin can go out of tune even when you are tuning it. This is because the tension applied to each string affects all the other strings.
After you have been through all the strings once, you should then go back to the beginning and check them. It is almost certain they will have slipped a little. Now is the time to work hard at getting the pitch of each string exactly right. Start with the G or lower pair of strings. Get the pair of them in tune. Play them individually and together.
When tuning paired strings, always pick one to be the “master” string. Ensure that it is very accurately set from the tuner. Then tune the other string to that one.
When you have done them all, then go back and fine-tune all the strings. Once finished, do a final check and make any small last-minute adjustments, and you are ready to go.
As with all stringed instruments, some types of strings stay in tune better than others. Many mandolin players recommend Flatwound or Coated strings as these make it easier to tune.
Tuning a Mandolin by Ear
Some people have what we call perfect pitch. Those people can recognize the pitch of a note without a reference point for the note. You play them a C, and they hear a C. There aren’t many of those around.
We have just looked at using a tuner, which, if you are not a very experienced musician, is the way to go. But there is another way for how to tune a mandolin, which involves using your ears.
Using a Piano or Keyboard
Using either, you can also tune your mandolin. You can use them to give you a reference point. For example, you find the G on the piano and tune your G strings on the Mandolin to that note.
Then repeat for all the strings. As with using the tuner, you will almost certainly have to go through all the strings more than once. And as with the tuner, it is a good idea to choose one of the strings as your “master” tuning. You can then tune the other string to the master.
Using Just the Mandolin
Providing you can get the G note as a reference point, you can tune the mandolin using just the instrument. Find your G note on the piano or from another instrument, and tune the two G strings. To tune the D string, go to the seventh fret on the G string. That will be your D note, and you can tune the D string to that.
You can adjust both strings until they are tuned and move on to the next strings. You always use the seventh fret to tune the next string above. The seventh fret on the G string for D, the seventh fret on the D string gives you A, and the seventh on the A gives you the E.
Another Tip For Tuning
When you sit down to tune your Mandolin, it is better to start with the string set below the pitch you want to reach. It seems to feel easier when you are coming up towards the note rather than going down to it.
Having a string that is tuned above the pitch you require will also mean there is too much tension in the string. That won’t do the mandolin a lot of good, and it could also snap the string.
Thinking About Learning to Play the Mandolin?
If so, then be assured it is a great instrument and a lot more versatile than you may think. You will find it in Rock bands, and it has been used on classic albums.
Rod Stewarts ‘Every Picture Tells A Story ‘ is a good example where there is a great track called ‘Mandolin Wind.’ Or the all-time classics, ‘Losing My Religion’ by REM, or ‘Iris’ by the Goo Goo Dolls, which simply wouldn’t be the hits they were without the trusty old mandolin.
It is, of course, popular in Folk clubs and has even been used in Jazz. The variety it offers as an instrument is only limited by your imagination.
Where to start…
If you are going out to buy an instrument, you must get as good as you can afford. A decent-quality mandolin tends not to be particularly expensive. A good example by a recognized instrument maker is the Ibanez M510OVS Acoustic Mandolin in Vintage Sunburst.
And you will want a little bit of help when you first start. You have just learned how to tune the mandolin. Let’s start to play it with You Can Teach Yourself Mandolin.
I mentioned tuning with a Chromatic Digital Tuner. A very good example is this Snark ST-2 Multi-Instrument Chromatic Tuner at a very cost-effective price. I like this tuner because it is easily read and will clamp onto your instrument just about anywhere.
Interested in the Mandolin or Other Stringed Instruments?
We can help you find what you need. Check out our handy guides on How to Play The Mandolin for Beginners, Bowed String Instruments You’ve Never Heard Of, What is Considered a String Instrument, Easiest Musical Instruments for Adults to Learn, How to Tune a Ukulele, and Tips for Memorizing Music for more useful information.
You may also enjoy our in-depth reviews of the Best Mandolins, the Best Luna Ukulele, the Best Lanikai Ukuleles, the Best Mountain Dulcimers, the Best Acoustic Guitars Under $300, the Best Cremona Violins, and the Best Student Violins you can buy in 2021.
How to Tune a Mandolin – Final Thoughts
One of the most important things about tuning a Mandolin is to not lose patience when you are doing it. I have tried to make the point that it can be a very time-consuming occupation. The string will be in tune, and then you will go back to it, and it may have slipped.
This is not an uncommon occurrence, and it will happen, so be ready for it. As time goes on, the whole process will become quicker and easier. It just takes some practice, as most things do.
A mandolin has to be “finely” tuned because of the length of the string. It is easy to over-wind using the tuners and go too far. You then run the risk of snapping a string. But after all the effort and the patience, it will be worth it. The mandolin is a great instrument with a unique sound.
Until next time, let your music play.