Getting Tuned Up
Tuning is a subject you'll rarely see covered in depth in the many books and articles written about mandolin. Yet month after month it's one of the top search terms that gets typed into the Mandolin Cafe search engine.
When was the last time you actually read anything extensive about tuning a mandolin? Maybe you need a little help in that area. Unfortunately, all of the books we've seen barely touch on the subject, if at all. It's a brief mention in the introduction and then off they go. After all, who's going to buy a book on the subject?
The Easy Way?
We could just say, "buy an electronic tuner" and we'd be done, or so you might think. While an electronic tuner is desirable to own (for reasons we'll soon discus), there are real benefits to learning to tune by ear, and it's the mark of a good musician to have that skill. We spend hours practicing individual pieces. Why wouldn't we devote a few minutes to one of the most important aspects of our music (that of actually being in tune)?
Why is an electronic tuner important? Because if it does nothing else, it serves the purpose of keeping your instrument tuned within the range it was meant to be played. Most mandolins are meant to be tuned within the E-A-D-G range. Tuning lower than that probably won't hurt your instrument, but start going higher over a long period and you risk potential damage to the instrument, although it might takes months or years before it's noticed.
Most builders don't recommend the use of heavy gauge strings for the same reason: for most it's too much added tension that the instrument wasn't designed to withstand. The higher the tuning, the greater the tension. The point is that most mandolins are built to be played within the (high to low here) E-A-D-G range, and keeping them tuned within that range optimizes their performance.
In the past, tuning forks were used (and still are by some) to gauge the appropriate pitch. A piano can serve that same purpose but now we're starting to get into use of the ear, which is the focus of this article.
A Tuning Exercise
Here is a demonstration of tuning without a tuner by building a comparison from a single note to the extension of that note into a chord. Building that comparison around a chord simply makes good sense because if your chords are in tune, the notes of the scales will likely be in tune as well.
Tuning boils down a comparison of two or more notes against each other. I tend to use a "G" chord, or parts of the "G" chord to get in tune. While you may choose another chord, play along here and use this as a guide.
Example: play the low "G" string open and simultaneously play the fifth (5th) fret on the "D" or the third string. Those are both "G" notes.
Now play those same two notes but also play the second fret on the "A" string. You should now have a three note chord that looks like this:
E String --X-- (don't play yet)
A String --2-- ("B" note -- part of the "G" chord triad)
D String --5-- ("G" on the "D" string)
G String --0-- (an open "G" note)
Compare the low "G" on the bottom to the "D" string "G". Now compare the low "G" to the "B" note on the "A" string. Compare them slowly. No, I mean SLOWLY throughout this exercise. For now, use the low "G" as your reference point and assume it's in proper range even if you didn't use an electronic tuner, tuning fork, piano, or something else to verify.
Now to your "G" on the "D" string. Listen carefully. Is it higher or lower than the open "G" on the bottom? A very slight wavering sound in the comparison of two strings is a sure sign you're out of tune. Adjust the "G" note you're fretting on the third string until you're satisfied.
I've observed and discussed with many players that when you have trouble getting one string in pitch with the other, it's easier to tune down lower and then SLOWLY bring the low string up in pitch until you get a match.
Now compare both low "G" notes to the "B". If you were satisfied with the two "G" notes, then any variance you're unsatisfied should be directed towards the "B" note.
Now add the high "G" note by fretting the third fret on the high "E" string. You've now built the basis of a "G" chord as follows:
E String --3-- ("G" note on the "E" string)
A String --2-- ("B" note on the "A" string)
D String --5-- ("G" on the "D" string)
G String --0-- (an open "G" note)
Now compare both low "G" notes to the new high "G". If you were satisfied with the two low "G" notes, then any variance you're unsatisfied with should be directed towards the new "G" note.
Over time everyone will develop what works for them. All I'm showing is a sensible approach of comparing notes to each other. Basing your ear turning around a chord gives you a foundation for your comparisons. I've seen players tune well who only compare the open notes. Others compare octaves. What they almost all share in common is a comparison of a series of notes that together build some type of chord or other logical framework.
Other Causes of Tuning Problems
Your ability (or inability) to tune can be impacted by other problems will ultimately have a negative impact on your music. Any of the following can and should be taken care of. These include:
Improper Bridge Alignment
If your bridge is only slightly in front of or in back of its proper placement or tilted in any direction, you're going to have intonation and tuning problems. To test your bridge placement, first tune each open string with a tuner. Then, fret the 12th fret (or preferably, play the 12th fret harmonic) and re-check with an electronic tuner. The result? If the 12th fret is sharp your bridge is closer to the fretboard than it should be. If the 12th fret is flat your bridge is further away from the fretboard than it should be.
Take a good look at your frets. Those deep grooves (if you have them) can create serious intonation problems for an instrument that otherwise might be in perfect tune. Think of having an occasional fret re-dressing as an oil change for your car. You really need one from time to time. You may go a long time without one but your instrument will probably be screaming for help if you do. And, good frets are easier to play and easier on your hands. Tuning is just one benefit.
Most musicians will agree that old strings are difficult to keep in tune and harder on your fingers. It doesn't make sense to buy a nice instrument and then change your strings once every three years. That's like buying a nice car and then driving around on bald tires.
You'll probably be able to visually see this. If you have an adjustable truss rod this can probably be easily fixed but I'd recommend letting a professional do the work.
The Bottom Line
A mandolin is simply a tool built out of wood and metal. Heat, humidity, cold and general wear and tear will eventually have a negative impact on the structural health of your instrument. Instrument neglect needn't be a burden to tuning or other aspects of your music. Take your instrument to a qualified professional once a year for a check-up. It's well worth the time and effort.
To Improve Your Tuning - In Summary
- If you're having problems or are new to the instrument, a few minutes spent learning to tune each day will work wonders.
- Ask for a second opinion from someone you trust. "Am I in tune?" You might be surprised at the answer.
- An electronic tuner is good for keeping your instrument in the proper pitch, but it's a critical possession if you're going into a recording studio recording to do overdubs.
- An electronic tuner with some type of attachment to the instrument is essential for gigs where you need to tune while competing with a lot of background noise.
- A quality case cover will keep an instrument protected from the natural elements. An instrument transported or left in a cold or hot car and then opened in a temperature controlled room is a guaranteed recipe for a half-hour of tuning problems.
- You may be a great technician, but let's face it, if you can't do it in tune then people probably won't want to listen.
- A cheap, inexpensive mandolin that's in tune with good strings and good frets can sound like a million dollars in the right hands.
- Even the pros have difficulty tuning from time to time so don't get discouraged.