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Notes from the Field

You Dont Need to Do a Set Up

Rating: 2 votes, 5.00 average.
Not being one for great drama in writing, let me explain right away. Everyone may need to have their mandolin set up. Not everyone needs to do it themselves.

Robert Meldrum has done the mandolin community a gigantic service. His ebook on set ups is really fantastic. Lots of folks have taken advantage of the book and proceeded to set up their instruments, in some cases first time mandolinners took up the challenge.

I have read through (not the same as thoroughly and properly read) Robert’s book, and from what I saw it really is excellent. You would be foolish not to read his book if considering setting up your mandolin. Its a good idea to get it just to learn how to tell what might be needed and what all is involved.

That said, I am concerned that folks, newbies perhaps, might feel an obligation to do the set up themselves. That there could be the feeling that not only is a set up needed, but as a responsible mandolin owner I have to go about setting it up myself.

“Hey I just got my new mandolin and heard I need a set up. I read up on how to do it and I just need help determining how close do I hold the match to the e string capstan to heat it enough to unfreeze it, and do you think I could get better tone if I carved the bridge down on the side? My brother builds houses and I have watched him build many decks, so I think this is not going to be too hard. I can always get my brother to help me.”

To my way of thinking doing a set up is a skilled procedure, requiring expertise, dexterity, and some experience, to do it right. I am, in fact, a bit envious of those who find it easy. But learning how to do set ups, like learning any skill, is a separate endeavor that takes time and effort. I have too much respect for the skills involved to think I can just get a book and get 'er done.

And the learning and the practicing and the skills development, well it doesn’t contribute to my prime directive which is to play the instrument as much as I can: learn all this music and jam with all these people, all that. It cuts into my pickin’ time, is what I am trying to say.

I think there is no shame (at all) to pay someone to set up my mandolin. It is not a required part of mandolinning, the way changing the strings is, for example, or tuning. Every player should learn how to change strings, and how to tune up, (IMO). I do think that every mandolinner should learn to recognize the symptoms of an inadequate set up, know what too high or too low action is like, what bad intonation is, etc., and have a general idea of what needs to be done and know when to “take it in” for a set up. And I think Robert Meldrum's book is the place to get this information.

But to do the actual set up work? Not necessarily.

There are exceptions, of course. If you live really very far from anyone who could do a set up, and are not planning a road trip soon, well then it might make some sense.

And for those who are handy and really want to take up the hobby, of course. Doing set ups and minor repairs looks to be an engrossing hobby. Lots of folks love it. I myself love to watch folks loving it.

But it is not playing the mandolin. It is a separate avocation.

You might account for my opinion by deciding that I am a wimp, or a maladroit, and you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. But you wouldn’t be entirely right either.

These are the things that, in my opinion an experienced set up person or luthier would be able to do that I couldn’t, even after reading up about it.

I am going along step by step but I am not getting anything like the results expected. What did I do wrong? Where did I stray from the prescription.

There are many things that can be adjusted to achieve the results, which one do I twiddle next, and how much before I twiddle something else? I could easily find myself off the path, and not know how to get back to something recognizable.

Following all the steps everything seems to indicate I need to deepen the nut slots, or the bridge slots. But that is a more permanent thing. It’s not like a neck adjustment you can just turn the thingy the other way. You can’t un-deepen the nut slots. So… am I sure, really sure, that this is what has to be done? Or have I missed something along the way? Is there something I could have done, or done differently? A different balance of everything else I did, or something that I could undo, back up and start again, to arrive at a place where it looks like I can avoid any permanent, invasive, irreversible maneuvers.

Unbeknownst to me I also need the frets dressed, or this mandolin was never meant to carry these kinds of strings, or the tail piece is the wrong size, or the bridge is on backwards. Ooops.

BANG! What the heck just happened? Should I have seen that coming?

An experienced luthier would be able to tell by how the mandolin is responding to tweaks, just how far is too far, or where to compromise this for that. Also a person with the right experience would know how to accommodate whatever might be unique about my mandolin. An experienced luthier, in the process of the set up, would notice the need for other kinds of work, fret dressing, or tuner adjusting, or repair of braces. Whatever. Said luthier would also be able to see what conditions down the road may need attention, and the relative value of attending to them now, or later.

I have not known a set up to be very expensive. Usually very very reasonable. And, assuming you have the right person, the job is done right and you can just play the thing. Here is something huge - no second guessing, am I done? No urge to tweek something a leeettle more. You can move on to learning that old cowboy waltz you have been humming.

Please don’t get me wrong. I have no beef with those of you who want to take this on. I might be tempted to practice set ups on five or six junker mandolins before I took on one of my players, but you may be bolder than me.

It’s like the difference between working on cars and driving. What the driver needs to be able to do is diagnose problems and impending issues, know what maintenance needs to be done when, and take the car in before things evolve into big expensive trouble. That is all the responsible car owner needs to be able to do, but if you like working on cars, and doing it yourself, have at it.

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Updated Apr-24-2015 at 8:53am by JeffD



  1. David Lewis's Avatar
    It's a great book to read on the actual working of a mandolin. It, don Julin's mandolin for dummies and ted eschlimans getting into jazz mandolin are essential.
  2. JH Murray's Avatar
    When my garage door opener stopped working, I looked up youtube videos on how to fix it. After watching the videos, I was better able to describe to the repair man what the problem was that I wanted him to fix. Wisdom is knowing what to do with all the information you have taken in. Rob's book is good information.
  3. Richard J's Avatar
    I agree. Robert's book is a must read. Understanding the steps needed to "refresh" your mandolin let's you know when, or when not, to do it yourself.
  4. JeffD's Avatar
    I think of Meldrum's book as an essential reference. I will be referring to it when something seems amiss and I wonder if I need a set up.

    I haven't read Don Julin's book but I understand it is excellent.

    I have Ted's book and I use that to spice up my practice.
  5. Rob Meldrum's Avatar
    Hi Jeff,

    Interesting post. I'm glad you liked the book. If, at the very least, you bought a set of feeler gauges and measured the fret-to-string gaps at the first and 12th frets you would know which of your mandolins needed a setup. If you followed my tips on checking and correcting intonation you would benefit greatly.

    I once paid a well-known luthier to set up a $3,000 classical guitar. He did a lousy job. I had to replace the nut. And I paid him over a hundred dollars! So you can't always trust a pro to do a good job.

    If a person knows how to put sandpaper on a flat surface and evenly sand down a small piece of wood they can lower the bridge on a mandolin. Lowering nut slots is a little more difficult and time-consuming, maybe a three on a scale to five. The book is a guide that any able-bodied person can use to measure and correct the basic setup of a mandolin.

    I love hearing back from people who have turned their unplayable mandolin into something that is a joy to play. I have given away over three thousand copies of the ebook! A fifty dollar Rogue with a proper setup is an affordable first step for many newbies. Think of it as a gateway drug to MAS.

    For anyone who has read this far, email me at for your free copy. Then tell us what you think!
  6. JeffD's Avatar
    Thanks for the reply Rob. I was even considering PMing you to give you a heads up on what I was going to blog.

    I don't think we are at odds what so ever. (Well except for my conviction that some experience is needed before one takes on an instrument one loves.) I am only making the distinction between "knowing what to do" on the one hand and "knowing what needs to be done" on the other. Your book is an essential reference and gigantic service to the community, in either case.

    Your point is well taken that even a "name' luthier can screw up or do a mediocre job, and one needs the ability to check for that when the instrument comes back to you.

    I was unaware of the reaction you have gotten. Woo hoo, over 3000!

    As I was writing my blog I was thinking that there might be an opportunity, at bluegrass and other festivals, for a set up workshop. Teaching and presenting from your book. I have never seen this before, though I have seen luther booths at festivals doing set ups and minor repairs. But a real workshop, with examples and slide show and what ifs and questions and answers, that might be a very popular well attended thing.

    Thanks again.