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Thread: Mando strings go sharp--why?

  1. #1

    Default Mando strings go sharp--why?

    If I leave my beloved 505 in its case, or hanging on the wall untouched for several days, I usually find the strings have tightened up--often as much as 1/4 tone. In extreme incidents, nearly a half-tone, and I find E or A strings snapped in the case. The latter inconvenience occurred in a particularly humid, chilly environment (but in the case), but generally its pretty dry. I have also had this happen with my previous el cheapo all-ply mando, and with my long-neglected hammered dulcimer which spends years in the case between airings.

    My guitars and OM dont do this--it seems to be a behaviour of the instruments tuned closest to breaking point.

    Does anyone understand the physics of this, and a possible cure?

  2. #2

    Default Re: Mando strings go sharp--why?

    Just to give a real-time update, I just pulled the 505 out of its case--after a week or so (I have been playing my backup instrument when the urge struck) and wouldnt you know, this time it's gone flat, about 1/4 tone. Dry conditions. Same deal with the backup instrument (Seagull S8), which has not been encased, and was tuned to concert a day or two ago.

    I wouldnt complain if this was what always happens, since it doesnt break strings or cause unwanted stress to components.

  3. #3
    working musician Jim Bevan's Avatar
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    Default Re: Mando strings go sharp--why?

    When the humidity increases, the wood absorbs it and expands, pulling the strings tighter, resulting in higher pitches.

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  5. #4

    Default Re: Mando strings go sharp--why?

    Wood expands a bit as it absorbs moisture. That could push the arch of the top a bit higher, make the neck just a bit longer, etc. Any of those things would effectively lengthen the scale, which would raise the pitch, all else being equal. I suspect that the different woods in the instrument would probably be reacting to moisture changes at slightly different rates. And finished wood is probably absorbing moisture more slowly than unfinished wood. So there's probably going to be a kind of warping effect going on too because of those differences.

    The strings aren't affected by humidity, but they are affected by temperature. As the string cools, it contracts, which increases the tension and raises the pitch. That would be going on with the tailpiece too. There would be a temperature effect on the truss rod too.

    While the basic concepts are pretty straightforward, the net effect those changes will have on pitch isn't. As moisture and temperature changes in the instrument there are a lot of different expansions and contractions going on in a lot of different directions and at different rates, some of them offsetting, some of them reinforcing each other.

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  7. #5

    Default Re: Mando strings go sharp--why?

    Thanks Jim and ptritz. Theres never any notable change in action, neck relief etc. As for temperature, well I live in Canada so we see some extremes of that--but generally #1 mando stays fairly cosy in the case. I have always figured that the strings themselves would be most likely to stretch or contract depending on temperature--but even when it gets warm logically they would stretch....yet it consistently goes sharp not flat, indicating the opposite--except for today. Oh hell my head hurts and I'm not even hung over.

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    Default Re: Mando strings go sharp--why?

    Yeah. They go sharp in the winter and flat in the summer. It's the wood contracting and expanding. Not the strings. In the cold, the wood contracts but the strings stay the same size. Hence, more tension.
    In the heat, the opposite occurs.

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    Mandolin User Andy Miller's Avatar
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    Default Re: Mando strings go sharp--why?

    Maybe the cases themselves are more humid or less humid than the instrument is when you put it away.

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    Default Re: Mando strings go sharp--why?

    All of my mandolin do the same thing and the reasons that are posted above answer the question except for the fact that I don`t understand why strings would break while sitting in the cases, I have been playing for more years than most of you have been alive and I have never had a string break while the mandolin was sitting in its case...I travel all over the country with my instruments and have never had a string break like that...Also at times I have tuned a mandolin one or more notes higher than standard and the strings with stood the tension so as far as strings breaking while sitting in a case, I have no idea why that is...Maybe you are using a heavier gauge than I do...

    Willie

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    Default Re: Mando strings go sharp--why?

    Probably the easiest thing to remember is that metal contracts with cold and expands with heat, while wood expands with high humidity and contracts with low humidity.

    So if you have the most extreme possible combination of weather conditions you get the most noticeable changes. For example with cold temperatures with high humidity your strings are contracting while your mandolin's wood is expanding, causing your tuning to go sharp. With hot temperatures with low humidity your strings are expanding while your mandolin's wood is contracting, causing your tuning to go flat.

    Much of the time you will get temperature and humidity changes that aren't as well synchronized, so the changes in your mandolin may actually compensate for each other.

    Your mandolin's metal parts also expand and contract with temperature changes, in particular your tailpiece. I find the heavier "cast" or plate tailpieces to be more stable regarding temperature changes than the traditional "stamped" or sheet metal tailpieces. Your neck's metal truss rod, if present, also is prone to changes due to temperature which in extreme situations can have an affect on your action. While your tuners may become more tight as they get cold or loose as they get warm, they generally don't contribute much to your weather related tuning changes.

    Metal reacts much more quickly to these environmental changes than wood does. Often if I'm playing in a cold venue, I'll warm the neck, strings and tailpiece with my hands for a few minutes before I try to tune the instrument. Since when I play, my hands are all over these areas, warming them with my hands before tuning them brings them closer to the temperature range where I'll have them when I play, so there is greater stability with the tuning.

    There are situations where you don't want to tune at all... For example, playing outside in cold temperatures, near a bonfire or other source of heat. If you tune up to pitch while you are close to or facing toward the heat source, where your strings will be relatively flat due to being warm, and then turn away from the heat to face very cold temperatures where your strings contract due to being cold, you may break some strings. You could also do some structural damage to your mandolin due to the heat and humidity changes near direct heat. The woods contract due to low humidity, plus most glues release at about 130(f) degrees. Many glues also get brittle near freezing. This is of course also why you don't want your instrument in a hot or cold car, or in the hot or cold hold of an aircraft.

    Of the acoustic instruments that I play, the mandolin, with it's extremely high standard string tension, is the most reactive to temperature and humidity changes for tuning. The banjo, with multiple metal rings fitted snugly around a wooden rim, is the most reactive related to tone. The dobro and guitar are both more stable in both tuning and tone. Oh, and btw, some nylon strings can be extremely reactive to environment changes too.

    P.S. Willie, I've seen metal strings break in cases too, where the environment was controlled and not the cause. I usually see this as due to subtle imperfections in the strings such as corrosion, or due to thinning of the strings through the years from constant stretching due to high tension. But it may also be from mechanical issues, like sharpness or burrs near the tuners, the bridge or the tailpiece.
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    Default Re: Mando strings go sharp--why?

    Quote Originally Posted by Bill Cameron View Post
    My guitars and OM dont do this ...
    Do note that arched tops, especially if carved w/ lots of exposed end-grain, respond much faster to atmospheric changes than the typical flat-top does.
    Last edited by EdHanrahan; Jan-01-2017 at 3:21pm.
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  16. #11

    Default Re: Mando strings go sharp--why?

    I think most mandolins, or stringed instruments in general (and archtop instruments in particular), are natural barometers, thermometers, and hygrometers. With the arched soundboard, floating bridge, and tightly wound strings, they seem to be much more sensitive to changes in the environment than, say, a flattop guitar, or even a flattop mandolin. My 1950 Martin A-style mandolin seems a lot less susceptible to tuning variations.

    I usually check the tuning of my mandolin before practicing, and it's amazing how many times the strings have gone sharp or flat, only to react the opposite way the next day I pick the instrument up.

    Just part of being a mandolin player, I suppose.

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    Default Re: Mando strings go sharp--why?

    I have the same problem with strings changing, but the temp in the house is fairly consistent and doesn't change but a degree or two and I have my doubts that the metal changes by a degree in temp. I think most of it is the change of the mandolin in a different environment of the the case or subtle drying out overnight or in the summer humidity changes. It could also be the fact that when you quit playing and it is in tune it is against your warm body and then it is put in the case or on the wall with no extra heat and cools slightly. I think that will have more to do with it than anything else. Just an opinion tho.
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    Registered User Ivan Kelsall's Avatar
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    Default Re: Mando strings go sharp--why?

    My 3 mandolins go sharp when cold & flat when warm(er). The strings simply contract (shorten) & go sharp, or expand (lengthen) & go flat. That was one of the very first things i noticed when i began playing mandolin. Maybe because of their longer scale lengths (?),my banjo & guitar never had the same thing happen.
    I feel that mandolins,because of their short scale length are just more succeptible to changes due to temp. & humidity than other instruments,
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    Default Re: Mando strings go sharp--why?

    If the strings are able to contract and shorten enough to change pitch on a short scale instrument like a mandolin, because of the extra length of the string on a guitar they would shorten more because the longer string would all be shortening and would make guitars have more of the same effect, not less. I still think it is the wood that is changing, not the string. Most environments are temperature constant, especially if there is a heat source and keep things to within a few degrees. Can a few degrees make metal move that much? Again I feel it has to be the wood. My car sits out in 100 degree sun and -30 temps in winter and I don't notice the metal moving much, the doors open and close and the seams where the parts join don't get wider and narrower. That is a huge temperature change, without much movement yet strings move if changed a degree or two. There is a great amount of knowledge on this forum, but I am not buying this one.
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    Registered User Ivan Kelsall's Avatar
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    Default Re: Mando strings go sharp--why?

    Pops1 - If the temp.drops,all the materials would be affected to a greater or lesser degree. A guitar string will shorten 'more',but only because there's more of it to do so,but in proportion to it's original length,it will shorten by the same %. I know that my acoustic guitar has never required re-tuning because of temp. in my home,neither has my banjo & they're all kept in the same room. We'd need to read up on coefficients of expansion for woods & metals in order to understand more accurately what might be happening,but is it even worth it ?. All we need to do is re-tune.

    I'll mention one thing in passing. During the summer when the weather gets warmer,the downstairs doors in my home start to jam = they've expanded. As the weather gets colder,they free up again. I suspect that if you took the trouble to try to test the expansion of your car's bodywork ''somehow'',you'd find some movement. The fact that you don't is most likley due to allowances for expansion / contraction having been designed into the car parts to prevent doors etc. jamming. Plus,you have the door to door seal interface which help to prevent such problems.

    One US Cafe member whom i'm in regular contact with,has exactly the same thing happen to his mandolins. Without starting to test 'whatever',maybe we'll never understand absolutely what's going on,except that it is caused by temp.changes with maybe a bit of ''humidity'' for the folks affected by it,which rules me out,
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    Registered User Ivan Kelsall's Avatar
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    Default Re: Mando strings go sharp--why?

    Duplicate post !.
    Weber F-5 'Fern'.
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    Default Re: Mando strings go sharp--why?

    When I saw the title I thought, "You need some graphite on that nut!". But now I see it happens while sitting in the case. IME, mandolins seem more prone to going sharp than to going flat, for all of the reasons stated above. As for the string breaking, hard to say. Sometimes they just break. I actually had an E string break the other day when I was taking it off for a string change. Went to de-tune it and *POP* - broken at the tailpiece.
    Mitch Russell

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    Default Re: Mando strings go sharp--why?

    Ivan, I agree that temp can have an effect, seeing it does not effect the guitar and the banjo I am doubting it is the metal changing because of 1 or 2 degrees in temp. I feel it is much more a wood thing that is causing the change. A small change in wood because of temp or humidity in and out of the case to me would have much more effect on the wood that on the metal of the strings. And like you said the guitar strings are longer and should change more because of that length, but don't, that would seem to stand behind my beliefs. I understand metal changing with temp, a rusted nut can be heated with a torch to get it free, but we are talking minute change for a lot of temp change, going from cold to red hot is enough to break the rust, but not notice any change in size. Placing a bearing in the freezer to get it into the race is another instance, the bearing becomes smaller, not so you can see it, but we are talking room temp to freezing. Again a lot of temp change. I doubt either would change enough to work by 1 or 2 degree change in temp.
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    Registered User sblock's Avatar
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    Default Re: Mando strings go sharp--why?

    As others have said, higher humidity makes the strings go a bit sharp, and vice versa. Higher temperature makes them go a bit flat, and vice versa. This is normal! What is NOT NORMAL is that your strings snapped. This should not happen. The changes in pitch associated with usual humidity and temperature changes are not enough to move the strings more than about a semitone or two, and they should be able to handle that change with no problem! SO, if your strings snapped, you have a problem with (1) friction at the nut or bridge, causing the string to bind in the slot at one end or the other, OR (2) an edge or burr somewhere on your tuning posts (or possibly on the tailpiece) that is cutting into the string. Both items (1) and (2) are easily fixed. But you will never be able to do much about the weather, except complain (and re-tune)!

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    Default Re: Mando strings go sharp--why?

    Strings breaking in the case may indicate a problem or may not. How often does this happen? Is it always the same string in the same place? Different strings at different places and very seldom I would just say it happens. Has happened to me a couple of times. I saw the Lewis family several years ago when a string on Wallace's guitar broke between songs while he wasn't even playing. Little Roy noted for breaking strings on what ever he plays shouted out " look Wallace broke a string and he wasn't doing nothing". Sometimes it's just " sh## happens"

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    Default Re: Mando strings go sharp--why?

    Hi Pops - I hope i can describe what i mean more precisely if this little diagram works :-
    Click image for larger version. 

Name:	Diagram.JPG 
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    Consider A - B is the whole mandolin length. C to D is the length of the strings - again fixed points. but on the mandolin itself.

    If the whole mandolin contracts (gets shorter),then the points C & D should get closer together. If the strings themselves didn't contract,they'd 'sag' to a tiny degree & go 'flat'. However,it seems to me that the strings contract more than the mandolin & get even shorter,& thus go 'sharp'.

    If you have a look at the coefficients of expansion of steel against wood on the chart link,steel does in fact expand & contract more than wood for the same rises / drops in temp.
    http://www.engineeringtoolbox.com/li...ents-d_95.html

    I hope that this makes sense,but something at least 'similar' seems to happen to make mandolins go sharp / flat,
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    Default Re: Mando strings go sharp--why?

    Thanks Ivan, I know that my bridge sits nearly all the way down in summer, but in winter I have at least a 1/4" gap between the foot and saddle. So I know the top moves a lot with temp and humidity changes. I also know that when I play my mandolin, it is up against me with my arm around the front and I am 98.6 degrees, so I am much warmer than the house air. I am thinking when the mandolin is played up against my body it raises the temp of the mandolin and when it is in the case at around 64-67 degrees it cools down. Now the strings may also raise in temp from my hand, but not as much, so I think if steel does move as much as you said we could easily be looking at the combination of the two, wood and metal.
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    The Amateur Mandolinist Mark Gunter's Avatar
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    Default Re: Mando strings go sharp--why?

    Pops, Ivan - I have often wondered about this, my thinking was that it was probably the strings. I picked Bertram's brain a bit via PM one time about it. It's not a big deal to me, just re-tune and the problem is solved, but I idly wonder about the cause. I've noticed when visiting a guitar store, where a playing room is provided with numerous guitars hanging, a majority of the instruments across the board will have strings gong sharp or flat to the same degree from day to day.

    I've come around now to thinking that the wood swelling and contracting probably has a greater effect than expansion and contraction of the strings. This is because the strings on my instruments seem to go sharp when temperature gets hotter but RH goes higher - and vice versa.

    If it is due more to wood expansion, then the responsible area of the instrument would probably be swelling in the top plate and swelling in the bridge. I make that assumption because the length of the instrument, as in Ivan's diagram, would not be affected by wood expansion very much since it is with the grain. Most wood expansion occurs across the grain. So expansion across the top as well as any expansion upward across the grain of the bridge would have to add a bit of tension to the strings.

    I know that metal expands and contracts with temperature according to known coefficients, but I believe now that the swelling and shrinking of wood cells probably creates more trouble with tuning than expansion/contraction of strings themselves.

    An addenda to say that Ivan's chart has now sealed my mind on this.

    Expansion coefficients:
    Steel - 12 / 6.7
    Wood (across the grain) - 30 / 17
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  36. #24

    Default Re: Mando strings go sharp--why?

    humidity
    Could be worse, at least we have steel strings now, compared to olden days of genuine gut strings which absorbed moisture from the player's hands while playing. You didn't even have to be actually sweating, just normal skin humidity (and also warmth from the fingers) would throw the strings out of tune after a few minutes.

    For a while I had real gut strings on one of my fiddles, years ago. I guess the only positive thing about gut-string tuning, at least in my limited experience on fiddle & oldtime banjo, is that you can get by with just regular wooden friction pegs (if they're properly fitted & maintained), because gut stretches more than steel, so it requires more rotation of the tuning peg (compared to steel strings) to produce the same degree of pitch change.

    Probably not too many genuine gut-string mandolins in use, but presumably at some point in time either mandolins or their ancestor lutes would have had that as the only option. Steel is a fairly modern invention, from an historical perspective anyway.

    Nylon/synthetics theoretically shouldn't have any moisture absorption tuning concerns, although they still seem to go out of tune easier than steel, presumably because of their stretchiness and/or lower tension? Later on I used nylon strings on one of my fretless banjos, although that instrument had a real skin (cowhide) head so it didn't have much tuning stability to start with due to the head constantly reacting to temperature & humidity changes.

    An aside, my current steel-string Strat-copy electric guitar has to sit on my leg & warm up for a couple of minutes before its tuning stabilizes. Even if I don't touch the strings at all during that warm-up phase, the tuning on *all* the strings still changes quite noticeably. Since it's so predictable, I don't even bother trying to tune it until after it's settled in for a couple minutes. Not sure if that's caused by the guitar's body warming & expanding, or possibly something to do with the cheap tremolo bridge's metal springs (yes, springs with a "p", as in coil springs), I would speculate that temperature changes would drastically affect coil-spring springiness/tension, which (due to how that particular tremolo bridge is constructed) would change the tuning on all 6 strings at the same time, which is basically what I'm observing here. I never use the tremolo function anyway, if I was more motivated I'd replace that bridge with something different, although once it's warmed up I don't have any further tuning-stability issues.

    P.S.: (Speculation follows) I suppose we can thank steel strings for the invention of geared tuners? Or did things like bass fiddles have geared tuners even in the gut string era? What about those gamba or whatever thingies (can't remember right name) they had before modern violin-family instruments? Dunno. Still though, geared tuners presumably always require metal-working ability, so at some point going back far enough in time they wouldn't have had the geared-tuner option... wait maybe that's wrong, brass & bronze have been around for awhile... hmm... anyway I'm guessing that in the pre-geared-tuner gut-string musical instrument era there was lots of tuning going on, & probably plenty of out-of-tune instruments as well.
    Last edited by Jess L.; Jan-04-2017 at 5:34pm. Reason: Added postscript.

  37. #25
    Middle-Aged Old-Timer Tobin's Avatar
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    Default Re: Mando strings go sharp--why?

    Quote Originally Posted by JL277z View Post
    Nylon/synthetics theoretically shouldn't have any moisture absorption tuning concerns, although they still seem to go out of tune easier than steel, presumably because of their stretchiness and/or lower tension?
    I tried synthetics on one of my fiddles. I liked the sound, but I had to take them off because my wife and I like to play outside on the porch. Every time we would go outside, it was a nightmare trying to keep my fiddle tuned. Heat and humidity definitely will make synthetics go flat, and they take hours to stabilize. So by the time I got my fiddle to stay in tune, we were done playing.

    Steel strings give me the same issue, albeit to a lesser degree. My mandolins all go sharp in their cases, so I have to tune them down when I start playing. They may go flat or sharp as I play, depending on various factors. I remember one particular jam I was playing at a local ice house in summertime. I happened to be sitting near a window, and had the sun shining on my mandolin for a while. I kept having to tune it up and up and up. Once the sun set, I started to go sharp and had to keep backing off my tuning. It was lots of fun, I tell ya.

    One would think that any stringed instrument would behave the same. And they do, but just to different degrees. I think what makes the mandolin different is the arch top. Plus the short scale and high tension of the strings. Smaller percentage changes will have a larger effect on pitch as opposed to, say, a guitar or bass.

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