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Thread: 12-string mandolin tuned in fifths?

  1. #1

    Default 12-string mandolin tuned in fifths?

    Hi, everyone. First post here. Long story short, after looking for a stringed instrument to play, I've found I like the mandolin, which led me to try out tenor guitar. Both are tuned in fifths, of course, so I'm focusing on fifths tuning as I learn chords and fingerings.

    I saw that Gold Tone produced some 12-string mandolins at one point, and I know there have been some other 12-string mandos before that. (And that's without getting off into the weeds with unusual instruments like the bandurria.) I was wondering if it would be possible to tune one of those in fifths as well. Every time I've seen someone talking about them, they're always set to standard guitar tuning. Is there any reason you couldn't tune them in fifths? I tried to do that with an old 3/4-scale acoustic, but the high string I was trying to get to B snapped at A#. I've since read some old posts here about trying something like a .008 string, but at this point I think I just want to focus on my mando and tenor guitar. But I thought it would be interesting to still have a six-string instrument (six courses, anyway) tuned to CGDAEB. Just an idea I was tossing around. I have no idea what kind of gauges I'd need for the low and high string sets on a 12-string mandolin.

    Thank you.

  2. #2
    Moderator MikeEdgerton's Avatar
    Join Date
    Mar 2007
    40.1646 N, 74.2083 W

    Default Re: 12-string mandolin tuned in fifths?

    There is no reason why you can't tune one to fifths as long as you can get the string gauges you need. A friend of mine had the six string version and honestly it seemed unplayable to me as a guitar. I never tried tuning it in fifths. The Goldtone 6 string was a copy of a Gibson model that has been discontinued. Take a look at this. I'm pretty sure that both players listed simply tuned it as a guitar.
    "Bargain instruments are no bargains if you can't play them". These are the words of J. Garber.

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  4. #3

    Default Re: 12-string mandolin tuned in fifths?

    Thanks, Mike. The guitar tuning would definitely make sense if guitar players were looking for the mandolin sound without having to relearn the fingerboard. I was thinking there must have been some kind of physical limitation to the instrument preventing tuning in fifths, but then with a scale length so much shorter than a guitar, I didn't see how that could be possible.

    The comment about the out-of-tune intro to "Wouldn't It Be Nice" made me laugh. I've always wondered if other people noticed that!

  5. #4

    Default Re: 12-string mandolin tuned in fifths?

    Just some comments from experience:

    At a guitar's normal scale length of 25.5", the highest string, normally tuned to E4, will break around the pitch of G#4 relatively quickly, but lasts a while at G4. At a scale length of 20", you can get to B4. To get to a pitch of B5, above a mandolin's normal high string of E5, you need a scale length of 10". These aren't just arbitrary. A thicker string is stronger, but requires more tension, and therefore breaks at a higher pitch. A thinner string requires less tension, but is weaker, and breaks at the same higher pitch.

    Without a body which can produce the low frequencies, a low-strung course is pretty useless on an acoustic instrument. In the case of a normal acoustic guitar, the lowest decent-sounding course for me has been C2 (two whole steps below the normal guitar low string pitch of E2).

    The Gold Tone has a scale length of 15", so the pitch limit of that high string/course is E5.


    Regarding the high B4 on the 6-course Ovation mandophone mentioned in my signature, here's the topics describing how I've been able to tune to that pitch for almost a decade. I've only had a string in that high course break in the last nine years when someone else picked up my instrument without my permission, so I've become very good about putting it in its case and locking it when it's not in my hands, even when playing out.

    Here's how I got there.

    Converting 6-string to full-fifths tuning - my experiment

    12-String Conversion to Mandophone / Mandocello Plus!

    Whatever you choose to do, good luck!

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  7. #5

    Default Re: 12-string mandolin tuned in fifths?

    Thanks for that! I read your story before I signed up.

    Yeah, the string I'd be tuning to B5 was my concern. And I also wasn't sure how a course tuned to C3 would sound on a mandolin. When I was trying fifths tuning on my 3/4-scale acoustic, C2 left me with a mushy string.

    I don't think my idea would work, then -- but that's why I came here to ask!

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  9. #6
    Gadfly Dr H's Avatar
    Join Date
    Jan 2011

    Default Re: 12-string mandolin tuned in fifths?

    I've been experimenting with odd guitar tunings for a while now, and I have a standard-scale (about 25.5") classical guitar tuned in all fifths: C2-G2-D3-A3-E4-B4. I couldn't get any stock string up to a B4 for more than a few seconds, so I finally tried nylon monofilament fishing line for the top string -- 0.019. It works, for a while. It takes 7-10 days of constant retuning to settle in to pitch, and after that it's good for a week or two before snapping, usually spontaneously while in the case. I've experimented with different gauges and materials, but the longest I've ever gotten at that pitch is maybe 2-1/2 weeks. Of course, this is with nylon strings.

    The only instrument I've ever tried to get up to a B5 is a Bolivian hualaycho -- a member of the charango family with 5-double strung courses and about a 12.5" scale. Although a number of sources give B5 as the "official" pitch for the top course, I've never gotten a metal string to that pitch on the instrument. I suspect that the tuning -- as with many of these folk instruments -- is flexible, dictated by the range of any singers present, and that a true B5 doesn't actually happen very often. I have gotten the top course to a B5 with monofilament nylon, and on the shorter scale it behaves pretty well.

    If you manage to get a metal string on your axe up to B5 and last more than a day or two, I'd really be interested to learn the specifics of what worked for you.
    Dr H
    "I have nothing to say, and I am saying it, and that is poetry." -- John Cage

  10. #7

    Default Re: 12-string mandolin tuned in fifths?

    I've attempted playing along with various Andean folk recordings, Inti-Illimani etc and I agree that they are often flat and probably based on tuning relative to a particular instrument or ear. Maybe they tune as close as they can to breaking and then tune relative to that string, whatever the actual pitch may be? More of a tension based tuning? I don't suppose at very high altitudes like that the string properties may be different?

  11. #8

    Default Re: 12-string mandolin tuned in fifths?

    I was hill walking in Peru 40 years ago and came across this old fellow singing and playing to himself. 12 strings and haunting songs.Click image for larger version. 

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