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Thread: Tuning for 19th Century Mandolin

  1. #1
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    Question Tuning for 19th Century Mandolin

    I have recently been given a vintage mandolin which claims to have been made in Naples in 1898. As you might expect it was well out of tune (as are all mandolins...) but when I tried to raise it to modern pitch I rather lost my nerve - it seemed a long way to go and I had visions of the neck flying across the room!

    Does anyone know what the tuning should be? Do I just need the courage of my convictions and wind it up? Thanks all!

    There are some pictures here:
    https://photos.app.goo.gl/WP7qDF9amzKP9Y9b7
    https://photos.app.goo.gl/wLDrjLEhEP9gBwrc8
    https://photos.app.goo.gl/GMa1tQzbLpricJma7
    https://photos.app.goo.gl/hNNastggtU1LXToq7
    https://photos.app.goo.gl/fcsva8tWHCSoxnNa6

  2. #2
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    Default Re: Tuning for 19th Century Mandolin

    It should be GDAE and there’s no reason not to if it’s structurally sound but make sure you are using light guauge strings.

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  4. #3
    Registered User DavidKOS's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tuning for 19th Century Mandolin

    Quote Originally Posted by Ray(T) View Post
    It should be GDAE and there’s no reason not to if it’s structurally sound but make sure you are using light gauge strings.
    It seems OK. Actually, it may even be extra light gauge strings depending on the nomenclature. No heavier than .010 to .034, if that. Maybe .009's even.

    https://photos.google.com/share/AF1Q...VudGZPOHFBZFNn

    It looks OK - but no one seems to take a shot of the side of the neck to show the actual string height. I'm looking at other things, including the reflection of the strings off the soundboard, and assuming the neck and block are in decent shape.

    I can't comment about the frets either. They may need dressing.

  5. #4
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    Default Re: Tuning for 19th Century Mandolin

    I would start with .009's and tune low. Standard tuning at the beginning of the 20th century was close to a half step below what we use now.

    Make sure you don't have a loose neck joint, top brace, or tail block that is giving way under tension.

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  7. #5

    Default Re: Tuning for 19th Century Mandolin

    I keep one of my mandolins tuned a whole step down to FCGD; it sounds and plays fine so you can always try that with the .009s and see how it handles that.

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    Registered User Bruce Clausen's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tuning for 19th Century Mandolin

    Quote Originally Posted by rcc56 View Post
    Standard tuning at the beginning of the 20th century was close to a half step below what we use now.
    I'm curious to know where this information comes from. In the Wikipedia article "Concert Pitch" we read "In England the term low pitch was used from 1896 onward to refer to the new Philharmonic Society tuning standard of A = 439 Hz at 68 °F, while "high pitch" was used for the older tuning of A = 452.4 Hz at 60 °F." Elsewhere in the article: "...the French government passed a law on February 16, 1859, which set the A above middle C at 435 Hz." But one half-step below the modern standard A440 would be A415, so these various 19th-century standards are very close to the modern one.

    To the OP: many of us here play on mandolins of the late-19th or early-20th century. The instruments were built to be tuned up very close to modern standard pitch. Of course, determining whether your mandolin can take the tension is a trial-and-error exercise.

    If in doubt, get the mandolin checked out first, then use a light set designed for bowlback instruments.
    Last edited by Bruce Clausen; Nov-11-2018 at 11:52pm.

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    Default Re: Tuning for 19th Century Mandolin

    I have an old tuning fork where A is a 435.
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    Default Re: Tuning for 19th Century Mandolin

    Quote Originally Posted by pops1 View Post
    I have an old tuning fork where A is a 435.
    Correct - and there are old tuning forks in Old High Pitch too, which is almost a half step higher than 440.

    http://capionlarsen.com/history-pitch/

    " In Germany, the bands and orchestras in the mid- to late 1800’s played in a pitch where A=440 Hz.Eb vs Bb This is the standard “low pitch” of today (which later became known as “American Standard Pitch” when it finally came to use in the US). However, at the same time, bands and orchestras in France, England and the US were playing in “high pitch” (A=452.5 Hz). In fact, in the US, “military high pitch” was even higher at A=457 Hz."

    http://www.spiritsound.com/music/pitch.html

    Earliest pitches determined from old organs and tuning forks.

    lowest 403 - highest 567

    Pitch was all over the place until standards were set.

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    Default Re: Tuning for 19th Century Mandolin

    Many thanks for all these knowledgeable replies! To DavidKOS your are absolutely right about a side view so I've put one here.

    Following the advice in this forum I have ordered a set of .009s which I will try gingerly when they arrive... I'll post my findings!

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    Default Re: Tuning for 19th Century Mandolin

    Taking a look at the side view photo, there seems to be some damage at the top to bowl joint about eve with the bridge, although it might just be an out of focus artifact. If there's separation, it should be addressed before you put the instrument under tension.

    It's hard for me to judge the action. Usually a height of about 2mm between top of 12th fret and bottom of strings is about right. All that may change if the bridge position needs adjusting for proper intonation.

    Let us know when once you've got it strung up if there are questions or problems.

    BTW the bass side strings are more important tension-wise than the e string. GHS extra-lights, A240, have the G string at 0.032" and are about as light as you can get. They run about five bucks a set. Be thankful you're not playing a violin; you'd need to multiply the price x10, minimum.

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    Default Re: Tuning for 19th Century Mandolin

    Quote Originally Posted by Bob A View Post
    Taking a look at the side view photo, there seems to be some damage at the top to bowl joint about eve with the bridge, although it might just be an out of focus artifact. If there's separation, it should be addressed before you put the instrument under tension.

    It's hard for me to judge the action. Usually a height of about 2mm between top of 12th fret and bottom of strings is about right. All that may change if the bridge position needs adjusting for proper intonation.

    Let us know when once you've got it strung up if there are questions or problems.

    BTW the bass side strings are more important tension-wise than the e string. GHS extra-lights, A240, have the G string at 0.032" and are about as light as you can get. They run about five bucks a set. Be thankful you're not playing a violin; you'd need to multiply the price x10, minimum.
    Good point - I'm concerned about the action, it looks a bit high.

  19. #12

    Default Re: Tuning for 19th Century Mandolin

    It also looks to me like there's a neck angle problem, and that the treble end of the fretboard is higher than the octave fret. A not uncommon problem with bowlbacks in my limited experience, but it could cause problems trying to get the action acceptable at the 12th fret, as the strings may actually engage the higher frets when you try to play above fret 7 or so.

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    Default Re: Tuning for 19th Century Mandolin

    I have an old bowlback that spent quite a few years in the closet. I strung it up with the lightest strings I could find, but the neck still snapped when I got close to pitch. Regluing and adding a bolt taught me quite about luthiery, so I don't consider the experience wasted.

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    Default Re: Tuning for 19th Century Mandolin

    Definitely has an upward bend at the body near the 10th fret. That should be looked at before going to far in trying to string this up and play it.
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  23. #15
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    Default Re: Tuning for 19th Century Mandolin

    Good advice from all.

    I've owned numerous Lanfranco mandolins and they typically have sounded fairly nice, though the fret spacing and intonation has been a bit sketchioso.

    My hunch has long been that they were made in Catania and labeled in Napoli, but that is neither here nor there viz their relatively good MOR quality.

    Your mandolin is suffering from a common problem plaguing these lightly built Italian bowlbacks. The light build helps account for their resonance and "shimmering sound" as Martin Jonas so nicely put it. There's no mistaking the sound from these compared to US bowls from the era. To my ear Vega, and Favilla bowls come the closest.

    But as you can see from the side view, the mandolin top is prone to sinking ever so slightly under tension between the soundhole and the neck joint. This causes the neck to rotate up bit and throws the action out of whack. It doesn't take much with the short geometry of these mandolins.

    Both L Embergher and CF Martin were savvy to this problem and reinforced the area between the top brace "north" of the soundhole and the neck block joint with a thin plate of spruce. Good design idea. It is a bit of preventive maintenance I've been doing to all my bowlbacks, actually.

    You might be able to fiddle with the bridge to get this playable, but the inherent structural problem will remain. If you are handy with repairs, I would advise considering the Embergher / Martin approach and strengthen that area....even with the use of the extra light strings David recommends (09-32.) It won't compromise the sound and may help save the instrument.

    A lot of folks sniff at these MOR bowls and (understandably) go for the bigger name Neapolitan and Roman builders. From my experience this (second? third?) tier of Italian bowls can be very lovely to play (if they are playable) and the intonation isn't too askew. Playing folk melodies in the first position (which these likely were designed for) naturally helps avoid that issue.

    Good luck getting it up an running!

    Mick
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  25. #16
    Mando-Accumulator Jim Garber's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tuning for 19th Century Mandolin

    Quote Originally Posted by Headwesty View Post
    Many thanks for all these knowledgeable replies! To DavidKOS your are absolutely right about a side view so I've put one here.

    Following the advice in this forum I have ordered a set of .009s which I will try gingerly when they arrive... I'll post my findings!
    I agree that the neck looks like it may have sunken a bit. What strings did you order?

    I would suggest having a luthier take a look at the neck block before even restringing.

    If the nck joint is sound you can probably lower the bridge height by a few mms.

    IMHO the best sounding strings for a vintage Italian bowlback are Dogal Calace RW92b (dolce). They are ultralight and made for these bowlbacks. Optima also makes some nice strings which are likely available in Europe.
    Jim

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