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Thread: Luthier Tune-up Frequency

  1. #1

    Default Luthier Tune-up Frequency

    Hello All. I have been a frequent reader of Mandolin Cafe, but this is my first post. I have unsuccessfully tried to find the answer to my question in the archives. Undoubtedly, it is there and I have simply missed it. Regardless, here is my question:

    How often should I submit my mandolin to a luthier fir a tune-up. I can change the strings, but I prefer a real expert to periodically look at her and make any needed adjustments. Obviously, it is dependent upon frequency and intensity of use and the age of the instrument. I am looking for a good rule of thumb when to have a luthier do a tune-up.

  2. #2

    Default Luthier Tune-up Frequency

    Hello All. I have been a frequent reader of Mandolin Cafe, but this is my first post. I have unsuccessfully tried to find the answer to my question in the archives. Undoubtedly, it is there and I have simply missed it. Regardless, here is my question:

    How often should I submit my mandolin to a luthier for a tune-up/set-up? I can change the strings, but I prefer a real expert to periodically look at her and make any needed adjustments. Obviously, it is dependent upon frequency and intensity of use and the age of the instrument. I am looking for a good rule of thumb when to have a luthier do a tune-up/set-up.

  3. #3
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    Default Re: Luthier Tune-up Frequency

    Some of the answer depends upon how well an instrument is cared for, and what kind of environment that it lives in. The age of an instrument should also be taken into account.

    A modern instrument that spends most of its time in a temperature and humidity controlled house, stored in a case, and wiped off with a soft cloth after it is played should rarely need service. It doesn't hurt to have it looked over every 2 to 5 years or so.

    An instrument that spends a lot of time outside in weather that varies from quite hot to quite cold, and is exposed to large swings in humidity should be checked once a year, or anytime that anything abnormal is noticed.

    Antique instruments are subject to the possibility of glue joint failure. It's probably a good idea to have the braces in Gibson and Martin instruments that are 50 years old or older inspected every year. In my experience, glue joint failure is much more prevalent in Gibson instruments than it is in old Martins.

    If an instrument is well set up, a nut should only have to be adjusted once. It should not be necessary to adjust it again until frets are levelled or replaced. And if an instrument is built right, the same should usually be true for truss rods. At the most, a truss rod should need no more than a very minor adjustment once every few years.

    I will note that instruments often come from the factory with poorly adjusted nuts and truss rods that were not snugged up before shipment.

    It may be necessary to raise or lower an adjustable mandolin bridge once or twice a year due to the effects of swinging from dryer conditions during the heating season to more humid conditions in the summer. Older acoustic guitars will sometimes benefit from a winter bridge saddle and a summer saddle.

    For a well cared for instrument that has been really well set up, the trip to the luthier can very often be considered to be a check-up rather than a tune up or new set up.

    For those who leave their instruments in hot cars or freezing cold cars, all bets are off. Probably the greatest cause of instrument problems is exposure to extremes of temperature. It only takes a few minutes in a hot car to ruin an instrument. It might take a few hours in a freezing cold car to ruin one.

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  5. #4

    Default Re: Luthier Tune-up Frequency

    Thank you so much. Your reply is far more detailed and comprehensive than I expected. I have a 2016 Eastman MD315, a 1936 Martin Style 20, and a new Afanti F style oval hole mandocello. Each are kept in hard cases when not played and never played outdoors. I intend to print your reply for periodic review and referral. Thanks again!
    Last edited by MHW; Aug-22-2021 at 11:49pm.

  6. #5
    Innocent Bystander JeffD's Avatar
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    Default Re: Luthier Tune-up Frequency

    When I change strings, I remove and replace each string in turn. I do not take off all the strings.

    That preserves the set up through string changes.

    I think that with normal care, and normal hard playing, and string changes as above a set up is good for several years or more. Or until you experience a problem.
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    Default Re: Luthier Tune-up Frequency

    Quote Originally Posted by JeffD View Post
    ... with normal care, and normal hard playing ... a set up is good for several years or more. Or until you experience a problem.
    Exactly what I've been thinking.

    Just for example, my main '72 Martin guitar has been in -only- for:
    - the backbrace crack that it had when I bought it in '90 (priced accordingly);
    - the neck/headstock crack from when I dropped it 6 months later (fortunately on a thick carpet!);
    - the '05 neck reset that most Martins need around that age;
    - the loosened neck binding (my earlier glue job didn't last!) related to that now 30 y/o headstock fix.
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    Default Re: Luthier Tune-up Frequency

    Quote Originally Posted by JeffD View Post
    When I change strings, I remove and replace each string in turn. I do not take off all the strings.

    That preserves the set up through string changes.

    I think that with normal care, and normal hard playing, and string changes as above a set up is good for several years or more. Or until you experience a problem.

    All of that is true, but you should be able to perform a normal set up of your own instrument. It's not rocket surgery.

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    Default Re: Luthier Tune-up Frequency

    Listen to Jeff. I have a 1993 Randy Wood F 5 and I have only had to have a luthier look at it once, too dress the frets. If it plays well and sounds good then you shouldn't need anything.

  10. #9

    Default Re: Luthier Tune-up Frequency

    Deleted redundancy induced by merging threads.
    Last edited by Eugene; Aug-23-2021 at 4:48pm.

  11. #10

    Default Re: Luthier Tune-up Frequency

    I simply don't—at least not along anything like a "routine"—unless there's a specific maintenance issue that needs to be addressed. That, of course, requires the experience to recognize when small issues emerge that might need address (e.g., frets in need of leveling, action adjustments at bridge, old glue joints needing refreshed, etc.). I'm keen to read of other approaches.

    I also keep some pretty old instruments, some original pieces dating to the 1830s (or earlier). Most of my mandolins span the first (or first couple) decade(s) of the 1900s. As such, living in a temperate place that enjoys an occasional winter and the atmospherically arid conditions that come with it, seasonal humidification is super important.

    Oh, and welcome, MHW! I'd love to have a peek at your Martin style 20.
    Last edited by Eugene; Aug-23-2021 at 4:50pm.

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    Default Re: Luthier Tune-up Frequency

    Quote Originally Posted by lowtone2 View Post
    All of that is true, but you should be able to perform a normal set up of your own instrument. It's not rocket surgery.
    I've heard of "rocket science" before, but not "rocket surgery." Since the machines are becoming more human, though, ...

    What people should be able to perform does not always match what people are able to perform, and is somewhat subjective. I can change my own strings, but I don't feel comfortable doing much more than that, even though I understand the principles of set-up, truss-rod adjustment, etc. On the other hand, I often see people using calculators for arithmetic that I'd expect them to just do in their head.

    Quote Originally Posted by Denny Gies View Post
    Listen to Jeff. I have a 1993 Randy Wood F 5 and I have only had to have a luthier look at it once, too dress the frets. If it plays well and sounds good then you shouldn't need anything.
    I think that that depends on whether you want your instrument to be in optimum condition. Since my instruments generally play well enough and sound good enough for my ability level, they rarely visit the luthier. I'm sure that they could use a tweak or two here and there, but I wouldn't necessarily notice the difference in playability or tone.
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    Default Re: Luthier Tune-up Frequency

    I merged these two threads.
    "Bargain instruments are no bargains if you can't play them". These are the words of J. Garber.

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    Default Re: Luthier Tune-up Frequency

    I do my own setups, I change the bridge often. Humidity will raise the action, I don't like that, I keep it at a very low action. Higher and it bothers my old hands. I also notice when the action goes up slightly, the intonation changes, when the intonation changes so does the sound of the mandolin. If you live in a fairly stable part of the country, or don't seem to mind that your mandolin plays harder and doesn't sound as good, then you won't need any adjustments. I notice slight changes in action and sound and carry gauges in my case to make sure the action is where I want it, and that keeps my sound consistent. Yep, I am picky, but it's worth it for me. When it starts to dry out it will buzz and I will have to raise the action. It's a constant dance with the weather and the mandolin. Taking it in to someone would be not possible so often, I work on instruments so it is no big deal, but it is something you can learn to do, even if is is measure the action and raise or lower your bridge, it will help keep your mandolin playing and sounding it's best.
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  16. #14

    Default Re: Luthier Tune-up Frequency

    Quote Originally Posted by Eugene View Post
    I simply don't—at least not along anything like a "routine"—unless there's a specific maintenance issue that needs to be addressed. That, of course, requires the experience to recognize when small issues emerge that might need address (e.g., frets in need of leveling, action adjustments at bridge, old glue joints needing refreshed, etc.). I'm keen to read of other approaches.

    I also keep some pretty old instruments, some original pieces dating to the 1830s (or earlier). Most of my mandolins span the first (or first couple) decade(s) of the 1900s. As such, living in a temperate place that enjoys an occasional winter and the atmospherically arid conditions that come with it, seasonal humidification is super important.

    Oh, and welcome, MHW! I'd love to have a peek at your Martin style 20.
    Thank you for the welcome, Eugene. Here are a couple of pics of my 1936 Martin Style 20.
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    Default Re: Luthier Tune-up Frequency

    Quote Originally Posted by Marcus CA View Post
    I've heard of "rocket science" before, but not "rocket surgery." Since the machines are becoming more human, though, ...

    What people should be able to perform does not always match what people are able to perform, and is somewhat subjective. I can change my own strings, but I don't feel comfortable doing much more than that, even though I understand the principles of set-up, truss-rod adjustment, etc. On the other hand, I often see people using calculators for arithmetic that I'd expect them to just do in their head.


    I think that that depends on whether you want your instrument to be in optimum condition. Since my instruments generally play well enough and sound good enough for my ability level, they rarely visit the luthier. I'm sure that they could use a tweak or two here and there, but I wouldn't necessarily notice the difference in playability or tone.


    It's a old concept, related to brain science.

    Yes, it's subjective, but there's nothing mysterious about setting a bridge for intonation, and checking and adjusting action. Neither of those are more difficult than changing strings, in fact easier. Adjusting relief can be a little trickier, but it is easy to check, and in my experience rarely needs adjusting, if ever.

    Learning basic setup is almost as important as learning basic playing technique, and no more difficult. That is of course merely my opinion.

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  20. #16

    Default Re: Luthier Tune-up Frequency

    My main guitar, a 1972 Martin D35. I've had it since college. It's in great shape!

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    Default Re: Luthier Tune-up Frequency

    Quote Originally Posted by lowtone2 View Post
    All of that is true, but you should be able to perform a normal set up of your own instrument. It's not rocket surgery.
    Sometimes folks gotta disagree.


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    Default Re: Luthier Tune-up Frequency

    I have an Oldwave oval A style. It has not been to a luthier ever. I have not needed to adjust the bridge, in this case it is non-adjustable so that would mean sanding or replacing, I have not had the neck shift I have had to change strings and move the bridge a tad to compensate for intonation. Keep it at constant humidity and well cared for and little will be needed. If it starts to buzz or sound out of tune going up the neck or perhaps the action shifts to an unacceptable height etc then get someone to look at it.

    If it plays fine intonates fine and has a good action it doesn't need a check-up. If not having a check-up is causing you undue stress get a luthier to look at it, even if it isn't needed sometimes peace of mind is worth the look. You should be able to adjust intonation yourself if needed.
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    Default Re: Luthier Tune-up Frequency

    To me it is a subjective thing, not a regular "have to do it every year/month/decade, etc." If I have an instrument that after my own adjustments—change strings, check bridge angle, check for cracks—still doesn't quite sound as good as I recall it did, then I take it to the doctor for a checkup. I actually find that violins are a bit more finicky that way and really benefit from proper set up after a year or so of playing whereas mandolins pretty much are more stable. However, since I am much older I go to much fewer festivals and lately have been concentrating on playing mostly fiddle.

    Anyway, it is when I think it needs something I can't do. I generally don't change strings unless I notice that the instrument needs it. I have a few of them like that but I also have a pile of others I can play in the meantime. I am spoiled that way.
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    Default Re: Luthier Tune-up Frequency

    You can always lift ideas from the pros, right? I think Willie Nelson’s Trigger gets a luthier tune up every year.
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    Default Re: Luthier Tune-up Frequency

    Alert: a controversial opinion:

    I think it is easier to tweak and fine tune your mandolin to get the perfect set up, than it is to practice the darn thing and get better at playing it.

    This is not a dig, it is human nature. Tweaking and fine tuning yields immediate results, immediate gratification, effort directly to reward. Practicing, whether its practicing tunes, or exercises, or strumming patterns, or whatever, yields incremental results only discernable after a while, and a longer while than seems to reward the immediate effort.

    So except for fixing the more egregious problems, tweaking and fine tuning cuts into my pickin' time.
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  29. #22

    Default Re: Luthier Tune-up Frequency

    Quote Originally Posted by MHW View Post
    Here are a couple of pics of my 1936 Martin Style 20.
    Lovely. Thanks.

  30. #23
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    Default Re: Luthier Tune-up Frequency

    Any mandolin player should be able to do some basic setup including:

    + String changes (also knowing when to change strings)
    + Fixing basic intonation issues with the floating bridge
    + Fixing minor action issues by lowering / raising the bridge as needed (provided you have an adjustable bridge)
    + Lubricating the tuning pegs
    + Cleaning the fingerboard and body of the instrument (I know a lot of folks that don't which is just gross haha)

    These things don't really take any skill or require special tools etc. If you don't know how to do these things, just watch a video online. These are simple updates.

    For me, the only time I bring my instruments to a pro to setup are for things like:

    + Refretting or dressing the frets
    + Significant actions issues that require truss rod adjustments
    + Installing a new nut and/or repairing the existing nut (it's not hard, but I don't have the tools)
    + Cracks in the instrument that need a luthier's touch
    + Misc issues that I cannot diagnose
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  32. #24
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    Default Re: Luthier Tune-up Frequency

    If you read the concurrent thread "Do You Baby Your Mandolin?," it will explain why some instruments require only very occasional service, and some turn into basket cases in a short time.

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