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Thread: High-strung Mandola

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    Default High-strung Mandola

    I purchased a mandola a little over a year ago, and not thinking about what I was doing I tuned it up like my mandolin. I recently realized I should have kept it tuned a fifth below this. I have it down to CGDA know, but the instrument sounds very... I don't know exactly how to describe it... unhappy?

    I've listened to other mandolas and they have a bright tone similar to the mandolin; but mine sounds rather bleak and dull, and when I fret the strings the pitch is sharp. I was wondering what the source of the issue is, and what I might do to fix it.

    Thanks.

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    MandolaViola bratsche's Avatar
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    Default Re: High-strung Mandola

    Welcome to the Cafe! I'm no expert, but I suspect the experts here will want to know more details than you've given in order to make a good diagnosis. Such as: What kind of strings are you using (first, are they mandolin or mandola strings)? What style of mandola is it (carved top, flat top, bowlback)? What is the scale length (distance from nut to bridge saddle)? The intonation could be sharp because the bridge has moved too far forward, or the neck could have warped or bowed from the wrong strings putting too much tension on it. Does it look straight?

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    Martin Stillion mrmando's Avatar
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    Default Re: High-strung Mandola

    Worst case scenario: putting too much tension on the neck by tuning it incorrectly has pulled the neck out of alignment. With luck the intonation problems are due to something easier to fix, like having the bridge in the wrong place.
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    Default Re: High-strung Mandola

    Simple stuff you can do before panic sets in: get a new set of mandola strings. That extra stretching while you were uptuned has probably pulled all of the resilience out of them. Typical gauges are .015 to .052 or about one whole string size up from a mandolin set.

    If your bridge is moveable, set it at about 16.5 inches from the nut. The more precise way of getting the correct scale length is to measure from the nut to the high part of the 12th fret and then double it.

    For under $10, you should be well under way to chiming and smiling again.

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    Registered User Bob DeVellis's Avatar
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    Default Re: High-strung Mandola

    Quote Originally Posted by buchrob View Post
    The more precise way of getting the correct scale length is to measure from the nut to the high part of the 12th fret and then double it.
    This.

    Mandola scale lengths vary quite a bit. Use this as a starting point and then position the bridge so that the note when fretting at the 12 fret matches the pitch of the harmonic at the 12th fret for each string. You may have to angle the bridge slightly so that the treble end is a bit closer to the sound hole than the bass end is.
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    Martin Stillion mrmando's Avatar
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    Default Re: High-strung Mandola

    Quote Originally Posted by buchrob View Post
    Simple stuff you can do before panic sets in: get a new set of mandola strings. That extra stretching while you were uptuned has probably pulled all of the resilience out of them. Typical gauges are .015 to .052 or about one whole string size up from a mandolin set.
    Good point. If the OP still has mandolin strings on it, that right there could be the entire problem. Mandolin strings will not sound good or hold pitch when tuned a fifth down.
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    Default Re: High-strung Mandola

    Hold on, there are a lot of variables here. What's the scale length (distance from nut to bridge), they vary hugely for 'dola's and that determines what strings you should have on it. When you say "same tuning as your mandolin" do you mean literally the same pitch, or an octave lower? Some folks call "octave mandolin's" mandolas and those should have the same tuning as a mandolin albeit an octave down.

    I'd actually be kind of surprised if you managed to get it the same pitches as a mandolin without breaking a string (or the instrument!).

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    Default Re: High-strung Mandola

    Wow, I wish I had joined this site sooner! So many great suggestions.

    I'm embarrassed, because I have just now looked up the instrument I purchased and it turns out to be an octave mandolin (Johnson MA-550). It's a flat top with ~20.3'' scale length. I haven't changed the strings after picking it up from the music shop and I assume they outfitted correctly (although they also told me it was a mandola, so I'm not sure).

    And yes, I did have it tuned to the same pitch as my mandolin (shoot me). Considering I had this up a whole octave higher than intended I'm surprised it hasn't exploded. In fact, while I'm obviously no expert, the instrument still looks to be in excellent shape. I don't believe the neck is warped, which has been my darkest nightmare.

    I'll tune it down to GDAE now; I imagine this will provide an even unhappier tone however. Stretched strings is a very appealing diagnosis and I'll get a new set pronto. I'm not sure on which gauge to choose though. Any suggestions? Thank you so much for your help so far.

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    MandolaViola bratsche's Avatar
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    Default Re: High-strung Mandola

    Holy cow! I once had a Johnson MA-550 Octave, and can't even imagine someone tuning it an octave too high - it was the first mando family instrument I ever owned, but I sold it. They must be built like brick outhouses if the neck didn't warp. Color me impressed!

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    Registered User Keith Newell's Avatar
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    Default Re: High-strung Mandola

    I would suggest wearing protective eyewear if you were to make a habit of that!
    Keith

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    MandolaViola bratsche's Avatar
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    Default Re: High-strung Mandola

    Just protective eyewear? I was going to suggest a full suit of fencing gear...

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    Mando accumulator allenhopkins's Avatar
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    Default Re: High-strung Mandola

    Howthehell can octave mandolin strings withstand being tuned an octave higher than the pitch for which they're designed???

    Something odd here, IMHO. Maybe the music store, thinking it was a mandola, put mandola strings on it, which were then tuned to mandolin pitch…?

    Even then, with a 20+ inch scale, they should have snapped well before getting to GDAE. If I tried to do anything like that, there'd be string fragments all over the place.

    Why does the instrument sound "unhappy?" It definitely sounds lower, and OP misses the "bright sparkle" of severely overstretched strings. If the over-tension pulled the neck forward, then pushing the strings down to the fretboard might cause them to be stretched sharp.

    Initial suggestion: a visit to a good instrument repair shop -- not where it was purchased, where staff doesn't know a mandola from an octave mandolin, apparently. Diagnosis of any possible damage from over-tension, proper set-up with octave mandolin strings, and putting it into the stringing and tuning for which it was designed.
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    Default Re: High-strung Mandola

    Quote Originally Posted by allenhopkins View Post
    Howthehell can octave mandolin strings withstand being tuned an octave higher than the pitch for which they're designed???

    Something odd here, IMHO. Maybe the music store, thinking it was a mandola, put mandola strings on it, which were then tuned to mandolin pitch…?

    Even then, with a 20+ inch scale, they should have snapped well before getting to GDAE. If I tried to do anything like that, there'd be string fragments all over the place.
    I'm having a hard time believing it myself; but as I live and breathe I got it up there, and it played rather nice in my opinion. I've tuned it down now and it sounds like it has been drowning its woes in Jameson (please excuse my metaphors, they really are the best way I can describe these kinds of things). I've got both eyes open for a reputable shop but will most likely try new strings first.

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    MandolaViola bratsche's Avatar
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    Default Re: High-strung Mandola

    I'm going to take a guess that the shop actually put regular mandolin strings on it, rather than mandola ones. That's the only way I could imagine them being tuned so high and "play rather nice" (not to mention not warp the neck and/or explode). Thicker mandola strings would not behave this way, at least not at that scale length. It would also explain why they sound so bleak and dull when tuned down to low octave GDAE (are they also flopping around like a dead fish, particularly the thickest ones?) There are some strings sold for mandolin (like d'Addario) that are generously long. In fact, I use some FT74s on my Baby Taylor OM conversion. But it has a longer scale than yours (22 3/4"), and even so, requires a light touch and a very lightweight and resonant instrument body to play and sound decent, which the Baby Taylor has. I don't think these mandolin strings would work at all with a shorter scale instrument than this - they would be floppy and dull. So that is my semi-educated guess on the matter. Definitely try real OM strings.

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    Default Re: High-strung Mandola

    A friend of mine has a Johnson MA-550. There is no way on earth the E or A strings could be tuned and octave up from unless they were made of carbon nanotubes.
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    Registered User Keith Newell's Avatar
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    Default Re: High-strung Mandola

    Heck sometimes when stringing up a new mandolin 2 times if I go to G or A on the e string it pops instantly. I had on that popped and the end hit the ebony fretboard and buried it's end deep into the ebony....frightening!

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    MandolaViola bratsche's Avatar
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    Default Re: High-strung Mandola

    Okay, Pete and Keith, I defer to your judgment. So what kind of strings do you guys think are on ThunderHuffy's instrument, based on the evidence so far?

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    Default Re: High-strung Mandola

    Quote Originally Posted by bratsche View Post
    are they also flopping around like a dead fish, particularly the thickest ones?

    bratsche
    yes, very accurate description.

    Quote Originally Posted by Pete Jenner View Post
    A friend of mine has a Johnson MA-550. There is no way on earth the E or A strings could be tuned and octave up from unless they were made of carbon nanotubes.
    well it definitely is a Johnson MA-550. I can't imagine that I was so lucky to score carbon nanotube strings; but unless I am actually unable to tell the difference between octaves these strings, whatever they were designed for, got there. I suppose it's possible that in the beginning the OM was tuned just fine: even though it seemed to be the exact same pitch as my mandolin to my ear, it was an octave lower in reality. I haven't experienced personal tone deficiencies with any of the other stringed or wind instruments that I own; but maybe this is a special case.

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    Default Re: High-strung Mandola

    I suspect you had it in the right octave - it can be surprisingly hard to tell the difference between different octaves particularly when comparing different instrument.

    I once did an experiment on a 20" scale OM to see how high the top string could be taken - the highest I could get was the D below the mandolin's high e with either .009" or .0095" strings - on your longer scale instrument I don't believe you'd get beyond a B with any gauge of strings. And yes the experiment did hurt - you try deliberately breaking 4 or 5 strings in a row!

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    Default Re: High-strung Mandola

    Quote Originally Posted by Tavy View Post

    I once did an experiment on a 20" scale OM to see how high the top string could be taken - the highest I could get was the D below the mandolin's high e with either .009" or .0095" strings - on your longer scale instrument I don't believe you'd get beyond a B with any gauge of strings. And yes the experiment did hurt - you try deliberately breaking 4 or 5 strings in a row!
    Was this an aversion therapy session Tavy?
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    Default Re: High-strung Mandola

    Quote Originally Posted by Pete Jenner View Post
    Was this an aversion therapy session Tavy?
    LOL, something like that: I wanted to know what scale length I could go up to and still tune GDAEB on a 5 course instrument. The issue being that thinner strings are also more fragile so you can't actually get a higher pitch from them.

    For the record, seems like somewhere around a 9 or 9.5 will give you the highest possible pitch on any given instrument. Breaking tension was around 25 or 28lbs respectively, but you'd want an actual playing tension no more than ~22 or 24lbs otherwise you'd break a string every time the temperature changed!

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    Default Re: High-strung Mandola

    The instrument that we call an octave mandolin in the USA is called an octave mandola in Europe. Maybe that is where some of the confusion comes from on the store's part.

    Some brands of mandolin strings are indeed long enough to be installed on a 20 inch scale but I can't imagine they would sound good or play right.

    I don't understand why the store would have replaced the factory strings. If you bought it with factory strings they would have been proper gauges for octave mandolin. Perhaps the confusion has caused you to tune an octave too low. This would account for the unhappiness. In any case do get the new strings. Easy inexpensive fix. I recommend GHS octave mandolin set. Check your neck by putting a fairly reliable straight edge on the fingerboard first to make certain you did no harm. Or do what Alan suggests and get it to a good luthier repair person to get it evaluated. You would then get a set up as well so your instrument would sound its best. You don't tell us where you live. If you divulged that bit of information perhaps one of us could recommend someone.
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    Default Re: High-strung Mandola

    Quote Originally Posted by Tavy View Post
    LOL, something like that: I wanted to know what scale length I could go up to and still tune GDAEB on a 5 course instrument. The issue being that thinner strings are also more fragile so you can't actually get a higher pitch from them.

    For the record, seems like somewhere around a 9 or 9.5 will give you the highest possible pitch on any given instrument. Breaking tension was around 25 or 28lbs respectively, but you'd want an actual playing tension no more than ~22 or 24lbs otherwise you'd break a string every time the temperature changed!
    Now look what you've done - I'll have to bookmark this thread now.
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    Default Re: High-strung Mandola

    Quote Originally Posted by ThunderHuffy View Post
    I suppose it's possible that in the beginning the OM was tuned just fine: even though it seemed to be the exact same pitch as my mandolin to my ear, it was an octave lower in reality. I haven't experienced personal tone deficiencies with any of the other stringed or wind instruments that I own; but maybe this is a special case.
    It's easy to check. A lot of tuners show the octave - a mandolin A will be A4, an OM A is A3. If you don't have a tuner with that facility, you can tune up online here.

    Like Tavy, I think you were probably tuned correctly all along, but it's as well to be sure.

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    Default Re: High-strung Mandola

    ..... ok I had it right before. Apparently I need to do some deep thought on my competency with pitch. Thanks to the skeptical individuals who got me on the right track, and thanks and sorry to those who offered other solutions. If I knew how to enact some kind of forum-post hypnotism allowing you to forget any time wasted, I would.

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