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Thread: Tuning Woes of a Two Year Picker

  1. #1

    Default Tuning Woes of a Two Year Picker

    Howdy folks!

    I have found this site to be very helpful in providing me with Christmas songs, and various other reels, jigs, hornpipes and waltzes to play in the two years I have owned a mandolin. Now that I have a decent bit of experience under my belt, I have a few questions to ask, specifically about tunin'.

    I ask your pardon for any redundancy in this matter, and if such a thread already exists, please point me in the appropriate direction. I have done little research in this matter, though a fair amount of experimentation.

    I have owned my Kansas K-MA1B mandolin for nigh on two years now (I believe the exact count is some one year eight months plus or minus a few days). In all that time I can assuredly say that I am happy with its performance, despite its relatively cheap price tag of $60 (when Ii bought it). There were a few bugs to it, specifically to the bridge but nothin' I couldn't handle.
    For the first year I owned the little gal I wasn't too enthusiastic with it. I played it on and off, but with no real inspiration. When I felt the desire to play it, I'd pull it out of its soft case, check tuning off an old Banana guitar tuner (I'd tune it from open G, as that is the only note the tuner and mandolin can agree on, then do the rest off the 7th fret), then get to pickin'. I was fairly new to instruments as a general note, save a few months piano lessons when I was about nine year old, so my "musical ear" as it may be wasn't all that swell. As such, I can't assuredly say I was ever truly 'in tune', but it sounded as it should to me at the time.
    However, now in my second year of owning the little cutie, I have become obsessed with good, true tuning. In my first year I usually picked and strummed all by my lonesome, where in being "exactly" in tune wasn't so critical. Now, though, I wish to branch out and play with a few friends.
    I first noticed my mandolin out of "exact tune" when I began playing along with good ol' Jay Buckey's MP3 audio recordings of his site a few months back. Usually they were minor mistunings, so I just lived with it. But the more I played, the more inclined my musical ear became, and the more I tweaked with the instrument, those minor mistunings became more and more annoying. So I began searching for online mandolin tuners, and other instruments to tune off of. And that is when the real fun began!

    Baring in mind that I used Jay Buckey as a spring board, I went from online tuner to online tuner trying to find the "right" one. There weren't too many to be honest, and I quickly discarded them all, as none of them got my little mando sounding just right to Jay's. (I'll hereby also admit that I am not musically inclined enough to tune on the fly to other mandolins. If I was, I wouldn't be writing out this short novel!)
    So instead I turned to methods at hand. I have several musical friends, of which one plays the guitar, another the violin, and the other the piano. I started with the piano, because my old music teacher, back when I was nine years old, always advised the piano as a go-to instrument for finding proper tuning. Of all the methods I have tried so far, the piano has done second best to getting my instrument to sound like Jay's. Tuning the mandolin off of itself seems to be the best of all, but the A and E string are always too high.
    When I began noticing the huge differences in string frequency between other instruments, I became curious about 'what is truly in-tune?'. As I said, the piano seemed the best, but compared to the guitar, they were two entirely different animals it seemed. And the violin, now that was a real shocker! Despite the same open string tuning of -G-D-A-E-, compared to what I was accustomed to as "proper tuning", the two were substantially off, and frankly just didn't plain sound right. In all cases, the G and D string always stayed more or less the same (as dictated by my musical inept ear). However, things got wildly out of sync with the A and E strings between all three sources, including even on the mandolin itself!
    Of course I understand that there are differences between audio output between speakers, and as such what is 'in-tune' from one set of speakers may vary between another set. I am also aware that there are variations between mandolins brands and levels of quality, not to mention variations between fellow mandolinists. Jay Buckey simply serves me as a point of reference; something to take root in, mostly because I find my self playing with his recordings that any one else at the moment.

    So what's going on here? Why is it that the tuning of my little $60 Kansas mandolin varies so much between so many known to be in tune instruments? The piano is an electric keyboard, and therefore, to my knowledge, can only be in tune. The guitar is of an respectable age and well kept, and tuned daily with the above mentioned, reliable Banana tuner. The violin comes with its own harmonica-like tuner, and numerous people have ensured that, according to the harmonica-like tuner, that it too is in tune. (As a note, even as I write this, I make mental note how I never compared those three instruments together to see how 'in-tune' they sound to each other.)
    If it helps, I could see about recording my mandolin, when strummed all string open, when tuned to each instrument in turn so that you too may hear the differences. But otherwise, why are these variations occurring? And more importantly....

    What, if such a thing exists, is TRULY in-tune fore a mandolin, and how can I obtain it?

    A desperate, but eager mandoliner,
    Venger Voldur

    P.S.: Thanks to Pete Martin whose instructional beginner mandolin players video I just discovered. With in minutes I was able to match my little mando to yours. So here's to hoping you have it right!


    P.P.S.: As an after thought I felt the need to mention that whenever I tune my mando off a source other than the mandolin itself, the previous string when held at the 7th fret does not match the string below it. For example, as of now I am tuned based of off Pete Martin. According to my ear, we are 'in-tune'. However, whenever I hold the A string down at the 7th fret, in comparison to the E string, the A string at the 7th fret is notably higher than E string open. If I were to correct this variation between the strings, I would be 'out of tune' according to Pete Martin's open E string. This ultimately led me to asking, what do I base tuned off of: the mandolin itself, and follow the 7th fret rule, or based on some one else's mandolin?

  2. #2

    Default Re: Tuning Woes of a Two Year Picker

    I'm not sure what you're observing, from your description. If the tuners are working, you can certainly get anything tuned to the proper pitch. The timbre will certainly be different from a piano, which has multiple strings which are struck when you play a note (or is simulated in the case of an electronic piano), and each of those strings is tuned to a slightly different pitch (in order to achieve a tempered tuning condition).
    If you can't get the individual strings to play in tune while playing an open string, then you either need to practice tuning, or the tuning machines are not functioning.
    If you cannot get the individual fretted notes to be in tune while the open strings are correctly pitched, then you need setup work (nut and bridge height & compensation). Or, less likely these days, the fretboard is incorrect, and has poorly spaced frets.
    The bridge, nut, and fretboard are the three things in play here... which of them are causing your tuning woes will take a bit more information to identify.

  3. #3
    Registered User Jon Hall's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tuning Woes of a Two Year Picker

    When did you change your strings last? Old strings never tune easily.

    Is your "banana" tuner a clip on tuner? I don't think you mentioned tuning your mandolin with the tuner.

    Is the intonation correct? When you fret a string on the 12th fret, is it the same note as the open string but an octave higher? If it is either sharp or flat the bridge is in the wrong position. What you said about strings fretted on the 7th fret, not in unisonwith the open string sounds like the intonation is off. The bridge position would be causing this.

  4. #4
    Middle-Aged Old-Timer Tobin's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tuning Woes of a Two Year Picker

    I agree, it's either an intonation problem (needs bridge placement adjustment), or perhaps the action is too high. If the action is too high, the string has to bend further, thus putting it into higher tension, to reach the fret. This will cause it to go sharp when fretted, even if it's perfectly in-tune when open.

    Also, when was the last time you changed your strings? The older the strings are, the more you will find they play out of tune on fretted notes.

    As for noticing different tunings between all your various sources, that is hardly surprising. What you need to do is buy a good quality electronic tuner that is properly calibrated to A440 (or adjustable to other tunings, if you so desire), and check against that. If you're trying to check against recorded music that you downloaded from the internet, it's not going to be accurate.

  5. #5

    Default Re: Tuning Woes of a Two Year Picker

    It might be that you are becoming sensitized to the fact that no fretted instrument can be perfectly "in tune", if by "in tune" we mean "perfect interval separation in all comparisons for all keys". It's just a physical impossibility unless you want to leave the world of tempered tunings, and thus have to retune yours, and everyone else's, instruments for each key-change. Assuming that you dont have a set-up problem (easy to check and usually pretty easy to fix), old strings (Jon Hall is absolutely correct about that), and that you can accurately use your tuner and that it is a decent one (if not, spend a few bucks and get a decent clip-on--red snarks are like 12 bucks)-- then you might be running up against the issues of tempered tuning. There are actually some interesting ways to address this, but they are reasonably complicated to explain. In a nutshell, it involves intentionally flatting/sharpening some tones--for the keys commonly played in a lot of mandolin music, the biggest discrepancy will be between the E and G (if I remember right)-- I think there is an expansive thread about this somewhere in the archive...OR, for a general understanding of why this problem exists in the first place, look at wikipedia's "Musical Temperament".

  6. #6

    Default Re: Tuning Woes of a Two Year Picker

    After setup variables are accounted for, you might try tuning the chord of the key you are in. If it sounds out no matter what you do, have a luthier check it.

    Also there is no truly in tune for every key. It's compromise, as said above.

  7. #7
    Innocent Bystander JeffD's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tuning Woes of a Two Year Picker

    I would get your instrument set up by a pro. He/she will find any real issues and fix them or let you know if there is a real problem, like fret location or something. If you want to take on setting it up, that's fine, but with mandolin everything is much more persnickety and the smallest little things matter more than say on the guitar. Getting the neck angle and bridge placement and bridge height and string gauges and recognizing the frets need dressing or the nut needs to be replaced or the slots worked on, getting it all just right is a skilled activity, an activity separate from playing the dern thing, and something I leave up to the pros.

    Having the strings match GDAE but not match at the seventh fret, to me, is a classic indication of needing a set up, if its not a fret location problem (which it rarely is).
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    Registered User Randi Gormley's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tuning Woes of a Two Year Picker

    I'll just toss this out to have it mentioned -- some recordings feature instruments in odd tunings because the artist wants a different sound (I'm not saying this is what you listen to, but if you're cruising YouTube, it might come up). Some old recordings, f'rinstance, had instruments tuned sharp to get a brighter sound. And it's certainly possible on a clip-on tuner to hit the wrong button and get A=441 or A=442 instead of A=440 that most concert instruments are tuned to these days.

    But I'd jump on the wagon with everybody else and say the problem with your instrument is it needs a luthier who works on mandolins to look at it and get it intonated properly. Inexpensive instruments are fine to play with when you're learning, but the reason they're so much less than what are usually recommended here is because less attention has been paid to things like intonation, string height, bridge placement and bridge height, nut slots, bridge slots, fret placement ... and coming from guitars, you might not realize how often the strings need replacement. Now that you're spending time with your mandolin, and your ears and fingers are more competent, all these things become noticeable. The next step might even be the dreaded MAS.
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  10. #9

    Default Re: Tuning Woes of a Two Year Picker

    You said that it was a $60 mandolin. It is entirely possible that the fretboard itself is out of whack. Set up by a competent luthier will cost more than the instrument is worth, which as mentioned, leads to another discussion.

  11. #10

    Default Re: Tuning Woes of a Two Year Picker

    *applauds* Fantastic help guys! Thank you very much. And very polite about it too. So thank you there again.

    The general diagnosis of "lower quality" instrument was to be expected. Basically you get what you pay for. *shrugs* So hearing that it would be such an issue of general misalignment doesn't come as a surprise.

    In response to the strings, they are the originals that came with the mandolin. So they are about 2 years old. Or at least, they are two years old to me. No telling how long this thing sat on a warehouse shelf before it reached me.
    With this is mind, should I replace the strings, given as they are the original? And if so, any recommendations? I am not learned in the variety of strings out there, but if it helps any suggestions, I prefer playing jigs, reels, hornpipes, and generally anything you can kick up your heels to! But then again, it isn't as if the mandolin was built for slow, sombre ballads either so I like playing it for the music it was designed for! LoL
    I haven't had any issues the strings I currently have so far as my limited knowledge can identify and diagnose, so is there any need to change them?

    The tuner I use, the Banana Quartz Guitar Tuner BT-2, is NOT a clip on. And because it is designed for a guitar it is sometimes difficult sustaining the open G string (the only note the tuner and mando are compatible to) long enough for the tuner to properly identify and give accurate reading of the note played. I only use this tuner because it is all I have on hand. I use the piano more often though, for more accurate tunings (about once a week to ensure I am in tune). The Banana tuner is used for quick checks. I have every intent, and have been searching for some time now, for a decent clip on tuner. Pete Martin my have pointed me in the right direction in that regard, but any further input as to what tuner, either clip on otherwise, is appreciated.

    In regard to fret placement: If they were simply out of alignment, wouldn't sliding my fingers up and down the neck slightly bring the string into proper tune (when using the 7th fret method)? If this is true, then I feel safe saying that it is not a fret alignment issue. Playing either the 6th fret or the 8th fret does nothing more than take the note further from the desired, respectively making it sharper or flatter. I do not get closer to the desired note. Assuming my reasoning is correct in this regard, then I'd agree with the general analysis that it is a misaligned bridge.

    Speaking of bridges, should I attempt moving it on my own? Bare in mind I am handy with my hands and am used to doing things on my own (despite warnings of 'seek a professional'). So while the idea of tweaking my own bridge is mildly daunting due to fear of not able to get it back to where it was originally, should all go south, I am by no means opposed to educating my self and trying nonetheless. Worst case scenario: I get a new, higher quality mandolin! And where is the problem with that! :D
    Do you guys have any material on bridge adjustment (videos, links, etc), or should I play it safe and Google my nearest luthier instead?

    @Jon Hall: Without a proper tuner, I am not able to tell you if the same note is played, whether sharp or flat, on the 12th fret. I am getting better at knowing when my mando is out of tune by ear alone, and if a note is sharp or flat or otherwise. But asking me if it is the same note, but an octave higher, would be like asking a baby to go from thrashing about on the floor to building Icarus's wings then flying, never mind crawling, walking, running then jumping.

    @Randy Gormli: I understand you comment. In fact I felt my basis of using some one's elses mandolin was a little silly, if not for the reason you mentioned. I never considered that perhaps Jay Buckey has his E string tuned flat, which could possibly explain why his open E always sounds lower than my open E. But then again, as best as my ears can tell, Jay's E and every one else's E sounds more or less the same, while mine sounds high. So it's probably just me.

    As my dad always says, "If yer gonna own something, the very least you should do is be well educated on it," insomuch meaning that if you own, for example, a vehicle, you should AT LEAST know the how and why of it being broken, even if you can't necessarily fix it. To the same affect I intend the same mentality about myself to my mandolin. And though I fully recognize and understand the fact that it is only a cheapy (relative to some of the $500 beauts I've seen out there), I still want to persevere with the little girl and at least TRY to get it as correct as it is physically capable of. Of course, I don't intend to become a luthier, but a basic knowledge of tweaking, tuning, and general "improving" this, or any other instruments I own is a must in my mind.
    However, with the above in mind, is it worthwhile to get a higher quality/more expensive mandolin? And if so, suggestions?

    Thanks again for the polite, informative, and quick responses. You have given much to consider and continue learning. Discussing my instrument with good, knowledgeable company puts a new vigor in my heart, and now more than ever I want to delve into the art of music.

    Venger Voldur

  12. #11
    Middle-Aged Old-Timer Tobin's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tuning Woes of a Two Year Picker

    2 years on the same set of strings? Wow. I'd bet this is 99% of the problem. Strings just can't hold their tuning when they're that old and that used. You may get them in-tune when played open, but they will go out of whack when fretted.

    Change your strings. Then we can go from there. The 'standard' that everyone seems to like is D'Addario J74 strings.

    You also seriously need to get a tuner that works for your mandolin. A Snark or Planet Waves clip-on tuner isn't more than $15. So there's no need to treat it like a major purchase that requires tons of research.

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    Default Re: Tuning Woes of a Two Year Picker

    To cure your frustration you really do need to get a professional setup. Good luck.

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    Innocent Bystander JeffD's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tuning Woes of a Two Year Picker

    I agree. Get a tuner and a new set of strings. Neither of these is a pointless purchase as you will need them eventually anyway, even if the mandolin was first rate.

    In regard to fret placement: If they were simply out of alignment, wouldn't sliding my fingers up and down the neck slightly bring the string into proper tune (when using the 7th fret method)? If this is true, then I feel safe saying that it is not a fret alignment issue. Playing either the 6th fret or the 8th fret does nothing more than take the note further from the desired, respectively making it sharper or flatter. I do not get closer to the desired note. Assuming my reasoning is correct in this regard, then I'd agree with the general analysis that it is a misaligned bridge.
    Not necessarily. By moving up or down a fret you move a relatively large step in tone, and the frets are probably not off by anything near that much.

    Speaking of bridges, should I attempt moving it on my own? Bare in mind I am handy with my hands and am used to doing things on my own (despite warnings of 'seek a professional'). So while the idea of tweaking my own bridge is mildly daunting due to fear of not able to get it back to where it was originally, should all go south, I am by no means opposed to educating my self and trying nonetheless.
    I would not recommend you go there. If new strings and a good tuner do not take care of things, I would have an experienced person look at bridge adjustment, fret placement, and all other set up issues. The goal here is to get you up and playing with a decent playable instrument. Getting experience and education about bridge tweaking, as worthy a goal as that is, it is secondary to the prime directive, which is getting the instrument so you can play it.
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  15. #14

    Default Re: Tuning Woes of a Two Year Picker

    NO mandolin will sound good with 2-year old strings. AND, old strings wont intonate properly. They just wont tune, or stay in tune. Get a new set of J74's. ALSO, buy a clip on Snark tuner. Dont agonize over either of these purchases....These will cost you less than 20 bucks, combined, and you will need both, no matter what.

    BUT, following that, I will suggest a different approach then contacting a luthier. Based on several of your comments, Venger Voldur, I am going to suggest you take the same amount of money that a luthier set-up will cost (50-75 bucks??) and spend it on a couple lessons from a decent mandolin teacher. That teacher can diagnose, in person, if the mandolin in question is worthy of further investment. AND, that same instructor can help steer you to some basics that I feel your answers suggest that you need. Please accept this advice in the helpful spirit that it is intended. For example, you said: "...for more accurate tunings (about once a week to ensure I am in tune)". I think I can say with assurance that if you play regularly you CANNOT be in tune for a week. I rarely stay in acceptable tune for more than a song or 2. If you watch a video of the masters, they tweek their tuning after every song. You later said: "Without a proper tuner, I am not able to tell you if the same note is played, whether sharp or flat, on the 12th fret." Well, if you can hear that you are not in tune, you should be able to discern if you are sharp or flat. And, at least in my opinion, you should be able to tell that the note being sounded is the same note as the one played previously, regardless of being displaced by an octave. Since you seem unsure of these things, I really think a couple sessions (one-on-one, not virtual lessons) would be extremely productive. Just my 2 cents (flat or sharp ;-) ) I hope I haven't been offensive in this suggestion.

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    Registered User Randi Gormley's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tuning Woes of a Two Year Picker

    Rob Meldrum has a nice ebook on setups if you want to go that way and if you're changing strings anyway, you can get proper intonation while you're doing it. You can find his contact information if you do a search -- i think someone has a thank you to him on one of the front pages of 'general discussions' or 'information about' or something.

    Since you've never changed strings, there are a few things you should note when you do so. Don't take all the strings off at once because the bridge will fall off. It's not permanently attached, it's held on by the string pressure. You can mark where the bridge is with sticky notes (one on each side with pen/pencil marks at the edges) if you're worried it'll move a lot. Mandolin strings generally don't have balls at the end of them, they have loops that hook around the tabs at the bottom, and once you put on new strings, it takes a couple days of constant tuning until all the stretch is optimized and the instrument stays in tune (allegedly. mandolin is Italian for 'always out of tune'). Although a clip-on tuner is certainly convenient, you can tune to a hand-held tuner (it's an ap on a smartphone if you have one) or even a pitchpipe you can pick up cheap at a music store. Just ask for one to tune a violin.

    I occasionally use a piano to tune my mandolin when I've changed strings and I just can't find the right register, but I haven't had my piano tuned in years so it's not as accurate as you'd think. Weather affects wood and metal strings aren't static things. Just so you don't think you've permanently mucked up your instrument when you change the strings and it's still out of whack for a bit. that's just life.
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    Default Re: Tuning Woes of a Two Year Picker

    Okay, so it seems I am buying strings, a tuner (questions on this to follow), and perhaps even lessons. I have emailed Rob Meldrum, so I hope to be contacted by him relatively soon. If not, I will definitely be buying his mandolin set up eBook.

    @jashane: No worries, bud. I came to you guys looking for help. In my mind, there is no reason why I should take offense at being told I am wrong. It is a fate any one with half a mind ought to be aware of if they go asking for assistance. For now, I assume in my ignorance that all of you that post here on this forum know what you are talking about (mostly because I don't), and willingly accept any input any one willingly provides. So like I said, no offense taken, or capable of being taken.

    Thanks for the suggestions, corrections and direction. I'll get back to you guys when I have received my strings and tuner, and the eBook.

    Be seeing you guys around the forum!

    Oh yeah, I almost forgot. I know this isn't the right thread for this topic, but which is better, hand-held tuners, or clip-ons? I have read numerous reviews of clip-ons breaking at their plastic spring loaded joint. But conversely I have heard of handhelds being slightly more difficult to use. I have points, and counter-points for each of these options, but this isn't the right thread. Could you guys point me in the right direction...?
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  18. #17
    Middle-Aged Old-Timer Tobin's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tuning Woes of a Two Year Picker

    A hand held tuner will work fine if you're in a perfect environment with no background noise. But if you're in a room with other players, or any other noise, it will be frustrating trying to get it to lock on to your note. Clip-on tuners work by vibration from the instrument, so it's easy to tune up at a jam or other noisy place. Most folks these days prefer clip-on tuners for that reason. They are cheap and work great.

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    Mediocre but OK with that Paul Busman's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tuning Woes of a Two Year Picker

    Get a clip on. I have two Snarks and love them. One stays in my main mando case, the other sits out to tune guitars, ukes, etc.
    I can tune up at a noisy pub gig with no problem. Use that to check your intonation and I wouldn't be afraid to move the bridge a tad. Mark it's current location with blue painter's masking tape (not the white regular stuff). Note that you'll have to loosen the strings quite a bit to move the bridge.
    Don't get too hung up on trying to achieve "perfect". Some notes may always be a tiny bit off from what the meter says after you've tuned to open strings. Play some chords-- do they sound OK? Play a few tunes--do they sound good? If so, you're fine. Put the meter away.
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