When you buy a new mandolin, you may think you’re stuck with that instrument’s sound for the rest of its life.
But there’s another factor to consider, which can be almost as important to the sound as the instrument itself: the strings.
Do you want your mandolin to have a bright tone quality, or do you want it to have a rich, mellow sound? How important is it for the mandolin to be easy to play and smooth on your fingers?
Answering these questions and considering the differences between the best mandolin string brands will help you pick out the best strings to complement your mandolin.
- What to Look for When Buying Mandolin Strings
- How many strings does a mandolin have?
- What are the mandolin’s strings tuned to?
- Are mandolin strings the same as guitar strings?
- What gauge of strings should I choose?
- What kind of metal should the strings be made from?
- Coated vs. Uncoated Strings
- Roundwound vs. Flatwound Strings
- The Best Mandolin Strings: Reviews
- Martin M400 Mandolin Strings
- D’Addario J74 Mandolin Strings
- D’Addario EXP74 Coated Phosphor Bronze Strings
- D’Addario EFW74 Flatwound Mandolin Strings
- GHS A240 Phosphor Bronze Mandolin Strings
- Thomastik-Infeld 154 Mandolin Strings
- Ernie Ball Earthwood Mandolin Strings
- Elixir Strings Nanoweb Coated Mandolin Strings
What to Look for When Buying Mandolin Strings
First, a few of the basics:
How many strings does a mandolin have?
Unlike many other stringed instruments, mandolins have eight strings in pairs of two.
What are the mandolin’s strings tuned to?
Mandolin strings are tuned like the violin, whose four strings are tuned to G-D-A-E.
The only difference is that two strings on the mandolin are tuned the same as each string on the violin. This results in the tuning G-G-D-D-A-A-E-E.
Are mandolin strings the same as guitar strings?
A major difference between mandolin strings and guitar strings is that mandolin strings have a simple loop on the end that wraps around a hook under the mandolin’s tailpiece.
If you play guitar, you might find it difficult to change mandolin strings at first for this reason, but if you are careful you’ll quickly adjust to mandolin-style strings.
In composition, mandolin strings are nearly identical to acoustic guitar strings.
Because the mandolin was a more specialized instrument, however, there used to be far fewer choices when it came to picking the best mandolin strings.
Luckily, many string manufacturers have enthusiastically embraced the mandolin market today, and a wealth of options are available to mandolinists everywhere.
Before you consider the specific brands and models of mandolin strings that are available, you’ll want to consider some larger picture questions that will help you narrow down your choices.
What gauge of strings should I choose?
In general, mandolin strings come in one of three gauges.
- Light: .010, .014, .024, .038
- Medium: .011, .015, .026, .040
- Heavy: .0115, .016, .026, .041
Lighter strings vibrate more quickly, exert less tension on the instrument, and have a brighter, more vibrant tone.
Many beginning players choose light mandolin strings because they don’t cause much harm to their fingers before developing calluses.
If you have an older mandolin with no truss rod in the neck, you may also want to consider lighter strings, since they will put less pressure on the neck and could prevent serious damage to the instrument.
Medium gauge strings are the most popular variety, with a balance between a bright tone quality, strong playability, sustain, and volume.
The heavier strings are, though, the harder it is to press them down against the frets and the more they will hurt your fingers.
The payoff is a louder volume and better sustain, as well as a deeper, richer tone, if that suits your playing style.
What kind of metal should the strings be made from?
The metal used in making mandolin strings is the most significant determining factor in their tone quality.
The most popular alloy, or combination of metals, is phosphor bronze, a combination of copper, tin, and phosphorus that results in a bright timbre that has a long lifespan.
Standard bronze strings may result in a brighter timbre than phosphor bronze, but their lifespan suffers.
Other metals like stainless steel, nickel, and copper have a darker tone as well as a richer bass sound.
Nickel plated steel strings have a brighter tone than even bronze, making them a good choice if you play electric mandolin.
Just like stainless steel kitchenware, stainless steel strings have the advantage of being resistant to oxidization.
For players whose fingers sweat a lot, this can make a big difference in increasing the lifespan of the strings.
Coated vs. Uncoated Strings
With recent advances in technology, many mandolin string manufacturers have experimented with ways to extend the lifespan of their strings.
The result is coated strings, in which a polymer coating is applied to the wound strings (those that are most susceptible to corrosion).
While this technological breakthrough solved a number of chronic issues with traditional strings, you’ll need to think through the upsides and downsides before jumping on the bandwagon.
Pros of coated strings
- The polymer coating protects the strings from all kinds of grime, preventing corrosion and maintaining their initial tone quality.
- They last longer – often four or more times longer than uncoated strings!
- Your fingers will not create a buzzing sound when they brush against the strings.
- The polymer coating can enable manufacturers to experiment with new metal alloys. This is because certain metals, like copper, are impractical for traditional strings because they oxidize easily. But with the polymer coating, they are protected from oxidization and can thus have a far longer lifespan.
Cons of coated strings
- This is still an experimental technology, and not every company has mastered the techniques of applying polymer to the strings.
- The polymer will have an effect on the strings’ tone quality. The upper range of the sound will be less vibrant – the only question is how much the tone will change.
- The polymer may rub off over time.
Roundwound vs. Flatwound Strings
All wound mandolin strings share a core that will either be round or hexagonal.
Some strings known as flatwound strings, however, are wrapped in a special kind of wire that results in a comparatively smooth and flat surface around the outside of the string.
The feel of flatwound strings is noticeably different from roundwound strings.
You can feel distinct grooves between each wrapping on a roundwound string, but on a flatwound string it is much harder to notice.
Neither flatwound nor roundwound strings are better than the other. Instead, most mandolinists will tend prefer one or the other depending on their priorities.
Pros of flatwound strings
- They make less of a squeaky sound when your finger runs across them
- Their smoother surface does less damage to your fingertips and means you can play for a lot longer.
- Mellow sound, which may be appealing to folk or jazz players in particular
- Like coated strings, they don’t lose their tone quality nearly as quickly as typical roundwound strings
Cons of flatwound strings
- They are generally more expensive than roundwound strings, though you can offset this issue by leaving them on the mandolin for longer.
- You can’t buy low-gauge flatwound strings, so they won’t feel the same if you’re used to playing low-gauge strings.
- The strings have a higher tension than round strings, making it more challenging to bend them or use vibrato. This is a much larger factor for guitars than for mandolins, but it can still have an important impact.
- The higher strings will a comparatively dull sound, since flatwound strings remove the upper end of the harmonic range of the string.
- There are fewer customizations available since they are not as common.
When it comes to buying good mandolin strings, you’ll need to experiment with a few different varieties before you find the best fit.
Ultimately, what you’re looking for is the ideal balance of value, tone, and flexibility to meet your needs.
The Best Mandolin Strings: Reviews
If you’re looking to throw some new strings on your mandolin without making too much of an investment, you can’t go wrong with the tried-and-true classic, D’Addario’s J74s.
They won’t last forever, so buy a few packs at a time, but you’ll achieve excellent tone and playability without breaking the bank.
For those who want to experiment with a higher-quality string, Elixir’s Nanoweb coated strings offer an excellent balance between affordability and extending the lifespan of your strings.
While you may notice a decrease in tone quality, they’ll still sound great.
Plus, once you’ve left them on your mandolin for a couple of months, you’ll actually be saving money by opting for the more expensive strings.
There are countless options available when searching for quality mandolin strings, so the best advice you can take is to give some different styles of strings a try.
Your mandolin might sound better with coated strings, with flatwound strings, with stainless steel strings, or some combination of those options – you’ll never know until you try.
Fortunately, strings are a relatively small purchase compared to a new instrument, so you can achieve wonderful advances in tone quality without having to buy a whole new mandolin.