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Tuning a mandolin can be tricky business. Since mandolins have shorter strings than guitars, narrowing in on the correct pitch takes finesse – not to mention time.
Mandolins have four sets of two strings that are tuned to the same pitch. Violinists will tell you that it’s far easier for three violinists to play in tune with one another than for only two. The same principle makes it a particular challenge for each pair of strings on a mandolin to sound in tune.
It seems counterintuitive, but our ears amplify even small differences in tuning between two strings to the point that you may find yourself adjusting your tuning after every song.
So how is a mandolin tuned?
With the right equipment, experience, and sometimes just a little bit of luck, you’ll be able to get your mandolin sounding great in no time.
- 1 What is the Tuning of a Mandolin?
- 2 How Do You Tune a Mandolin?
- 3 What to Consider when buying a Mandolin Tuner
- 4 Mandolin Tuner Reviews
- 5 What is the Best Mandolin Tuner?
- 6 Can You Tune a Mandolin with a Guitar Tuner?
What is the Tuning of a Mandolin?
The standard mandolin tuning is the same as violin tuning: G-D-A-E, from low to high. The only difference is that the mandolin has eight strings, but the violin has only four. On a mandolin, you tune each “course,” or pair, of strings to the same pitch, so the mandolin’s tuning is really G-G-D-D-A-A-E-E.
Tuning a mandolin can be confusing for guitar players at first, but you can think of the mandolin as the opposite of a guitar – the lowest strings on a mandolin have the same pitch as the highest strings on a guitar.
The second lowest strings on a mandolin then correspond to the second highest on a guitar, and so on. This also means that many mandolin chords are the same as guitar chords, only in reverse. Like most instruments, mandolins can be tuned in a variety of ways.
Some of the more common alternate tunings are G-D-A-D, A-D-A-E, G-D-G-D, and G-D-G-B, so give those a try if you can’t tell what a mandolin is tuned to in a particular song. You’ll also find that it’s possible to maintain the relationship between the strings but to tune them all lower by an equal amount, such as E-E-B-B-F#-F#-C#-C#, to make it easier to play in certain keys.
How Do You Tune a Mandolin?
Find the tuners that correspond to each string. Typically, you’ll find the tuners for the G and D strings on the upper side of the head (closest to you) and the tuners for the A and E strings on the lower side of the head. The G strings and the E strings will typically be closest to the body of the mandolin.
Start from the lowest pitch and move to the highest pitch. This means you’ll be tuning in a clockwise direction around the mandolin’s head.
Tune in pairs. Start by tuning each string individually using a tuner to get as close to the correct pitch as possible. You’ll probably need to use a pick to be sure you can tell precisely which string you’re playing. Then, play the two strings consecutively and listen to see if they sound the same as one another. If one sounds higher or lower, adjust it accordingly until both strings sound together.
Double check your tuning after you’ve tuned the E strings. Mandolins can go out of tune even in the course of tuning because the tension of each string affects the tuning of all of the other strings. Once you have your tuning relatively set, you can go back and make fine adjustments to make sure each pair of strings sounds great.
When you use the right kind of mandolin strings, tuning can be a far less-frequent chore.
Coated strings and flatwound strings in particular are known for decreasing the variability in mandolin tuning.
You might also find that some mandolins hold their tuning better than others. If your mandolin goes out of tune quickly, check to see if it has a truss rod running through the neck. Truss rods provide stability, so if you don’t have one your mandolin may not hold its tuning very well.
What to Consider when buying a Mandolin Tuner
When picking a tuner, the first thing you should consider is what type of tuner you need. That of course largely depends on the type of your instrument – in this case, your mandolin – but there are other factors to consider as well, like how portable it needs to be, ease of use, and of course how much you are willing to spend.
Clip-On Vs. Pedal
If you have an acoustic mandolin, then you will need a clip-on tuner. They are designed to pick up vibration from the wood of the instrument, making them a lot more accurate than tuning apps for example, but they are still very easy to use. They are also compact, and quite affordable.
If you have an electric or electro-acoustic mandolin, then you could also go for a pedal tuner. They are a bit more clunky and usually more expensive, but also the gold standard when it comes to tuning – all professional musicians are using them. If, however, you still want something affordable and portable, then go for the clip-on ones as they can be used on both acoustic and electric instruments.
Prices of tuners differ widely depending on their brand, type, and other factors – you can get a cheap one for as little as 10 bucks, or a premium one for a few thousand, depending on your needs and budget of course.
Most people will do fine with a clip-on tuner for 20 or 30 dollars, but if you are looking for a more professional one, then opting for a pedal tuner might be a better choice – you can get a good one for around 100 bucks.
Pedal tuners are usually more durable and will last you for years, but so can high-quality clip-on tuners. More expensive tuners from well-known brands will last you longer than cheap ones, but if you have multiple and treat them right then even budget clip-on tuners can last you for quite a while.
Accuracy is of course the main factor to consider when choosing a tuner, but also the hardest one to figure out, especially if you are inexperienced. As mentioned before, pedal tuners are the most accurate ones, but good-quality clip-on tuners can get you the same results – you just need to get the right one. If you are still unsure of how to do that, then take a look at our top 5 mandolin tuners below.
Mandolin Tuner Reviews
What is the Best Mandolin Tuner?
The majority of mandolin players choose to use a clip-on tuner. They’re easy to use, inconspicuous, and affordable.
While all three clip-on tuners described in this review offer a high level of reliability, D’Addario’s NS Micro Tuner offers an inconspicuous design, easy adjustability, and simple-to-read screen that make it the best mandolin tuner for your money.
How to Tune a Mandolin by Ear
If you’re not an experienced musician, you’ll typically find it far easier to tune your mandolin with the help of a tuner. But sometimes no tuner is available, so how can you still make sure your mandolin sounds great?
Unless you have “perfect pitch,” where you can recognize pitches without any assistance from a tuner or other reference point, you’ll still need to tune your mandolin in reference to an outside source.
If you have a piano, a guitar, or even an app on your phone nearby, you can use them as a reference to tune your G strings. Play a G on the piano, then play the string on your mandolin. If your mandolin sounds lower, tune it a little higher, and vice versa. Repeat until your G strings match the pitch of the piano.
From there, you can tune your other strings using your mandolin alone. Start by playing a D on your G string, at the seventh fret. Then play your D string. Just as you did with the piano, adjust the tuning of each D string until it matches the pitch of your G strings at the seventh fret. From there, you can repeat this process for each higher string.
You will always use the seventh fret since the relationship between each pair of strings is identical on the mandolin. Double-check your tuning when you’re finished by repeating the same process, and you’re good to go! In a worst-case scenario, you might not have anything on which to base your tuning.
In that case, simply tune your mandolin to itself. Tune the G strings together, then follow the instructions to tune by ear above. While you may not be in tune with other instruments in a band, if you’re playing by yourself this can be an adequate solution in a pinch.
Can You Tune a Mandolin with a Guitar Tuner?
In short: yes, but it’s not always easy.
Luckily, most guitar tuners will recognize a pitch regardless of the octave, so in a pinch a standard guitar tuner will work just fine to get your mandolin in tune.
How to Tune a Mandolin with a Guitar Tuner
These instructions will vary depending on your particular model of guitar tuner, but there are some general principles to keep in mind.
The pitches on a mandolin are higher than those on a guitar (except for the G strings), so your tuner may struggle to recognize the upper strings accurately.
In that case, you’re better off tuning your lower strings with the guitar tuner and tuning the rest by ear.
Mandolin Chromatic Tuners vs. Fixed Tuners
As a mandolin player, you’ll almost certainly want to buy a chromatic tuner. This means that the tuner can hear any pitch and tell you whether it’s in tune or not. Fixed tuners are generally intended for guitars only, and they can only register certain pitches.
You can probably work out a way to tune your mandolin with such a fixed tuner (since the G strings on your mandolin are the same pitch as a G string on a guitar), but these days you can find a chromatic tuner for the same price as – or even less than – a fixed tuner.