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Laurie Niles

Mandolins go -- sharp?

July 14, 2009 at 2:53 AM

I thought I'd let everyone know how the mandolin is holding up on the road. So far, so good!

After driving through several western deserts (high temp: 109 F), the mandolin has not melted. It had, however, gone wildly sharp when I took it out last night. After a lifetime of dealing with the quirks of a fiddle, I still don't get how a mandolin goes sharp and not flat! Can someone fill me in on the physics of this?

So last night at the hotel I took out the mando and practiced next to the pool, while my kids splashed around. This did not seem odd, though I later tried to picture practicing my violin poolside, and I couldn't quite bring that picture into focus – poolside Kreutzer? LOL! But pickin' at some Sam Bush tunes worked just fine, and my kids were no more mortified than normal by their eccentric musician mom.

In other travel news, I ditched my iPod earbuds for some big, geeky Sony earphones with leather pads, and suddenly I love my iPod as never before. If I look unfashionable with my large earmuffins, I could care less – the comfort and the sound are awesome!

From Bill Busen
Posted on July 14, 2009 at 2:57 AM

If the wood expanded more than the metal strings, it would have increased the tension on them.  Since we know it actually did go sharp, this is likely to be true.

From bill platt
Posted on July 14, 2009 at 3:30 AM

Also, there is no soundpost. "Panting" of the top and back will affect the tension on the strings.  If the top arches up from changes in humidity or temperature, it will tighten the strings.

My mandolin sometimes goes sharp, too. I'll have to keep my ear out about this. (My mandolin is a cheap laminated one. Possibly an F5 would behave differently--we'll see.


From Pauline Lerner
Posted on July 14, 2009 at 3:41 AM

Laurie, I'm glad you traded your earbuds for the Sony apparatus.  The sound of the Sony is much better, and it has been shown that earbuds damage your hearing.

I have a mandolin which, of course, goes out of tune.  It drives me crazy because because you have to get each of a pair of strings perfectly in tune.  If you don't, the sound is horrible.  Also, I know by experience how much to turn a fine tuner or a peg on a violin to get the desired change in pitch, but I haven't got the feel of it on the mandolin.  I think I definitely need more practice.  You've probably heard the saying that people who play 12 string guitars spend half of their lives tuning their instruments and the other half playing out of tune.

Posted on July 14, 2009 at 3:49 AM


From Steven Albert
Posted on July 14, 2009 at 11:48 AM


I believe that mandolins DO have sound posts.  I don't know if they're only held in place by tension like the violin, but they are there, and perform the same functions of support and sound transmission.


From bill platt
Posted on July 14, 2009 at 1:47 PM

No no, most mandolins that I have looked at do not have soundposts. Mine doesn't.

Maybe *some* mandolins have soundposts for various reasons, but it is not a typical feature of a mandolin--certainly not of a flat-backed one like Laurie's.

From Erica Thaler
Posted on July 14, 2009 at 4:43 PM

No soundposts.  And yes, they do go sharp, which I also thought was weird.  : )

From Josh Henry
Posted on July 14, 2009 at 9:59 PM

Hi Laurie...Thanks for keeping us posted with your travel and musical experiences.

I love to hear that you also have a mandolin. My mandolin goes sharp all of the time. I think that the tuning is very affected as the instrument warms up against your body. I got into the habit years ago to never tune my mando until I've played it for at least a few minutes to warm it up. Otherwise, I'd always end up tuning it again after a few minutes.  Another difference is that the overall tension of the string on a mandolin is somewhere around 2 1/2 to 3 times more than the tension of a violin. (I'd have to check out the data on a website like D'Addario's site to get the exact differences.) This substantial string tension, combined with changes in temperature and humidity makes it a miracle that a mandolin would ever be in tune at all.

(For the record, I've owned, played, and seen many, many mandolins, and have never seen one with a soundpost.)

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