Basic Mandolin Maintenance
A Brief Overview
To maintain a mandolin, it’s first a good idea to familiarize yourself with the instrument’s history as well as its basic parts. The mandolin’s history, indeed, is rich and diffuse. The solid wood instrument, which is used in orchestras as well as bluegrass bands, descended from the manadore, which is a “spin-off” of the lute. The lute, itself, is derived from an Arabic pear-shaped instrument named the oud. Europe was introduced to the oud when the Moors occupied the country of Spain from the eighth to fifteenth centuries.
Features of the Mandolin
As a result, the mandolin’s background stretches back quite a ways. The instrument, you could say, is a combination of a violin, guitar, lute, and banjo rolled into one. While the lute’s body is round, the mandolin, although made in a number of variations, generally has a hollow body that includes a sounding board with a teardrop shape. Some of the instruments are designed with scrolls or similar-type projections. Mandolins have floating bridges and pin blocks or tailpieces at their edges to which the strings of the instrument are affixed. Instead of pegs, the instrument uses mechanical tuning machines for purposes of tuning. The neck on the instrument is usually flat or has a radius that is imperceptible. The nut appears at the top of the neck which includes a fretted fingerboard. Metal strings on the instrument come in pairs or double courses of four.
As mentioned, variations of the mandolin are used in a number of musical settings. The round-back or bowl-back mandolin is made in the Neopolitan style, which is a design that originated in Naples, Italy. The instrument is close in appearance to the lute and has a slanted sounding board that is uncarved. Sometimes this style is made to closely resemble a banjo too. Mandolins are also available in the F-style design (originating from Florence, Italy), with f-shaped sound holes, as those exhibited on a violin, and scrolls on the front. The A-style design of the mandolin features the classic teardrop shape and comes with a round sound hole like the one displayed on an acoustic guitar.
The sound hole on any acoustic stringed instrument, such as a mandolin or guitar, is used to project musical quality more effectively. While the vibrations produced come primarily from the surface of the sounding board, the sound holes in the instrument aid in permitting some of the sound that is generated within the mandolin to emanate outside of it. Sound holes come in various shapes. While mandolins, as stated, have oval holes and f-holes, guitars possess round sound holes, lutes display rosettes and violins are constructed with s-holes or f-holes. On the mandolin, the A-style design features a round sound hole beneath the strings on the instrument while Florentine mandolins exhibit their f-style sound holes one on each side of the strings on the instrument.
A New Kind of Mandolin
At the last part of the 1800s, a new kind of mandolin emerged, which replaced the round-back mandolin. This new instrument was copied from violin styling and was made by a luthier (a builder and repairer of stringed instruments) named Orville Gibson. Gibson, who was the founding father of the Mandolin-Guitar Manufacturing Company, which was established in 1902, produced two kinds of mandolins – the Gibson F-5, f-hole style and the basic F-style or Florentine design. This new mandolin design was referred to as an archtop mandolin.
A Support Feature
One notable feature associated with F-style mandolins is their construction. The mandolins are supported with parallel tone bars or x-bracing. X-bracing uses two tone bars that are linked together into an “X”. In some cases, x-bracing is combined with a tone bar to maintain structural integrity.
In comparison to, say, a violin, the notes plucked on a mandolin decline in sound rather than reverberate as they do on the bowed instrument. In addition, the instrument is made so the notes decline faster than they would, for instance, on a guitar. Mandolin players pick the paired strings on the mandolin in quick succession, which also supplies a fuller level of sound. To use the instrument in orchestral settings, designs of the mandolin have been introduced that are made to intensify the musical range of the instrument. Resonators have been employed as well as amplifiers, which are used to enhance the quality of sound of electric mandolins. The electric mandolin typically is made with 8 double steel strings or 4 or 5 single metal strings. It can be compared with a diminutive version of the electric guitar.
The Mandolinetto – A Guitar-like Mandolin
Speaking of guitars, the mandolinetto is a mandolin that is shaped like a guitar. It was the creation of the Elias Howe Company, and was manufactured from the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth century. At that time, the mandolin was popularized and used in old-timey, ragtime music. Today, it is often associated with baroque classical styles, orchestral renditions and bluegrass music.
A “Note” About Tuning
Tuning the mandolin is important to its basic maintenance. The mandolin is a rather fragile stringed instrument so you want to make sure that it is tuned properly. Therefore, make sure that the instrument is not tuned higher than what is appropriate or you can harm your instrument. Tuning is the same as that of a violin, or in the GDAE range. The placement of the bridge is also key in making sure that your instrument is tuned correctly. Make sure then that it is in-place after you replace the strings or tune your mandolin if you don’t want problems with the sound quality down the road.
Learn the Basic Construction
If you play the mandolin or plan to play the instrument, it is a must, as stated, that you learn to replace the strings on your instrument and tune it as needed. Acquainting yourself with the parts of the instrument and its operation will make basic maintenance tasks just that much easier. For more extensive repairs, such as refretting, then it’s recommended you take your mandolin to a luthier.
Restringing and Tuning Tips
When restringing your mandolin, you want to make sure you direct the top or sounding board away from your person. You don’t want to be in the direct line of fire if one of the strings breaks on the instrument. Therefore, eye protection, such as goggles, is recommended. Tune the instrument using an electronic tuner. Make sure that all the indicated strings, “G, D, A, and E” are as near to pitch as possible. In some instances, you may hear some metal-like clatter. If so, examine the tailpiece. It shouldn’t be grazing any of the strings. Make a small bend in it if that is the case or incorporate a small piece of felt fabric beneath the cover plate if your mandolin is made with one.
You Don’t Want a Mandolin that is “Highly Strung”
The strings should be maintained so they are up to tension when you are regularly playing the instrument. If you are not using the instrument on a routine basis, then the tension should be brought down about three half tones.
Placement of the Bridge
As stated, it’s imperative that the bridge is in the proper place. Therefore, make certain that it isn’t positioned too low. Loosen the strings and elevate the height by turning the adjusting screws. Tune the instrument and then re-examine it. Bridges have a tendency to move on all mandolins. Therefore, this piece should be angled very slightly with the treble end nearer to the nut and the bass end adjacent to the bottom.
Extremes in Temperature
As the mandolin can be somewhat delicate in nature, you have to take special care when transporting the instrument in extreme temperatures. Make sure the instrument is well-insulated then if you are taking it from frigid temperatures into warmer environments or from hot extremes into air conditioning. It is advisable that you carry the instrument in a case that’s padded or cover the instrument in a covering such as a towel or blanket. Acclimate the instrument to room temperature. Therefore, don’t take it out of its case or remove the covering until it’s been out of the cold or heat for a while.
Stay Away from Heat and High Humidity
Keep the instrument, as well, out of the direct rays of the sun as any kind of heat can damage the joints and loosen the glue. For instance, don’t ever leave your mandolin inside your car on a hot summer’s day, at least if you want to keep it well-maintained. Also, moisture or humidity can cause problems too. Not only does humidity affect the glue, it can cause certain parts, especially the neck, to warp on the instrument. To get rid of any excess moisture, place silica gel inside the instrument’s case.
Stay Away from Dry Conditions Too
Because most mandolins are made primarily from wood, dry conditions can affect the instrument too. Wood will shrink in exceptionally arid environments. As a result, cracks can appear on the surface of the instrument. Buy a case humidifier to reduce the chances of this kind of damage.
Cleaning and Polishing the Mandolin
Clean your strings every time you play your mandolin to get rid of the grime and oil that accumulates from your fingers. Always use a clean, soft cotton cloth. Use a microfiber cloth on the wood to remove dust and give it a bit more shine. Polish the wood every now and then. When you do, make sure the polish does not contain any silicone or wax. A soft bristle brush can be used in hard-to-dust areas, such as under the bridge. Polish the fretboard occasionally with almond oil if it isn’t finished.
One Final Word about Maintenance
Some early artists depicted mandolins sitting upright against the back of chairs. Never do this with your instrument as mishaps can occur. Many repairs that are made to mandolins result from the instrument being knocked over accidentally. Therefore, keep your mandolin in its case when you are not using it.