Restringing the Mandolin

How do you know when it’s time to restring your mandolin?

If you have bronze strings on your mandolin, you may notice that the color where your fingers have contact with them has changed from a formerly bright gold, to a nasty dull brown.  Or, you may notice that your instrument just doesn't seem to sound as good as it used to.  If you can't even remember the last time you changed your strings, it's definitely time to do it!

Mandolin strings are made of metal and are intended to vibrate and produce beautiful sounds.  Like anything that is made of metal with no protective coating, they will corrode over time and lose their ability to vibrate as freely.  How fast that happens depends on a number of factors – the composition of the strings, how often you play, how much oil and sweat your hands produce, and whether or not you clean the strings after each practice.  Professional musicians need to change their strings as often as every week, but someone who doesn't play very often might only need to change his strings every six months.

If you've never changed your strings before, then you might want to ask an experienced player or repair person walk you through it the first time.  It's not that difficult to do, once you know what to expect.  At a minimum, you will need 1) your new strings and 2) wire cutters.  You might also want to invest in a bottle of lemon oil, a bottle of guitar polish, and a keywinder.

The lemon oil helps to keep your fingerboard, which is made of wood, from drying out and splitting.  While your old strings are still on, put a small amount of lemon oil on a cloth, and run the cloth underneath your strings, on the fingerboard.  Try to work the oil in to the fingerboard as best you can.  You'll notice that this gets oil all over your strings – that's why you do it before you put the new ones on.  It also gets oil on the fret wires, so take at least one clean cloth – preferably two - and run it back under the strings again, to get the excess oil off.  Don't take all of the strings off at the same time, in order to oil the fingerboard.  Doing so will cause your bridge to fall off, because the only thing that’s holding it on to the instrument is the tension of the strings.  And if you move your bridge to a different spot, even slightly, it will affect the sound of your instrument, as well as the playing action.

The next step is to slide off the tailpiece, so that the looped end of the strings are exposed.  On most mandolins, this requires a little effort, because the tailpiece has to be on there securely enough so that the action of your forearm doesn't slide it off while you're playing it.  Hold the body of the mandolin firmly in one hand and, with the other hand, slide the tail piece away from you with the thumb of your other hand.  Expect some resistance at first, and then it will suddenly pop off.  You should see the loop ends of eight strings, attached to eight little flat hooks.


Once the loop ends of the strings are exposed, have a look at the peg head, and how the strings are wound on the tuning pegs.  Each string has a specific peg that it has to be wound on, and each string must be wound in a specific direction.  Hopefully the strings on your mandolin look something like this:

peg head

Look at the G strings as they go up the fingerboard, across the nut, and in to the peg head.  Notice that the two G strings are attached to the two bottom tunings keys, on the left side of the peg head.  As the mandolin faces you, the G string on the left is attached to the bottom tuning key, and the G string on the right is attached to the tuning key directly above it.  Following the D strings in the same manner, notice that they are attached to the top two tuning keys on the left side of the peg head.  Also notice that the strings on this side of the peg head are wound counter-clockwise.  They come up the inside of the peg head, and then feed across the top of the tuning key to the outside of the peg head.

Now follow the E strings in the same manner.  The E strings are attached to the bottom two keys on the right side of the peg head.  The two A strings are attached to the top two keys on the right side of the peg head.  And notice that the strings on this side of the peg head are wound clockwise, as a mirror image of the strings on the left side.  A mandolin that has been properly strung will have no strings touching or crossing in the peg head.

If you replace one string at a time, you will always know which hook under the tailpiece, goes with what tuning peg.  Some musicians just cut the old strings one at a time, with wire cutters.  That's the fastest way, but I don't like to do that because taut wires that are cut suddenly have a tendency to travel long distances, and I have cats in the house.  So I take a little extra time, and completely loosen the string until I can lift it off of the hook on the bottom.  Then I turn the tuning key until I can pull the other end of the string out of the little hole in the key – and then I throw it away.

It's also better to remove your strings in order, and work your way from the outside, in.  That means that you want to start with your left "G" string, then the right "G" string.  Then you want to move to the left "D" string, and then the right "D" string.  Then when you switch to the other side, you'll start with the "E" string that's on the right, and move to the "E" string that's on the left.  Then you'll move to the right "A" string, and then the left "A" string.

When you open a new package of strings, you may find that the manufacturer has a different system for identifying their strings.  (Meaning that the strings that you bought, have nothing on the package anywhere to indicate whether they are "G, D, A or E".)  Some manufacturers identify their strings by the numbers "1, 2, 3 and 4".   If you see these numbers on your strings, "1" would be the "E" string, "2" would be the "A" string, "3" would be the "D" string, and "4" would be the "G" string.  Other manufacturers simply identify their strings by the gauge, because they assume you know that the lower the gauge, the thinner the string.  So if you have a set of strings identified only by the gauges 11-16-26-40, "11" would be the "E" string, "16" would be the "A" string, "26" would be the "D" string, and "40" would be the "G" string.  If you're really not certain whether or not you've got the right string, hold it up and compare to the other string that's still on your mandolin.  It's usually pretty easy to tell whether or not it's the same gauge or not.

Let's start with your left "G" string.  Unwind it carefully, until you can completely remove the old string.  You may find a keywinder handy for this purpose – it's a little gadget that looks like a crank, that you slip over the tuning key so that you can wind and unwind it faster.  Personally, I can't work the stupid things, and I have to turn my keys by hand.  Throw the old string out, so that you don't accidentally put the wrong string back on.  Taking one of the new "G" strings, attach the loop end to the little hook in the tailpiece.  Feed the string up the fingerboard, and across the nut.  Turn the tuning key until the hole through it is parallel to the neck, and feed the string through the hole with your left hand.  Pull it tight, until there is no slack.

With your right hand, measure the string approximately two inches (a thumb's length) away from the tuning key.  Put a crimp in the string (bend it in to an "L" shape) at that point – that's how much "extra" of the string you'll need, in order to wrap it around the tuning key.  Don't cut the string yet, even though the excess is going to get in your way.  You don't want to cut anything until you're 100% sure that you've made no mistakes.  Pull the string back so that the crimp in it is against the tuning key, and start winding so that the key turns counter-clockwise.  You may find that the string pops off of the hook on the bottom during this process.  What works for me is purposely take the string off the hook, turn the tuning key with one hand, and try to guide the string around the tuning key with the other hand, while holding it taut.  I let it get wrapped around the tuning peg about two times, because there's still enough slack left in the string at that point to allow me to slip it over the hook at that time.

As you are tightening the tuning key, make sure that the string falls in to the grooves that were cut for it, in both the nut and the bridge.  If you don't, the string will roll around while you play.  Tighten the string, but don't bother to try and tune it "exactly" with your electronic tuner.  New strings stretch, so you will need to retune it "exactly", once all of the new strings are in place.  You will have an excess piece of string about six inches long sticking out – just leave it there for now.

Repeat the same process with the "G" string on the right side, then the "D" on the left side, and then the "D" on the right side.  Make sure that the strings sit in the grooves in the nut and the bridge, and that they wind counter-clockwise on the tuning peg.  No strings should touch or cross one another.

Then repeat the process for the "A" and "E" strings on the right side of the peg head.  Start with the "E" string on the right side, and work your way inward.  Make sure that the strings sit in the grooves in the nut and the bridge, and that they wind clockwise on the tuning page.  No strings should touch or cross one another.

Once all of the strings are wound correctly, tune the mandolin.  If it tunes correctly, and sounds good, then go ahead and trim the extra string off with your wire cutters.  Cut it as close to the tuning peg as you can, without risk of damaging any other portion of the string.

Finally, when you are done with the restringing, take a small amount of guitar polish and polish your mandolin.  While you are doing this, inspect your mandolin carefully for signs of wear and tear that may require repair.