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Mandolin string gauge & sound

Q: I have an Epiphone MM50 F-style Mandolin, inexpensive but
not cheap Chinese made instrument, quarter sawn maple back
solid top, very decent sound now that it's a couple of years
old. I've work on & rebuilt orchestral stringed instruments,
had my own shop for several years. I fitted a Brekke bridge
which made a noticeable improvement in sound.

My question is about the sound of the high e strings, they
don't seem to have the firmness of sound the other strings have.
I would say that there is a slight "whine" in the sound compared
to the others. (this is regardless of which bridge I had installed)
I cut the bridge correctly, very light slots, I don't think
the strings are causing the sound at the bridge.
Also sure the strings aren't too close together.

I'm wondering if this is a combination of string size and tension?
I'm using .011 gauge on top.
Have you dealt with this before?
I was wondering if some pros use an even heavier gauge on top.

Thanks for your time.
p.s. it's not an necessarily an unmusical sound, and it
may be normal, I'm just not sure.


A: .011 is the standard gauge for F-style E strings. That is what I use on my mandolin. .0115 and .012 are slightly louder but produce fewer overtones. I sell lots of D'Addario J-74s (with .011s) and very few J-75 ( with heavier strings).
Let me brain storm about things which might cause complaint:
1) Lift the strings out of the nut slots and look for a shiny, pencil mark type spot. This is the string contact point. If the contact point is not all the way to the fingerboard end of the slot the part of the slot between the contact point and the fingerboard will mute the string or conceivably even buzz.
2) Check to see if the muting system in the tailpiece is working on all the strings. Sometimes the little chunk of leather doesn't reach all the way to the outside strings.
3) Check the tuners. Buttons, screws and gears can all buzz. We worked on an F-style last week where the barrels would not fit down into the gears properly. They produced a very annoying buzz. The oddest thing was that the sound of the buzz was clearly coming from the bridge. The customer brought it in complaining about the bridge. Up close you could hear that the buzz was actually in the peghead but it manifested itself more loudly from the area designed to project vibrations.
4) Check the truss rod nut and truss rod cover for rattles. Mute the strings and whack the back of the neck with your finger to check for truss rod rattle.
5) Just try a fresh set of strings. There are bum strings. All, American, string companies buy their music wire from the same factory in New Jersey. All American .011s should be identical, but everyone gets a bum roll of wire now and again. The difference between string brands is all in the choice of gauges and the winding of the lower strings.
6) Probably should be number one, but I just thought of it: look for fret buzz.
7) Finally, compare it to other mandolins. As you say, it might just be an unreasonable expectation on your part. Very live instruments can produce disonate wave confluences that would be suppressed on deader instruments. One time we spent hours chasing such a wolf. We went downtown to Mass Street Music and played lots of very expensive guitars. They all produced the same wolf. None of the cheaper guitars did. We changed the saddle from the very live "Tusk" to the less lively bone and the customer was happy.
8) Are you tuning to a reliable E? It seems to me that F-style mandolin E strings are tighter than heck. If you are down a half step the string could feel floppy.
9) Check the scale length. An F-style scale is about an inch longer than a Gibson A-style scale (practically all import A mandolins use the F scale). You can raise the pitch of a string by shortening it or by tightening it. It takes more tension to pull the longer string up to pitch. It would be odd for the Chinese makers to have used the wrong scale length, but weirder things have happened.
10) Check for illogical things. Sometimes the hoof beats you hear are Zebras!

Steve Mason

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