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If you are already fluent in guitar and have recently picked up the mandolin, you may have noticed the similarities between the strings on these two instruments. Perhaps you would prefer the more familiar feel of your guitar strings to be on your mandolin as well, and you may be wondering: can you use guitar strings on a mandolin?
You can use guitar strings on a mandolin as long as the gauge or tension level is appropriate for the instrument. Many strings are basically the same for most guitar-like instruments. However, they are packaged and sold in specific, labeled sets for convenience.
It’s a good idea to always use string sets made specifically for your instrument. However, if you don’t have extra mandolin strings available but need one, a similar gauge guitar string will do the trick.
However, you will probably have one big problem that you’ll have to contend with before you can do this. There is usually a difference in how the strings install on each instrument. Guitar strings usually have ball ends that allow them to seat in a hole in the bridge and then be held in with a bridge pin.
On a mandolin, strings are looped so that they can connect to the end piece and be held in place. Some mandolins may be able to work with ball ends but this hasn’t been the case with the mandolins I have played.
In order to use guitar strings on a mandolin, you’ll need to modify the strings a bit. You’ll need to remove the ball ends from the strings so that you are left with a loop. Once this is done, you can use that looped end to install the string on your mandolin the way you normally would.
This article will go on to list what you need to know about strings for your mandolin and explain how most strings are interchangeable between many stringed instruments. The importance of selecting the proper gauge strings for your mandolin is discussed, and you’ll learn the main features one should consider when choosing strings for any instrument.
Strings are sold in labeled packages because they have been put in specific sets for our convenience. Essentially, they are just custom-tailored to fit the needs of any particular instrument to save you time when shopping for strings as well as when stringing your instrument.
For example, pre-packaged and specified sets feature conveniences such as:
- Paired strings for instruments with courses
- The correct number of strings needed for any instrument
- Common tuning combinations (Example: GDAE for mandolin)
- An appropriate length of string cut to a specific size for an instrument
There are specialized strings for instruments such as the violin and piano, as they can be quite different, but in general, most stringed instruments like banjos, guitars, mandolins, dulcimers, etc., are all fundamentally the same.
So if the issue is that you can’t find a set of “mandolin strings,” you can buy a couple of sets of “guitar strings” instead. You’ll need a couple of sets to get the correct number of strings. Simply match up your normal gauges and material, and you’ll be good to go, and speaking of gauge and material.
This isn’t a good practice to make a habit of but in a pinch, you can make guitar strings work for your mandolin.
Choosing Strings For Your Mandolin
Your mandolin may have come with a particular set of strings for whatever reason, but you are welcome to change them to fit your preference.
In many ways, the kind of strings you use is generally a personal preference to the sound you prefer, as different strings produce different tones. For example, bronze strings produce a very bright tone, but phosphor bronze strings dampen that brightness a bit. Or perhaps you wish to increase playing speed or reduce the effort required to play in general, in which case you may wish to lower the gauge of your strings.
If you’re looking to experiment with different strings, you have many choices in features available, all of which will have different effects on sound and playability. The more significant things to consider include the winding material and the construction type. However, the most important is the gauge or tension level because it can cause the most trouble.
To better understand that importance, it requires a little knowledge in the mechanics of music, aka acoustics, so let’s start there.
The Correlation Between Gauge And Tension
The gauge of a string is a measurement of its thickness, measured in thousandths of an inch. Knowing a string’s gauge and material allows us to determine the string’s weight. The weight of the string then defines the tension level.
Tension is critical when playing stringed instruments, as it correlates directly to the tones and sounds the instrument will produce. And the main game in tension is balance. When you set a new string on your instrument, you increase the tension when you wind and tune the string. The more tension you put upon it, the stronger the vibration will be, then the clearer and louder the tone will resonate.
There are very specific measurements in acoustics, including vibration, sound waves, and frequency, that play a part in this. While it isn’t necessary to know or memorize any specific figures, just know that there are set levels of tension that your instrument can hold.
Once a string goes past optimal, and there is too much tension, its ability to vibrate freely at natural frequencies will dissipate. It becomes a forced vibration that will affect the quality of sound and put strings at high risk for breakage, and cause unnecessary, damaging stress to be placed upon your instrument. The truss rod in your mandolin is there to help strengthen the neck and combat against such effects, but natural limits do exist.
The point is, you can put any gauge string you want on your mandolin, just as long as you obey the laws of physics and acoustics with respect to your particular instrument and the strings themselves. Strings of ill-appropriate gauge will cause tension problems, as will strings that are too small in length and should be avoided.
Which Gauge Should You Choose?
Gauge choice typically comes with two big considerations: sound and comfort. The different tensions require different levels of force in order to resonate appropriately, and each has its own characteristics in tone quality. Over time, many musicians develop a preference for particular gauges as the differences offered can be tailored to fit your instrument as well as your individual playing style.
Since the measurements of string gauges are so minuscule in difference, many manufacturers will advertise gauge in terms of tension level, light, medium, or heavy, for the convenience of the consumer. However, most will also print the actual figures on the packaging. In general, here are the differences between these classifications.
Strings with a light gauge are thin and require a small amount of tension to make the specified pitch. Lighter gauge strings will produce bright tones and can be used to replace dull or unfocused sounding strings of a higher gauge.
They will have a quick response time and improve techniques in speed. Less force is required to pluck the string. Therefore, they can be played easier than higher gauged strings.
Light gauge strings are great for beginners or those who don’t play very often because they are much easy on the fingers.
This gauge is generally the most popular as these strings are made to produce an ideal tension for an instrument. The sound produced is typically the most even and balanced tone an instrument can have, and the response allows for a balanced projection. Exact measurements will vary between brands and manufacturers, so you may want to try a few different kinds in your pursuit of the perfect strings.
Strings with a heavy gauge will be thicker than other strings, and they require quite a bit of tension to create the intended pitch. Heavy gauge strings will provide a fuller and louder sound than lighter strings, though more force is necessary to play and slower response time.
If you struggle with strings frequently breaking while you play, the tension may not be suitable to your playing style, and you may benefit from changing to strings of higher tension.
Though you may see the core material advertised, mostly solid steel, but may also be spiral steel, braided steel, or nylon. The more important feature is the wrapping material. There are numerous types of alloys used as the wrapping around the core, again, each with its own characteristics in playability, tone, projection, and durability.
Some more common alloys are listed below, from the most mellow sound to the brightest, and include a popular example alongside for you to consider.
- Silver-plated copper: D’Addario XT Silver Plated Copper Classical Guitar Strings Medium Tension (XTC45)
- Phosphor bronze: D’Addario J74 Mandolin Strings, Phosphor Bronze, Medium, 11-40
- Brass or 80/20 bronze: Martin 80/20 Bronze Acoustic Guitar Body (M400)
- Stainless steel: D’Addario EJS74 Stainless Steel Medium Mandolin Strings (11-40)
- Nickel: D’Addario J67 Nickel Mandolin Strings
Note: Nickel is not generally preferred for acoustic instruments. Rather it is used more with electric instruments.
Beyond material and gauge, you can also choose from various construction types that vary mostly in texture. Differences include:
- Silk-steel strings have soft, silk-like fibers interwoven with a silver-plated copper wrapping that is easy to play with and provides a mellow tone.
- Round-wound strings are the most popular and offer a comfortable feel that is familiar to players.
- Flat tops are further processed from round-wound strings to provide a smoother feel and reduce “finger noise” when plucking the string.
Even the most subtle change to just one string on your instrument can make a world of difference, and finding the strings that are just right for you will come with time. Just keep experimenting with different options until you find what you prefer.
You can use guitar strings on a mandolin. Just make sure to use a material and tension appropriate for your mandolin, as you don’t wish to inflict unnecessary stress and damage upon your instrument. Experiment with strings of varying material and thickness to generate particular characteristics in sound that fit your desired style.