Mandolin Action

Mandolin Action

No this discussion isn’t about mandolins getting it on… ๐Ÿ™‚

However I did aquire a Thomas Buchanan mandolin yesterday and I absolutely love it. The tone is wonderful, its loud as hell and it has a lot of punch which makes it sound more like a mandola on the low strings. Its the first time ive gotten and oval-hole mandolin and im really impressed with the sweetness, even softness of the sound when i play it.

The thing is, my previous mandolin was an Ozark and id set it up to have an amazingly low action (i mean ridiculously low). This decision stemmed from the fact that ive had guitars before with impossibly high action and I didn’t want to have to deal with that on a mandolin.

Anyway, my Buchanan mandolin has a higher action than im used to (its still low!) and im having a little trouble adjusting to it after the Ozark, particualry in terms of ornamention and barring notes. However the tone is wonderful and it has a fixed bridge so I not going to mess with it (ive made that mistake with guitars before). Ive a session this friday and im a little apprehensive.

I suppose im just wondering if anyone here has made the jump from low to high action and has it taken them long to adjust? If so, did find it rewarding in the long run? Ill be using higher action for the long run now so i suppose so im just looking for some moral support!

Re: Mandolin Action

Why not get a luthier to set the mandolin up for you? Yuo don’t say where you are but, maybe Thomas himseld if you live anywhere near weat yorkshire, otherwise there are plenty of good people around.

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Himself and west, obviously.

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Im in Donegal at the minute. I know a few people locally who would be more than qualifed to set it up, and I know how to go about it meself too. But I just really like the tone and don’t wanna it to suffer from lower action. I’ll just have to get used to it - grit my teeth and tear into it - as I was once told at a session. ๐Ÿ™‚

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If you have a good luthier close by, why not either have him make you a lower one piece bridge or fit an adjustable to your mandolin? Then you could always re-install the original bridge and be back where you started. You might also want to try going down a gauge in strings and see if that make the instrument more comfortable to play.

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I appreciate all the replies with regards to how to lower the action. I know how I would go about it if I wanted to do it but I don’t at the moment. Im using 11-38 strings at the mo so I might change that anyway.

I suppose what Im wondering has anyone here raised the action of their mandolin significantly and find it rewarding in the end?

p.s. sorry if i misled anyone there.

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I think you should be prepared to muck about with it. It is silly to just assume that it must be right and you are wrong - action height depends a lot on the player and gauge of strings.

You don’t need to mess with the bridge, Buchanan mandolins have a saddle the same as guitar bridges. So get a few spare saddles, shave away the bottom of one until it just starts to rattle and buzz, then make a new one very slightly higher.

But if you are struggling with the instrument, the first thing to check is the nut height, this has far more affect on the playability than the bridge height. Fret each string above the second fret, and check that it is just touching the first - if there is a visible gap the nut is too high, to the naked eye it should look as though it is touching, but if you lighly tap the string above the first fret you should hear it ‘click’ on the fret - if it doesn’t the nut is too low.

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Cheers Screech. Shaving the saddle is definitely something that came to mind. The nut height seems fine so if I were to change it would be on the saddle end. The neck looks sound as well.

I understand what you are saying about being prepared to muck about with it, and I don’t disagree. The thing is a year ago I would’ve been able to manage at the current height fine, but I made the mistake of getting used to lower action so I maybe I just need time to adjust. Having the action too low means ill lose out on tone. If in say two weeks im still having problems ill have a look at shaving the saddle.

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The action on my mandolin is a little high, at some others who have played it mentioned it was higher than theirs. However, everyone I talked to about possibly lowering the action argued against it. I think the higher action contributes to making it louder, and has an effect on the tone.

The mandolin I had before getting this one had very low action. I found that it took more pressure (of course) to make clear notes on the higher action, but the strength of the fingers on the left hand develops very quickly. I never had a situation where I played the same mandolin with both low and higher action (or vice versa).

I would suspect that Thomas Buchanan obviously thought that higher action was best suited for your mandolin, or he wouldn’t have made it that way. If you are happy with the tone, volume, etc. with the new mandolin, I would be very hesitant in making too many changes. Lighter strings might be a good idea. At least if you don’t like them, you can always restring without much trouble.

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I was going to mention the nut but skreech beat me to it.
Nut height can affect playability more than bridge height.

There are two ways to adjust nut height - once again, best to experiment with a spare one. They’re cheap enough and can be cut to size.
Nuts are often held in place with glue too (like me old man after the prostate ), so it can be a bit scary prising them out.

You can either skim the base or deepen the notches with the edge of a thin bastard file.

But yes, I have raised action occasionally and a higher action often results in improved volume and tone. But not always.

If you’re used to lower and lighter action, then your finger tips might end up with grooves until you grow more callous. You might have to retire gracefully after a few sets tomorrow

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Hah thanks Jiml and Bren, thats just what I wanted to hear. I suppose it is frustrating and a bit worrying at the start when I feel that my playing has gone back a couple of years just because im having trouble with co-ordination and ornamentation that i never had before this. It will get better though, ive been daintily plucking on a low action like a big wuss for too long…although I might just bring the ol ozark along too just in I cause im banjaxed…๐Ÿ™‚

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i dont like anything other than low action.

i recently increased the action on my mandolin for a certain piece i was learning, in the hope it would make certain things easier to do. It didnt help, and the instrument felt overall horrible, so i lowered it again. i didnt notice a difference in sound either way.

i also have a buchanan - a bouzouki. it sounds lovely, devine in fact.
i thought about changing the action slightly, but like you i havent done so for fear of changing the sound.

in my case i would be raising the action (i get a little buzz when using a (capo).

i assume TB takes care to set up each instrument properly; however there is no "correct" action…if your action feels a little high then i would lower it.

well done for buying a buchanan by the way. i think they are fantastic ๐Ÿ™‚

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Adjusting the action has very little impact on the tone of the instrument (unless you go so low that it buzzes!).

Changing the bridge height does affect the tone, but much less so with a fixed bridge than a floating one, because the strings aren’t exerting downward pressure on the bridge. But even with a floating bridge, to make a marked difference to the tone you are talking about changing the height by amounts that require changing the neck angle. You are very unlikely to detect any change at all if you are only changing the height by a mm or two to set the action.

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I can’t really see why there would be much advantage in having a high action if you can lower it. Maybe there’d be a small increase in volume, but that would be counteracted by not being able to form clean chords or play crisp note runs. Also you’d be more likely to get pain problems with the left hand eventually stopping you from playing altogether. Because the Buchanan (I’ve owned one) has a guitar-type bridge, the tension of the strings pulls on the soundboard rather than pushes down on it like with a floating bridge. I suppose with a floating bridge you are increasing the pressure on the bridge more when you press down on a string if the action is high and therefore affecting tone and volume. I can’t see that a high action would have much effect on tone with glued-on bridge - lower it so that you can play comfortably but not so low that you get fret buzz. Do they have truss rods now? My one didn’t and had a bit of a curved neck. Lovely tone from a cedar top, but not all that comfortable to play with insufficient saddle height to lower it.(I’ve passed it on to my son now as he can bash out a tune on it OK).

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I cross-posted with skreech who’s saying much the same thing

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Lowering the height of a guitar type bridge saddle actually can affect the tone, clarity and volume. At least two significant parameters are changed. The amount of downward pressure on the saddle is greater with a taller saddle and this can affect the efficiency of signal transmission from the strings into the saddle and bridge. A taller saddle also means that there is greater leverage in rocking the bridge forward as the string vibrates.

Otherwise, I tend to agree with Richard. I think itโ€™s worth making a mandolin easier to play if you only sacrifice a tiny bit of sound. I had to give up the mandolin years ago because it aggravated my natural tendency toward tendinitis in the wrist - much more so than guitar or fiddle.

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And, yes, the change in sound quality is usually very small, but there does seem to be a certain minimum saddle height below which the sound gets very wimpy.

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Its not hitting clear notes thats the problem. I think whats happened to me is that with the action raised, its taking a split second longer for the string to hit the fret once my finger lands on it (as opposed to the lower action earlier) which results in the slight co-ordination problem. I only really notice it when im playing reels, and its really slight but it kinda frustrated me earlier. but ive been banging away on it all day and im slowly getting the hang of it…

does that make sense?

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I had a problem with my new Moon mandolin, compared to my previous one. I got one of Jimmy Moons luthiers to adjust it, they have a sanding block the exact contour and shape of each model of mandolin that they make, so it was just a case of using the right block with sand paper to rub down the base of the bridge until it was perfect.