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If you’ve ever known the pain of breaking a string on your mandolin while showing off your double-picking skills during a bluegrass jam session, you know how important having spare strings can be.
While searching to replace your string and continue your solo, you probably wondered: Can you use guitar strings on a mandolin?
You can use guitar strings on a mandolin, as long as you make sure to choose the proper gauge strings. It’s only a good idea for single replacement strings, though; most mandolins are strung in four double courses of strings, so no guitar string set will have enough strings to fully re-string a mandolin.
Let’s walk through what kinds of strings belong on a mandolin, whether it’s safe to use guitar strings on a mandolin and whether that’s a practical solution.
How Are Mandolins Strung?
To begin with, mandolins are strung like a 12-string guitar, with double courses of strings — the technical term for two strings meant to be fretted by the same finger.
Unlike a 12 string guitar, which uses a mix of unison and octave tuning for its courses, the mandolin’s courses are all tuned in unison.
Standard mandolins use four double courses of strings, for a total of eight. Standard tuning is G D A E, the same as for a violin.
This video walks through the process of tuning a mandolin.
As with guitar strings, there are options for string gauge sets, with heavier strings generally being louder but more difficult to press down.
As you can see from that chart, the highest mandolin string, E, is about the same as the high E on most six string acoustic guitar string sets. The A string on the mandolin matches the B string on a six string guitar, and the D string on the mandolin is about the same size as a G string on a six string guitar.
The G string bucks that trend, and is closer in size to the A string on a six string guitar.
Another similarity between mandolin strings and guitar strings is that they come in a variety of materials. As most mandolins are acoustic instruments, most use some kind of phosphor bronze string, as on many acoustic guitars.
Many players think phosphor bronze strings, whether on a guitar or mandolin, offer the best balance between brightness and warmth, with other kinds of strings tending to be either too shrill or too dull.
Nickel and stainless steel string sets are also available, normally for use on electric mandolins, but they can be used on any kind.
Are Guitar Strings Safe To Use On A Mandolin?
If you just broke a mandolin string and all you have is a spare set of guitar strings, you’re absolutely fine to use one, as long as you pick the right gauge.
That’s because most mandolins have a scale length around 14 inches, compared to a standard acoustic guitar scale length of about 25 inches. That means a string that’s .011″ requires less tension to be tuned to the same pitch on a mandolin compared to a guitar.
So installing a guitar string, as long as it’s the right gauge, won’t put any more pressure on the bridge, neck, and top than a standard mandolin string would.
It should be pretty clear why this isn’t really a practical solution to stave off buying more mandolin strings, though. Because of the double courses, you need two identically sized strings for each position.
Guitar string sets generally only have one of each gauge, apart from 12 string sets. In that case, however, you’ll still likely end up short because only the three highest courses are tuned in unison for a 12 string guitar.
The lower three courses are all tuned in octaves, and so don’t have the same gauge string for those positions.
But, if you have trouble finding mandolin strings locally, you absolutely can go to a local music store and put together a set from either individual strings or a few sets of guitar strings.
How Can You Use Guitar Strings On A Mandolin?
One issue to be aware of when trying to use guitar strings on a mandolin is that they use different kinds of attachment. Most guitar strings end in a loop of wire that’s around a round brass ferrule known as a ball end.
Most mandolin strings, on the other hand, end in just a loop.
That’s because mandolin strings are generally attached to a tailpiece near the very bottom of the instrument. They’re attached to small hooks punched in the tailpiece by the loops, and are held securely.
Guitars, on the other hand, use bridge pins or a tailpiece cut to use the ball end of the string to hold it in place.
If you want to use a ball end string on most mandolins, you’ll need to remove the brass ferrule, so you can use the loop to secure the string to the tailpiece. A pair of pliers makes this easy, but be careful not to damage the string.
This video shows you the basics of restringing a mandolin.
The litany of caveats and cautions I’ve had to lay out, including how to remove part of the string so you can use it, probably should give you a hint about the wisdom of this idea. Mandolin strings are inexpensive and readily available through the Internet as well as brick and mortar music stores. It can definitely be tempting to try guitar strings (especially if you have them laying around) on any of the close relatives to the guitar but it’s not always a perfect match.
With that said, though, there are situations when using a guitar string might make sense. For example, if, like I’ve mentioned a few times, you broke a string and need a replacement, using a guitar string is a good choice, because it gets you back playing quickly.
And if you play a lot and therefore change strings frequently, you might find it less expensive to buy bulk sets of individual string gauges, in which case, there’s not much difference between guitar and mandolin strings apart from what instrument they’re being used on. The same is also true for the guitar and banjo but with a bit more mixing and matching involved.
As long as you’re careful about which strings you choose, you should have plenty of mandolin playing left to look forward to.
I’ve been a musician, particularly a guitarist, for more than 25 years. I love writing about guitars, gear, recording, music in general and more.