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I've been playing mandolin for years, and I tune it with no particular problem (insert mandolin tuning joke here). But, while in theory I believe it is impossible to tune a mandolin or other stringed instrument perfectly while maintaining intonation, I think there are some tricks and techniques that help.

Assuming that the instrument has been properly set up (string height, scale length, etc), what can one do to get the best tuning for a particular session? I know that the instrument goes out of tune due to changes in temperature and humidity - usually sharp for mandolins.

One person [rvk] says to "catch and release," which means to slacken the string below the desired tuning, then always bring the tuning up to the desired note. Presumably this accommodates the string's sticking at the nut and bridge.

Online videos about guitar tuning suggest tuning slightly under the desired pitch by a few cents to balance the added tension of fretting, especially heavier strings. So the G string(s) might best be tuned to, say, -4 cents.

I have discovered that stretching a string that is slightly sharp, by pulling it sideways with the plectrum, is a convenient way to lower the pitch a small amount without using the tuning peg.

When putting new strings on, I usually have to do multiple tunings because tightening one string has the effect of loosening all the others a bit (why I think that in theory tuning is impossible :) I also stretch the strings by pulling them sideways as noted above, but more aggressively than for minor adjustments. Incidentally, I use a tuning tool to rotate the pegs for new strings - so much easier than doing it by hand!

Ok, that's what I think. Any suggestions, tips, tricks?

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I think you've basically got it. I never tune open notes flat to compensate for fretting, but instead I will tune fretted notes instead of open ones, and I'll choose which notes I'm tuning to be in the range I prefer to play in.

For example, on guitar I'll often tune strings at the 7th or 9th frets, because I play up there a lot and want all the strings to be well intonated with each other in that range.

Definitely always tune up to notes on string instruments, for the reason you guessed. Also pulling on strings a bit to try to flatten them is popular, and only a problem if you get carried away and break a string.

With mandolin and 12 string guitar, there is the choice of tuning the courses as perfectly together as possible, which creates a more subtle sound, or deliberately detuning them very slightly to get a slight chorus sound.

The only other thing I can think of is that the quality of the tuner does matter for getting as close as possible to the desired pitch. I personally highly prefer the Peterson line of strobe-display tuners, but any tuner with a strobe display gives you the advantage of having much more precise visual feedback from the tuner on where you are compared with the target note. When I switched from a needle tuner to a strobe display many years ago, I immediately noticed the difference.

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  • thanks @ToddWilcox I use that tuner also (iPhone).
    – Eric O
    Jun 16 at 23:19

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