Bass guitar scale length – what you need to know
Scale length for bass guitars can be a rather grey area due to the huge variation of basses and strings on the market today. As with all things strings and musical instruments, there’s often some idiosyncrasies that throw curve balls into the mix so we’re here to help clear things up and guide you as you navigate your way through the (sometimes) murky waters of scale lengths.
So what exactly is scale length?
Scale length is the distance (usually measured in inches) from the bridge saddles of your bass up to the nut. You may have heard scale length referred to as “speaking length” at some point. These two terms are NOT interchangeable and refer to two different things; here at Strings Direct we prefer to use speaking lengths and we’ll explain why a bit later on.
Not all bass scale lengths are the same so they are generally categorised into 4 main groups; short scale, medium scale, long scale, and extra-long scale.
Below we’ve listed these 4 scale lengths along with some corresponding measurements:
Short Scale – 30-32” Scale length
Medium Scale – 32-34” Scale Length
Long Scale (standard) – 34-36” Scale Length
Extra Long Scale – 36” plus
It’s worth noting that these measurements are meant as a guide only. Unfortunately, there aren’t any firm “rules” on scale length that bass and string manufacturers stick to and as a result we often end up with conflicting interpretations of scale lengths where the length of one brand’s set will be longer than another brand’s, and vice versa (this is true for all scale lengths, not just long scale so it’s definitely something you should try to be mindful of).
What do I need to know about my bass?
Here at Strings Direct, we know all too well about the issues players have when selecting the correct length of strings for their bass.
Whilst it’s important to be aware of your scale length (short, medium, long etc… ), more importantly, we encourage bassists to know how long they need their strings to be, which will be a slightly longer measurement than basic scale length, aka Speaking Length.
To find this out, rather than simply measuring from the bridge to the nut, we insist players measure their current set of strings (if your bass has a set on there) from the ball end of the string to where it crosses the nut. If you have a bass where you cannot see the ball end i.e. a thru-body bass, you will have to do this exercise once the string has been removed. If you do need to do this, before removing the string be sure to make a mark on the string with a permanent marker just behind the nut so you know where to measure up to. Knowing this measurement will always stand you in good stead for getting the right length of bass strings.
Why’s that? We hear you ask
Well this distance will be the minimum length your strings need to be before any silk wrap or tapering should start. You’re aiming for the string to be long enough to pass through your bridge or body (depending on how you restring your bass) and for the wound portion of the string to then pass over the nut before the silk winding starts or the string starts to taper down.
(In an ideal world you would also need the string to start to taper or for the silk to start behind the nut but before it reaches the machine heads. Sometimes this can’t always be helped, especially on the machineheads that sit closer to the nut).
If the silk does start before or on the nut, it is a big no, no (see the image below). If this happens, the string simply won’t sound as it should, not to mention they may not even be long enough to reach or wrap around the posts of your machineheads.
If you were to consider the scale length only (bridge saddles to nut) you are potentially neglecting a few extra inches of string that crucially need to be accounted for. For instance, some tailpieces sit further back from the saddles than others, whilst some basses need to be strung through the back of the body. These kind of features often mean the ball end resides several inches from the saddles and consequently require longer sets.
An example of this is the Hofner Violin ‘Beatle’ Bass. This iconic bass is described as a 30” short scale bass (bridge saddles to nut). Logically, you would assume that this bass would therefore need a ‘Short Scale’ set of strings. However, because of its trapeze-style tailpiece, the strings are anchored approximately 3-4 inches further back from the saddles. As a result of this, most “short scale” sets turn out to be a too short and medium scale sets are usually the order of the day in this instance.
Under the bass string section of our website, we categorise our strings into ‘short scale sets’, ‘medium scale sets’ and so on. However, where possible, we make every effort to include the speaking length of each set from the ball end to the start of the silk winding or taper (where some strings have no silk winding). We like to quote this measurement as we believe it gives a more accurate depiction of the length of the string rather than simply being referred to as ‘Short Scale/Medium Scale/Long Scale etc.… This way our customers can take this measurement and see how it corresponds with their own bass helping make a more informed decision as to whether the string will fit or not.
Bigger is better, right!?
“If bass players run the risk of selecting a set of strings that are ‘too short’, what’s stopping me buying a longer set and just trimming them down to the length that I need?
On face value, this is a logical question, and yes this can work for some people. We have a staff member here that loves Elixir strings and trims them down to fit his short scale Fender Mustang. That being said, string manufacturers will create their sets specifically for certain scale length basses and often the gauges they select are carefully chosen to help give optimum performance and playability.
It’s also worth noting that when a set of bass strings has been created solely for a specific scale length, often the thicker gauge strings will taper at a certain point so that they can be threaded through the holes in the machineheads. This might sound crazy, but we do come across instances where some strings just won’t fit through the machineheads because they’re simply too thick.
Also if you buy a longer set of strings with silk windings and cut them down, there’s a strong chance that the silk may be lost and you will have the main portion of the string travelling around the post, as opposed to the silk winding. This is particularly significant for flatwound sets. It’s important that the silk on these sets is wound around the post as opposed to the windings themselves as they can be prone to breaking if the windings become separated and the core is exposed.
The bass string landscape can prove baffling at times, but we do hope that we have been able to explain the concept of scale length a bit more here.
As always, we’re here to answer any further questions you guys may have so feel free to send us an e-mail or comment below and we’ll be happy to help out wherever we can. Also if you have any suggestions for topics you’d like us to blog about, let us know and we’ll see what we can do. Thanks for reading and we’ll see you on the other side 🙂
*For your information; amongst some other brands D’Addario and Rotosound also use speaking lengths to categorise their bass strings. Here’s a small table showing how their lengths compare to standard ‘Scale Length’ measurements. Notice how the lengths can also vary slightly from manufacturer to manufacturer.