Guitar Scale Length & Why It Matters
By Strings Direct – 29 August, 2023
There are so many different elements that go into guitar design. Each of these has an impact on the way that a guitar looks, as well as how it sounds and feels to play. Some of these elements - like the pickups, fretboard and body shape - are fairly obvious. And typically, guitar players will focus on these particular design and build elements when choosing a new instrument.
Scale length doesn't normally fall into this category. And as I will explain in more detail throughout this article, this is problematic. Guitar scale length has an impact on tone, feel and playability. It also determines how you need to set your guitar up to maximise its performance.
In this article then, I will cover what scale length is and why it matters. If you are looking to buy a new guitar, this will help you to make an informed buying decision and choose the right guitar for your setup. Conversely, if you are happy with the guitar(s) currently in your rig, understanding scale length will help you to get the most from your instrument.
So, without further ado, let’s get into it. Here is everything you need to know about guitar scale length and why it matters:
What is guitar scale length?
The scale length of your guitar is the length of the active or vibrating portion of the open strings. Put another way, it refers to the distance between the nut and bridge on your guitar. It is measured in inches.
This measure is somewhat of an approximation, as on most guitars the saddle positions in the bridge are adjusted to keep the guitar properly intonated. As a result, scale length is typically calculated by measuring from the front edge of the nut (where it meets the fretboard) to the middle of the 12th fret, and then doubling that measurement.
Different makes and models of guitars have different scale lengths. And as I will explain below, this has an impact on a variety of factors. First though, let’s look at some of the most common scale lengths of different guitars:
By no means does this table provide an exhaustive list of all of the different guitar brands and models out there, and their corresponding scale lengths. However, hopefully it helps to illustrate the variations in scale length that exist not only between different brands, but between different models in the same brand.
Certain brands - like Gretsch, Gibson and Epiphone - use the same scale length for the vast majority of their guitars. However the scale length of both PRS and Fender guitars varies depending on the model. This is particularly true for PRS - who vary the scale length of their guitars a lot. And in fact the numbers that appear in the names of PRS guitars often refer to their scale length. The PRS McCarty 594 for example, is so named because its scale length is 24.594 inches.
Why Scale Length Matters
At this stage, we have established that guitars have different scale lengths. Yet you might understandably be wondering why any of this is significant. In short, there are a number of reasons, the most important of which are as follows:
Scale length dictates the space between the frets on your guitar. This plays a significant part in how a guitar feels, and in turn can determine whether or not you find it comfortable to play. This is particularly true when you play guitars at different ends of the scale length spectrum.
To provide a personal example, I used to play a PRS Santana SE guitar with a 24.5” scale. I now play a Fender Stratocaster which has a scale length that is 1” longer. The spacing between the frets on the two guitars feels totally different. And whilst I personally enjoy playing them both, it takes time to adjust to the feel of the different guitars.
If you are currently in the market for a new guitar, then it is important to keep this in mind. Of course, there are many additional factors that determine whether or not you find a guitar comfortable to play, yet scale length is one of the most significant.
It is partly for this reason that guitarists sometimes find particular models or brands of guitars much more comfortable to play than others. They like the scale length of Gibson or Gretsch guitars etc, and then find it difficult or uncomfortable to use guitars of different scale lengths.
When we talk about string gauge, we often do so in universal terms. Yet how ‘heavy’ or ‘light’ a string feels depends on the scale length of your guitar. In short, the longer the scale length of your guitar, the higher the tension needs to be to bring the string up to pitch. And the opposite is true for guitars with a shorter scale length.
As a result, the same set of strings will feel different on guitars with different scale lengths. For example, if you were to string a Gibson Les Paul and a Fender Stratocaster with strings of the same gauge, those strings would feel lighter on the Les Paul. You would need to exert less pressure to bend, use vibrato and fret chords on the Les Paul compared with the Strat.
Later in this article I will talk about practical ways you can use this difference to your advantage in order to maximise your current playing setup, depending on the guitar(s) you have in your rig. For now though it is important to recognise that strings feel lighter on guitars with a shorter scale length.
This difference in string tension also has an impact on the action that will work best for your guitar. As noted above, on guitars with a shorter scale length the tension across the strings is lower. This increases the likelihood that the strings will move more, and in turn this can create fret buzz at lower actions.
For this reason, it is often better to set short scale guitars with a slightly higher action. And this is worth thinking about, depending on whether you want (or would like) to play with a higher or lower action.
After all, higher actions have their pros and cons. On the plus side, a higher action can improve your tone. The increased action gives the strings more room to vibrate, and this results in all of your notes resonating more clearly and for longer.
The drawback is that it is challenging to play with a higher action. You have to exert more pressure to fret each note, and to execute techniques like bends and vibrato. This is more physically demanding, and also makes it more difficult to play at speed.
So although the same set of strings will feel lighter on a short, rather than a long scale guitar, you might have to play with a higher action to reduce the risk of fret buzz.
The differences in tension across guitars of different scale lengths also has an impact on tone. On a guitar with a longer scale length, there is more tension across the strings.
This creates a tone that is more focused and with a lot of low-end clarity. It is partly for this reason that Fender guitars like the Stratocaster are renowned for their bright and clear ‘bell-like’ tones.
Conversely, the strings on shorter scale guitars like Gibson and Epiphone have lower amounts of tension. They can vibrate more freely and this produces a less focused but warmer sound.
The impact that scale length has on tone is not just related to string tension however. If it were, you would be able to minimise the tonal differences between guitars just by altering your string gauge.
Whilst this will alter your tone, the difference in tone between guitars of different scale lengths is more profound.
This is because scale length determines where the overtones or harmonics occur across each string. These differences also contribute to the various tonal characteristics noted above. However they contribute to these differences at a fundamental level. And it is for this reason (amongst others) that Gibson and Fender guitars sound so different.
It is also for this reason that you can’t make a Fender Stratocaster sound like a Gibson Les Paul by replacing the single coil pickups with humbuckers, or vice versa. The scale length, in addition to a variety of factors (like the wood from which the guitars are made) means that they will always sound quite different to one another. And this is true with guitars from other brands, too.
We have now covered some of the implications of scale length and its role in the playability, tone and setup of your guitar. At this stage then, I think it is useful to look at how you can use this information to your advantage. And here I think there are a number of different circumstances we need to consider. Some of the most common of these are as follows:
If you are looking to buy a new guitar…
Take scale length into account as part of the buying decision. Choosing a guitar often comes down to what ‘feels’ best. And in many cases, the guitar that really speaks to you is not the one that you thought would work best.
There are of course many different design elements that have an impact on the feel of a guitar. And so when you try different guitars out, rarely will you only be comparing the scale length. However it is an important factor to consider and one which can do a lot to explain why a guitar might feel comfortable - or otherwise - to play.
You might find for example that you prefer guitars with a shorter scale. If that is the case, you can then disregard guitars with a longer scale length. You can then zone in on some of the other various design and build elements which affect playing feel. And this will ensure you add the right guitar to your setup.
If you want to maximise the setup of your current guitar…
As noted above, scale length has an impact on the tension across your guitar strings. You might have already adjusted your string gauge (either knowingly or unknowingly) to account for this tension. If not though, then it could be worth exploring some different string gauges, depending on the scale length of your guitar.
For example, you might be playing a Fender Strat (or a guitar with a similar scale length) and find that you are struggling to bend and utilise vibrato with ease. And this could be true, even if you are using string gauges that you don’t think are too heavy. However, if you are using a longer scale guitar, you could benefit from reducing the string gauge to a set that is lighter than you might have previously considered.
Likewise, if you are playing a short scale guitar you might find yourself struggling with fret buzz and other problems associated with a low action. And here, you can maximise your playing setup by raising your action slightly.
If you have multiple guitars in your collection…
In this circumstance, you can use an understanding of scale length to your advantage in one of two ways.
Firstly, you can adjust your string sets across different guitars so that the tension across them is balanced. For example, if you have a Fender Strat and a Gibson Les Paul, you can use slightly lighter strings on the Strat than the Les Paul. In this way the string sets will feel balanced on both guitars. And this is a great option if you favour a particular feel when you are playing.
Conversely, you can take the opposite approach. You can purposefully set your guitars to have different string tensions. In this way you will have a guitar that feels smooth and easy to play, and another with a higher tension.
This higher tension can bring out a different element in your playing. You can dig in more with your picking hand and use a heavier pick attack. It will also help you to explore different tunings.
In a blues and blues rock context, this can help you to use tunings like Eb. The extra tension of the strings in standard tuning allows you to tune them down without them becoming too slack. And this helps you to create quite different tones with the guitars in your collection.
Well there we have it - guitar scale length and why it matters. As is typically the case with guitar gear, this is not a topic that can be viewed in isolation. There is so much that varies between different models and brands of guitars. And scale length is just one of these elements. It is however, an element which makes a significant difference to the feel, playability and tone of your guitar.
If you are looking to buy a new guitar you can use this to make sure you make an informed decision. Conversely, if you have no intentions of adding a new instrument to your setup, you can use this to make sure you get the most from the guitar(s) currently in your rig, And this will do a lot to improve your playability and tone.
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