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Long Scale Strings on a Short Scale Bass

Short scale basses are cool.... There’s no doubt about it.

These instruments are a great introduction to the bass for new players or for players with smaller hands.  They’re also a great solution for 6-string guitar players looking to dabble in a bit of bass here and there.  The familiarity of a shorter scale neck can certainly make the transition between 6-string and bass feel a lot less drastic.

But short scale basses aren’t just out there as an introductory instrument… Oh no! These things are cool as hell and there are plenty of well seasoned bassists who love the sound and feel of a shorter scale bass and tonally, shorter scale basses have a deeper and fatter tone when compared to its longer scale compatriots.

A shorter scale length also means the strings typically have less tension. Consequently this often makes a shorter scale bass feel more comfortable to play.

The most famous player to wield a shorter scale bass is probably Sir Paul McCartney.  For much of his career, Sir Paul can be seen with his trusty Hofner Violin Bass in hand whilst Jack Bruce of Cream also favoured Gibson’s short scale EB-3 Bass.

But it’s not just past masters who have succumbed to the short scale dark side.  US session bassist Justin Meldal-Johnsen is a huge advocate of the Fender Mustang. So much so that he teamed up with Fender to create the JMJ Signature Mustang Bass... a very cool, relic’d daphne blue number.

Another short scale fan of the modern age is Royal Blood’s Mike Kerr.  No doubt we've all tapped our hands on the steering wheel when listening to Kerr use his short scale basses to deft effect on the duo’s riff driven hits. 

If you caught our recent Player Spotlight article on British guitarist Scott McKeon, you will have seen that we mentioned Rocco Palladino was part of his recording band.  In one of the photo’s from the recording sessions of Scott’s latest album, we couldn’t help but notice Rocco Palladino sporting a Mustang Bass too!

Short Scale Strings

As you know, we’re big on educating our customers when it comes to strings. For bass players, scale length is certainly something you should have some knowledge on, especially when it comes to knowing the length of strings needed for our own bass.

So what about strings for shorter scale basses (short scale, medium scale)... what should we use? 

There are plenty of string manufacturers out there that make shorter strings specifically for shorter scale basses.  D’Addario, GHS, Rotosound, Jim Dunlop and Ernie Ball, La Bella and plenty of others all make their own versions.

However, whilst there has never been a better time for short scale string options, there still isn’t the wide range available when compared to long scale bass strings.

Often, many brands offer a reduced selection of gauges and for some players this can understandably feel limiting and frustrating.

As a result this can lead us down a road where we start asking questions like;

“Can’t I just buy the set I want in long scale and cut them down to size?”

Whilst on the face of it, this appears to be a perfectly logical solution and some players certainly opt to take this route, the 'official' answer to the question is, not really!!

Yes, you can certainly make a set of long scale strings work on a shorter scale length bass but you definitely need to choose your strings wisely. Being mindful of opting for the right gauge, wrap material and string construction is really important as there are sticking points that are likely to crop up at some point meaning the strings won’t sound as they should or last as long as they should.

With that in mind, let’s dive in and take a look…...

As we’ve discussed earlier, strings are made to various lengths to fit a whole manner of basses whether they be short, medium, long or extra long scale.

If you take a look at your current set of bass strings, you’ll notice that the windings of the thicker strings taper down once the string has cleared the nut (or at least they should do!).  But why is that?  Well simply, it’s because these thicker strings are, well… thick!! Too thick in fact to comfortably fit most machineheads found on basses today.  As a result, manufacturers taper the strings down to a thinner gauge so they can then fit nicely in the hole of our tuners.  Our in house guitar tech Chris Ward noted that some older, more obscure shorter scale basses he has worked on in the past have been fitted with standard guitar machineheads, so these would definitely not be able to handle a thick string.

Now, the point at which the string starts to taper is crucial and this needs to be in the correct spot in order for your bass strings to perform at their full potential.

In an ideal world, you want the string to taper just after the nut but before it reaches the post of your first (low E) machinehead.

In the image below, you'll see that the bass has been fitted with strings that are too long. As a result, the silk and taper start beyond the ideal spot.

With this in mind, one of the biggest issues with using long scale strings on a shorter scale instrument is that the strings simply don’t taper down soon enough. As a result, we’re left battling to fit a string that’s just too thick to be wound onto the capstan of our machineheads.  FYI, the set we used in our images here had a .100 gauge for the low E and just about fitted... anything heavier and we would have struggled without the string tapering down.

We asked several of the big bass string manufacturers about this particular topic and without fail, each one cited the strings not tapering at the optimum spot as one of the main reasons you shouldn’t trim down a longer scale bass set.

Aside from the fact that we run the risk of the string not even fitting our machineheads, there are other pitfalls we need to be mindful of.

Jack Dunwoody of Rotosound pointed out that bending a thick string around the capstan runs the risk of the strings’ outer windings separating.

Both Neil Silverman of Newtone Strings and Adam Ironside from D’Addario UK added that as the windings separate, “they can also become bent and crimp and may even start to cut into one another.”  

As you can imagine, this isn’t ideal and it would only be a matter of time before we started to hear some degradation in tone, or worse, for a string to break altogether.

The above is especially true for flatwound strings.  If you’ve ever taken a close eye at the outer surface of a flatwound string, you’ll notice that the windings are wound seamlessly adjacent to one another creating that beautifully smooth, flat surface (see image below left). But, if any windings become separated from one another, it will expose the inner core of the string and will inevitably lead to string breakage.

Left: a perfectly smooth surface found on a flatwound string
Right: Wrapping the wound portion of the flatwound string around our tuners has caused the windings to separate.

As part of our research we also spoke to our friends over the pond at La Bella in New York.  When we asked whether it’s possible to trim down longer scale strings to fit onto shorter scale basses their answer was a resounding “Absolutely not!!... especially for flatwound strings.”

They went on to explain that if any metal portion of the string is wrapped around the tuner, the windings of a flatwound string separate and the string will start to unravel.  

An unravelling string is never a good thing of course and it goes without saying that no string is fundamentally designed to do this.  However, if a string does start to unravel, the longevity and tonality will start to become compromised fairly rapidly. 

Again, it wasn’t just La Bella that raised concerns about unravelling, many of the other string brands we spoke to had the same misgivings.

In fact, Jack Dunwoody of Rotosound gave us some great insight into the tonal implications of an unravelled string;

“As the string unravels, you often hear the string start to buzz.  Thicker gauge bass strings are made up of several layers of windings built up around the central core and the buzz that you hear occurs between these layers as they start to become detached from one another.”

So as you can see, whilst you might be able to scrape by and make a cut down set of long scale bass strings work in the short term, one day you’re bound to come across one of these issues and your bass certainly won’t be performing or sounding at its full potential.  Not great if this all starts booting off mid gig either!!

If you wanted to check out our selection of short and medium scale bass strings, head on over to our site here;

If you would like some more information on bass scale length, be sure to check out our blog post here;

As always, we’re here to help wherever we can so if you have any questions regarding the scale length of your bass, or if you’re unsure what strings will fit, send us a message or leave a comment down below and we’ll be happy to help out.

Until next time…...

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