For many beginners, the concept of a guitar scale length may not seem all that important. We mean, all guitars pretty much look the same, right? Why would someone even need to consider scale length as a factor?
The scale length of your guitar will make much more of a difference than you think. It has a considerable impact on just about every facet of how well your guitar feels and plays. Yet, it’s often a misunderstood topic, and it’s something that you need to understand.
Today we’re going to explore everything related to scale length and, most importantly, why it matters.
What is the scale length of my guitar?
Any musical instrument that has strings on it has a scale length. It doesn’t matter if it is a guitar, a mandolin, a ukulele; you get the point. Scale length is simply nothing more than the relative distance from the nut to the bridge. It’s how long the string has between those two ‘anchor’ points.
Measuring scale length isn’t as straightforward as you may think, however. That’s because you have to factor in how a guitar is intonated (that is, how well it plays in tune up and down the length of the neck).
Take a look at the bridge on just about any electric guitar – you’ll typically see that each string has an individual saddle that can be adjusted to increase (or decrease) the nut’s overall length. It’s not uncommon to have the string saddle positions not match each other when a guitar is properly intonated.
A better method to figure out scale length is to take a measuring tape from the backside of the nut (the side that faces the fingerboard) to the right over the top of the 12th fret. Double that dimension, and you’ll have the general scale length of your guitar.
Do all guitars have the same scale length?
No, they don’t. There is no standard for scale length set among guitar manufacturers at all. That’s mainly because different designers think a particular scale length may lead to a guitar with the best playability. But that doesn’t mean that all of the guitars in a brand’s product line have the same scale length, many different options for varying tastes.
Considering standard-sized six-string guitars, most production guitars have scale lengths around the 25″ mark. A majority of Fender guitars measure 25.5″, while Gibsons are often in the 24.75′ range. That difference of 0.75″ may not sound like much, but you’ll be surprised how big of a difference it can make.
The effects of scale length on playability
There are several areas where the scale length of your guitar will affect how its overall playability is. Knowing what these factors are will help guide you to determine what scale length you should look for when shopping for a guitar.
String tension is nothing more than how ‘tight’ has to be to sound the correct note it’s being tuned to (for example, how taut your thinnest string needs to be to ring out the properly pitched E note when it’s played open).
Guitars with longer scale lengths require more tension to be tuned appropriately. That means that strings may be a little harder to bend up to a note when playing a solo; simultaneously, the strings will feel more stable under your fingers when you are fretting a chord.
It may go without saying, but the opposite is true for shorter-scale guitars: they require less tension, so string bending is typically easier. That’s a good thing, but chords may feel a bit’ looser’. That can be a bit of a negative thing if you’re the type of player that digs in when playing rhythm.
Since the strings’ length isn’t the same between guitars with different scale lengths, that means that the distance between the frets has to be different as well.
Guitars with shorter scale lengths have frets closer together, which can make playing a much better experience for a young beginner or any adult that may have smaller hands and body proportions. In fact, there is a whole market segment of short-scale guitars, which are a perfect solution for these cases.
The opposite is true as well – for those with larger hands, a smaller scale guitar may feel much too cramped, especially the farther up the neck you go.
The overall difference in fret spacing is yet another factor where just a little bit can translate to a whole lot of improvement in how well your guitar feels under your fingers.
Scale length can influence string action (how high the strings are off the fingerboard) as well, although it may not be all that intuitive at first to see how.
Many players like the feel of having relatively low action and one big issue with low strings is that they can buzz against the frets. You see, a string has to have a certain amount of physical space around it to vibrate properly. Lower string tension – such as that found on guitars with a shorter scale length – typically needs just a little more of that space, making fret buzz a common problem.
Playing guitar with a longer scale length can help. As the string tension is higher, you should be able to get the strings closer to the neck without the annoying buzz.
The scale length on your guitar is a specification that needs to be taken into account whenever you are looking for an instrument that plays to your satisfaction. While scale lengths among different brands are typically reasonably close, you can have a huge difference in playability from one brand to another.
String tension, string action, and fret spacing add up to making your guitar play with its character. We’d recommend trying out a few options to see which best fits your playing style because a guitar that ‘feels right’ is one that you are more likely to want to play.
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