All About Scale Length

December 1, 2008




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More than just a random calculation of the guitar-maker’s whimsy, or a spec that affects playing feel but little else, scale length—the distance between a guitar’s bridge and nut— plays an enormous role in determining a guitar’s core tonality. Of course, as thousands of great artists have proven over the years, you can play whatever style you want on whichever guitar you choose. But it’s worth understanding that scale length lays the platform for the sound a stringed instrument produces, and while tools such as overdrive pedals and pickups can help you build upon that platform, you can’t change the underlying harmonic foundation— not entirely at least. What you can do is learn how to work with your guitar’s core voice, harness its strengths, and bend its near-immutable sonic force to suit your own timbral goals.

Scale length is so central to shaping a guitar’s sound that one could go so far as to call it the “invisible” component in any instrument’s sonic makeup. While most of us recognize a difference between the playing feel of different scale lengths, each length also has a different sound. Luthiers consider scale length very carefully when designing a guitar, but most players have, at best, only a subconscious awareness of the role scale length plays in their preference for, say, a Les Paul over a Stratocaster, or vice versa.

Sure, these iconic guitars sound different from each other for many reasons other than scale length. (A Les Paul, for instance, has a set neck with humbuckers, while a Strat sports a bolt-on neck and single-coils.) But it surprises many players to learn that the Strat’s 25w" scale—which is not even an inch longer that a Les Paul’s—contributes mightily to its bright, harmonically complex sound, even before you plug the thing in. This longscale/ short-scale dichotomy has a lot to do with why Gibson and Fender’s most popular models are, to generalize, known for their “warmth” and “brightness,” respectively. To hear a vivid example of scale length’s effect on timbre, pick up whatever guitar you have handy, electric or acoustic, and place your finger lightly on the low E string directly over the 5th fret. Without actually fretting the note, sound the harmonic there. (Using a pick will bring out this harmonic most clearly.) Now, slowly run your finger down the string toward the nut while picking repeatedly. An array of harmonics from the overtone series will fill the air, and in certain positions—even between frets—the harmonic will be surprisingly pronounced. (Fact: This series of harmonics is produced in varying degrees—at various pitch relationships, of course—in every note we play on the guitar.) You’ll notice these sparkly partials get more closely packed as you approach the nut, and that the harmonics rise in pitch even though your finger is descending “lower” down the string.

Now, repeat the process on a guitar of a different scale length. You’ll likely find that the longer-scale guitar produces clearer, more ringing harmonics in the 5th-fret-tonut region, while the one of shorter scale length has slightly duller harmonics that are, no coincidence, sandwiched closer together. All guitars have the same harmonics and nodes, but a longer scale length means there’s a greater length of active string, which gives the harmonics a little more room to “breathe” between the dead spots. While this generally yields a tone that is more harmonically complex, that doesn’t mean it’s universally desirable. Sometimes all that harmonic chime and shimmer can get in the way of warmth, body, and power, making a shorter scale length the choice of many players.

To rephrase it as simply as possible, shortening the speaking length of the string squeezes its harmonic points closer together, with the result being that high harmonics sparkle just a little bit less. On the other hand, by reducing the harshness that can result from a plethora of high harmonics, this also has something of a fattening effect. Certainly different amplifiers will contribute their own harmonic sheen, but if the overtones we’ve been speaking of weren’t there to begin with, nothing can replace them further down the chain. Likewise, if a complex harmonic brew is overkill for your desired texture, it can be difficult to remove this from the sound. Lowering the amp’s treble control and boosting the bass may only muddy things up. And let’s not forget that much of any guitar’s tone starts with the vibration of a string—i.e., how it was plucked. Nuance is one of the most crucial definers of tone, yet tragically it is one of the most oft-ignored details of many players’ tone quests.

The two most popular scale lengths are usually thought of broadly as Fender scale (25w") and Gibson scale (24y"). (The latter, by the way, is often misreported as 24 e"— r" too long.) A majority of guitars tend to follow one or the other of these established scales, though other scale lengths are certainly in use. Both Paul Reed Smith and Danelectro/ Silvertone often use a 25" scale length, as do many high-end archtop jazz guitar luthiers, including Robert Benedetto. Fender Jaguars and Mustangs are made to a diminutive 24" scale, while many smaller student guitars are as short as 22” in scale length. (These are often called “three-quarter- scale” guitars, though that missing 2" to 3w" accounts for far less than a quarter of the full length.)

The feel factor, as it pertains to scale length, should not be ignored either, and rarely is by experienced players. Newbie players, however, are more prone to choosing an instrument solely for its feature set (pickups, hardware, construction, etc.), without regard to scale length. But if you’ve had a fair amount of trigger time on both Gibsons and Fenders, you probably know that shorter scale guitars (Les Paul, ES- 335, etc.) are easier to fret and bend strings on. Plus, having the frets closer together makes for shorter stretches and a cushier riffing experience. On the other hand, longer-scale-length instruments such as Teles and Strats have to be tuned up to a greater tension to reach pitch. This translates into a firmer feel, more precise pitch in some cases (when intonated right), and strings that aren’t thrown briefly sharp when you strike ’em hard.

You can also “cheat” your scale length slightly if you want to elicit the sound, feel, and bendability of a different string gauge, particularly if you’re starting with a longerscale instrument. Fender-scale players who are seeking a looser, more “Gibson-y” feel can try detuning a half-step or dropping their string set down a gauge. The reverse doesn’t work quite as well, though upping the string gauge on your Gibson, Gretsch, Guild, Epiphone, or other 24y" electric will indeed give it a slightly tighter feel, firmer lows, and a tad more twang in the highs. With guitars of even shorter scale length, it’s usually worth going up a gauge or two simply to tighten up the potentially sloppy feel and tone the instruments may have when strung with “normal” .009-.042 or .010- .046 sets. Do so, and you’ll probably find that the improved intonation and added sparkle bigger wires provide are well worth the extra muscle needed to fret them. Whatever you explore in your hunt for your dream tone, consider scale length at the beginning of your quest. Once this crucial component is set in stone, it can be difficult to escape its influence and impact upon everything else in the chain.

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