Another term that brings confusion to many players is Scale Length. Nope, it’s not how many frets you covered in a scale, it’s actually the distance from your bridge saddles to the nut. This length of the string that is ‘in play’ accounts for an instruments given scale length. The number is an approximation and if you look at the individual saddles you’d see that each string needs to be compensated forward or backward depending on which string you are talking about and the string gauge for that specific string.
Scale length is one of those specs that you come across that can certainly be confusing. All fretted instruments have a scale length. Even if it wasn’t thought out, there is still a measurable distance between the nut and saddles. What’s better… a higher number or a lower number? Well, that question can’t be answered with a blanket statement. The 2 most common scale lengths are referred to as Gibson and Fender. Gibson Scale Length is typically 24.75” while Fender Scale Length is 25.5”. While this is only .75 of an inch, it makes a huge difference in the way the strings feel. Let me explain….
If you put the same brand and gauge string on a Les Paul and a Strat, there will be less resistance from the string on the Les Paul. The shorter scale length allows the string to feel slinkier, softer to the left hand making bends way easier. This same difference will always be noticeable when comparing different scale lengths with similar strings, even on basses.
Something else to consider is that the shorter the scale length is, the closer the frets are to one another. In other words, on a Les Paul neck the frets are closer to one another than on a Strat or Tele. This means less stretching for the left hand and, as I mentioned previously, a softer/easier feel on the left hand. While many players love how easy a Les Paul feels, many players also over play or grip the strings too hard, causing the guitar to sound out of tune. This is where increasing the string gauge by either .5 or 1 (going from 9s to 10s) can really help things out. Because of this, the conversations of String Gauge and Scale Length are often tied together.
There are plenty of other scale lengths out there. PRS Guitars are 25” unless otherwise noted. Many Gretsch are 24.6”, while guitars like the Byrdland from Gibson measure in at 23.5” . Shortening the scale length makes for great Student Model Guitars since the string tension is much less of that than on a Strat or Tele. Guitars like the Fender Music Master, Mustang or Duo Sonic would all qualify. These guitars have a stocky or stout feel to them that requires less of a stretch from the left arm to get to the 1st fret.
On a Baritone, 7 string, or an 8 string guitar, you’ll experience a longer than average scale length to accommodate for down tuning the guitar. From 26.5” to 29.75”, these longer scale lengths help keep down-tuned guitars in tune all up and down the neck.
Basses are a bit more confusing than guitars because there seem to be a wealth of slightly different scale lengths that necessitate different length strings. Bass strings are available in a variety of lengths while most guitar strings all come in the same length. 34” Scale Length is considered standard for 4 string Basses. Short Scale Basses include those with lengths shorter than 31”. The Hofner 500/1 Violin Bass is one of the earliest and most recognized Short Scale Electric Basses. The Fender Mustang and Bronco Basses offer 30” scale length making either of them a great choice as a Student Model.
There are also some instruments that offer multi-scale lengths on one instrument. The idea here is for unparalleled accuracy in intonation. The fingerboards on these instruments look considerably different than one with the frets all cut at the same angle.
At the end of the day, scale length is very important too the feel of any fretted instrument. However, the string tension, which is undoubtedly tied to scale length, can be altered by changing the gauge string and thusly, changing whether a guitar feels Slinky or Taut. In other words, you can't change a guitar's scale length (well, technically you can with a replacement neck) but you can change string gauge to increase or decrease string tension. Ultimately, only you can decide the correct feel for your guitar collection and we urge you to try out different strings to find that perfect balance of string tension.
This blog post was penned by Mathew Jenkins who features 71” scale length.