Guitar Scale Length Explained

Guitar Scale Length Explained

Guitar scale length can be a complicated concept to understand fully, but it’s important to have at least a basic grasp of the fundamentals.

In this article, you’ll learn exactly what scale length is, and how it affects your guitar’s playability and tone. You’ll also discover how to measure it, and the reasons why different numbers are common. And then of course, we’ll talk multiscale guitars!

Guitar Scale Length Explained

Having a good grasp of how scale length affects the setup and feel of your guitar will make it much easier to correctly adjust the playability to your liking.

In addition, having a basic understanding of it will really help out when choosing your next guitar! Many parts and features of a guitar can be adjusted to your liking, but the scale length is fixed. So make sure you pick the right one for your situation!

The subject is a little more involved than simply increasing or decreasing the size of fret spacing! For example, you probably aren’t going to want to buy a short-scale Fender Mustang for heavy drop-tunings! By the end of this article, you’ll understand why.

Table Of Contents

  1. What Is Guitar Scale Length
  2. How To Measure Scale Length
  3. How Does Scale Length Affect Your Guitar?
  4. Scale Length And String Gauge
  5. Multiscale Guitars
  6. Conclusion
  7. FAQ

What Is Guitar Scale Length?

A guitar’s scale length is defined as the distance between the bridge and the nut, which is essentially the length of a freely vibrating open string. This measurement is most commonly displayed in inches, and varies depending on the brand and model of guitar.

What is guitar scale length?

The most common guitar scale length is 25.5″, which you will find on numerous Fender models such as Strats and Teles. Also very typical is 24.75″, which you will find on most Gibson electric guitars. The majority of other popular scale lengths are clustered around these two variations.

For example, here are a few of the most common scale lengths found in guitars and 4-string basses.

Guitar Scale Length Chart

GuitarScale Length (inch)Scale Length (mm)
Squier Mini Strat22.75″578mm
Fender Mustang24″610mm
Gibson Les Paul/SG24.75″628mm
Most PRS25″635mm
Fender Strat/Tele25.5″648mm
7-String Guitars26.5″673mm
Baritone Guitars27″+686mm+
Short Bass30″762mm
Medium Bass32″813mm
Long Bass34″864mm

There are 3 common 4-string bass guitar scale lengths. 30″ is considered short scale, 32″ is medium, and 34″ is long (standard) scale. Extra-long scale lengths of 36″ also exist.

How To Measure Guitar Scale Length

If you’ve read my definition of scale length above, you’ll probably be thinking that to measure scale length, all you have to do is measure the distance between the nut and the bridge, right? Well, not quite!

Calculating it this way would produce an inaccurate result, as each string is not quite the same length! Take a look at the image below, which shows a close-up of the bridges on a Fender Stratocaster and a Martin acoustic. Notice how the strings end at slightly different points?

Guitar Bridge Saddle Intonation Compensation

This variance in string length is referred to as ‘compensation‘, and it is done in order to achieve perfect intonation along the entire length of the string. As a result, calculating scale length from the nut to the bridge would give slightly different measurements depending on which string you measured!

So the accurate method to measure scale length is actually to measure the distance from the nut up to the 12th fret, and then double that number.

To be super precise, it is the distance from the edge of the nut where it meets the fretboard, to where the string contacts the 12th fret when pressed down – multiplied by 2.

How to measure guitar scale length

To keep using the Stratocaster above as an example, if you were to measure from the nut to the 12th fret you would (hopefully!) get a measurement of 12.75″ (or 324mm).

Now, multiply that by two and we’ll arrive at the correct scale length of 25.5″ (or 648mm). Pretty easy, right?

Here’s one more example.

How Does Scale Length Affect A Guitar?

So now you know the most common scale lengths, as well as how to accurately calculate them. But what effect do the variations actually have on how your guitar feels and plays?

Let’s find out!

1. Does Scale Length Affect Fret Spacing?

Yes! The distance between each fret will become greater as scale length increases. Although you most likely won’t notice a huge difference between guitars with a smaller variation in scale length, going from a guitar with a short scale length, to one with a much longer scale can feel like night and day.

So for example, on a 24″ scale length Fender Mustang, the distance from the nut to the first fret would be 1.347″ (34.2mm). On a 26.5″ scale length 7-string guitar, the distance increases to 1.487″ (37.8mm).

There is an excellent fret position calculator at StewMac if you’d like to see the fret spacing on other scale lengths.

I personally went through a period where I became obsessed with my new baritone (27″ scale length) guitar. I played that thing exclusively for a month solid. The first time I picked up my Les Paul again, it felt like an absolute toy!

Thanks to the lesser distance between frets, many players with smaller hands will gravitate towards shorter-scale guitars such as a Fender Mustang or Gibson Les Paul. Whereas players with larger hands may prefer the less cramped fretboards on longer scale instruments such as a Fender Stratocaster, 7-string, or even a big ole baritone.

Check out the graphic below which shows the fretboards from various different scale length instruments. I made sure to perfectly scale each fingerboard so that you can see exactly how fret spacing is affected.

Does scale length affect fret spacing

2. Does Scale Length Affect String Tension?

Definitely! One of the biggest effects scale length has on the playability of your guitar is felt in the tension of the strings. An identical set of strings on a short scale guitar versus a longer scale instrument would feel very different to play.

A short scale length instrument requires a lower tension to raise the strings to pitch, so the strings would probably feel very easy to bend. Put that same set of strings on a longer scale guitar and they will feel much tighter, as additional tension is needed to reach the correct pitch thanks to the increased distance they have to span.

It would likely feel easier to perform big bends and vibrato on the shorter scale guitar, while doing those same bends on the long scale guitar would most likely give you a good finger workout.

To give an example, let’s look at how the tension is affected on an acoustic guitar tuned to standard pitch, and using a common 012-053 set of strings.

As a side note, if you’ve ever wondered why standard guitar tuning is EADGBE, check out this guide.

On a 25.5″ scale length guitar in standard tuning, a set of 012-053 strings will have a combined tension of 160.5 pounds (72.8 kg), while on a shorter 24.75″ instrument it would be much less, at 151.24 pounds (68.6 kg). This equates to a ~6% difference in tension from a ~3% change in scale length!

In a nutshell, as scale length increases, so too does the tension required to raise the strings to pitch. Using the same strings, a short scale length guitar in standard tuning will require less tension to bring the strings up to pitch than on a longer scale length instrument.

So as a result, you may need to change up your strings in order to help raise or lower the tension to levels that you feel comfortable with.

3. Does Scale Length Affect Intonation?

Yes! As a string becomes more taught it loses its flexibility, and in turn, this leads to less accurate intonation. This is because higher tension will increase the degree to which the string deflects when being pushed against the frets, resulting in a slightly higher note than we want.

The overall effect will be small, but will be noticeable to most players at the 12th fret.

Another issue related to tuning stability occurs when the strings are so loose that simply picking enthusiastically will cause notes to sound slightly sharp. This could occur on a shorter scale guitar that cannot provide adequate tension to keep the strings taught.

In addition, a large variation in string tension may also lead to a change in neck relief, which also affects intonation!

4. Does Scale Length Affect Tone?

Absolutely! Scale length determines the points at which the strings’ harmonics and overtones occur, and as a result, dictates the tone of your guitar in the most fundamental way! For most players there will be a noticeable shift in tone when switching between different scale length guitars.

Going back to string tension, overly stiff strings will also tend to exhibit unwanted overtones and harmonics, leading to a less pleasing sound.

Although scale length won’t contribute to your guitar’s sound to as great an extent as the tonewoods used in its construction, it will make a perceptible difference. Read more about tonewoods here.

For example, a Fender Stratocaster is known for its clear, bell-like tone, and tighter, well-defined bass notes. This is due in part to the increased spacing of the harmonics on its 25.5″ scale length. Whereas the shorter 24.75″ scale length Gibson Les Paul has more densely packed harmonics, and as a result, warmer and thicker tone. A PRS with it’s 25″ scale length falls somewhere in between these two, providing the best of both worlds – more or less!

In terms of string choice, lower, bassier notes are going to sound much better on longer strings where we can use a more flexible, thinner string. So a longer scale length instrument will give you an improved lower-end tone.

BUT! The higher (treble) strings tend to sound overly shrill and harsh if the tension is too high. Therefore, higher tuned strings are going to sound better on shorter scale length instruments. What a pickle!

So it’s necessary to compromise and find a happy medium between crisp and tight bass tones, and pleasing, fuller treble notes, by experimenting to find the best mix of scale length and string gauge.

Although multi-scale guitars will solve this dilemma, and we’ll find out more about those later on in the article.

5. Does Guitar Scale Length Affect Fret Buzz?

Strings that can vibrate more freely will reward you with rich, warm tones, and excellent sustain. But be careful that they’re not too loose, as this can introduce unwanted fret buzz.

String height, or the action of a guitar, is the distance between the top of the fret-wire and the strings. The scale length of your instrument will directly affect how low you can set your action.

As we’ve already touched on above, scale length will affect the tension placed on each string.

Strings with less tension will vibrate more freely, which means that you will need to raise the string height in order to give them room to do so. If your action is too low, the strings will vibrate against the frets, causing annoying fret buzz.

As the tension on longer scale length guitars is higher, you can more easily achieve a low string height without causing unwanted buzzing. A shorter scale length instrument would need a higher action to eliminate fret buzz.

That is unless you were to add thicker strings to compensate for the lower tension. And that leads us nicely into the next section – string gauge!

Choose The Best String Gauge For Your Guitar’s Scale Length

So we already know that scale length directly affects the flexibility of your strings, which in turn affects tone, intonation, and fret buzz. But thankfully, we don’t have to make do with floppy strings on our Fender Mustang, or ultra-tight, finger killing strings on our 30″ baritone.

This is because we can easily adjust the tension in our strings through the use of different gauges of strings.

So for example, let’s say you buy a new Fender Mustang and whack on a set of the same strings you use on your Strat. Thanks to the Mustang’s shorter scale length those strings now feel like rubber bands, and you’ve annoying fret buzz all over the place. In order to tighten up the feel of the guitar and lessen the buzz, all you’d need to do is slap a heavier gauge of strings on there. Simple!

Likewise, if you’re not digging the ultra-tight feeling strings on your newly acquired 7-string, switching to a lighter gauge of strings will alleviate that problem.

When I bought my first 7-string guitar many years ago, I did not understand much at all about scale length. The super-tight factory strings killed my fingers, and I quickly traded it in. If only I’d realized that I could have put some lighter gauge strings on there. What a noob, right?

Similarly, in my first band in high school we used to cover a song which was in Drop A. All the other songs we played were in standard pitch, so when I tuned my Les Paul down for that one song it was an absolute spaghetti-fest! Again, back then I had no clue how to fix that issue.

The key takeaway here is that different scale length guitars require different gauges of strings to help compensate for the increase or decrease in string tension.

For example, a typical string set used on a Fender Strat is 009-042, whereas on the shorter 24.75″ scale length Gibson Les Paul or SG a heavier gauge such as 010-046 is more common. Thanks to the difference in scale lengths, these two sets of strings should feel somewhat similar on both instruments, despite them being different gauges.

There is a limit to what you can achieve with string sets however! For example, if you want to tune super low on a regular scale length guitar the strings are likely to experience spaghetti string syndrome. You may be able to alleviate this floppy string issue with a heavier set of strings, but this will only work up to a point. It could be the case that the gauge you require to tighten up the low-E string with is simply too big to fit in the tuning peg hole!

So at this point, your options would be to install new tuners which can accept the thicker strings, or move to a longer scale length instrument to get the required extra tension.

Multiscale Guitars

Just when you thought you understood everything you needed to know about scale length, these guys came along and threw a spanner in the works!

As we’ve mentioned above, it is common to adjust tension by using different gauges of strings. But there’s a downside to this, which is most pronounced on longer-scale length instruments! Tighten up the lower end with heavier strings and you’ll also make bending on the high strings more difficult. And conversely, loosen up the higher strings with a lower string gauge and you’ll lose some of that bite and clarity when playing rhythm.

So what’s the answer here? Well, one solution is a multi-scale guitar!

What Is A Multiscale Guitar?

A multi-scale (also called a fanned-fret) guitar is an instrument where the strings each have their own individual scale length. This allows for each separate string to be at the optimum length for the pitch it is tuned to.

Sounds great, right?

You’ll most commonly find this arrangement on extended range guitars, such as 7 or 8-string models, as well as basses, but 6-string fanned-fret guitars do also exist. Other multi-scale instruments include the piano and the harp.

Check out the image below which features a stunning Mayones Duvell multi-scale guitar.

What is a multiscale guitar

As you can see, the lowest string has a longer scale length of 27″, whereas the high string has a slightly shorter scale length of 25.4″. The other strings fall in between these two measurements. So this guitar’s scale length is written as 25.4″-27″.

The result is a fretboard that kind of looks like a fan, hence the name ‘fanned frets’. As scale length increases, the angle of the ‘fan’ tends to become more extreme.

With this arrangement you get to enjoy the best of both worlds, i.e. a good tension on the lower strings for a punchy and clear bass tone, plus easily bendable treble strings that will sing beautifully. An added benefit is that due to the angle of the frets, it makes for much more ergonomic and comfortable positioning of the fretting hand. Win, win!

It makes a lot of sense, especially on extended-range guitars and basses! In fact, some brands (like Dingwall) believe it is the only way to go, and make exclusively multi-scale basses.

Check out the excellent video below which will explain and demonstrate the advantages (and disadvantages!) of multi-scale guitars.

Conclusion

Scale length is clearly an important ingredient in the complicated recipe that makes up your guitar, with a broad effect on playability, tone, and feel. Understanding it, even to a basic level, will go a long way in helping you to correctly set up your guitar.

In addition, having a good knowledge of its effects will help you narrow down your next choice of guitar, depending on the sound and feel that you are after.

Scale length is clearly a very complicated topic which can go far beyond the scope of this little article. But I do hope I helped you to understand why it’s so important to choose the correct scale length for your situation!

Frequently Asked Questions

Let’s answer a few more common questions related to scale length.

What Is The Best Guitar Scale Length?

The best guitar scale length will vary depending on what type of feel or tone that you are looking for. For example, if you like to tune down really low, then you’ll probably prefer a longer scale length instrument. As a result, there is no general best guitar scale length!

What Is The Scale Length Of A Baritone Guitar?

At the extreme end of the range of scale lengths is the baritone guitar (usually 27″-30″), which is tuned up to a perfect fifth below standard pitch. This ultra-long scale length, mixed with heavy gauge strings results in a very impressive sounding tone on the bass notes, making it excellent for very low tunings.

What Is The Scale Length Of A Classical Guitar?

The standard scale length for a classical guitar is 25.6″, or 650mm. Most classical guitars will have their scale length shown in millimeters, rather than inches.

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