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Demystifying the Guitar: Scale Length

After years of playing, studying and obsessing about guitars, I have become so familiar with so many aspects of their design that I forget some terms describing their features are as foreign as to students and novices as Fellini films. One of the terms they may come across is “Scale Length.”

The scale length of a guitar is the distance between nut and the saddle: the vibrating length of the string.  It may (or may not) have anything to do with the size of the actual guitar body itself, though the neck may be longer or shorter depending on the scale.

Typically, Fender electric guitars and Martin Dreadnaught acoustic guitars use the longer 25.5″ scale. Gibson also uses this scale length on their J-200, Hummingbird and Advance Jumbo acoustics.

Gibson uses a shorter 24.75″ scale on their J-45 and J-185 acoustics as well as their Les Paul, SG electrics and various other guitars.  Fender and Martin have used this scale to a lesser degree.

Guitars with either scale are tuned the same way (standard tuning), but the different scale length makes them feel, well, slightly different. 

The longer length feels “stiffer” and the shorter scale a little less so. Because of this difference, some guitarists who switch between guitars with either scale length sometimes use slightly heavier strings on the shorter scale guitars to maintain a consistent, similar feel: at least tension-wise with the strings.

On electric guitars the longer scale seems to have more “twang”, but this could also be attributed to Fender’s near exclusive use of single coil pickups on their guitars.

I have heard the sound difference on acoustic guitars described this way, and I tend to agree: The longer scale sounds like a choir of professional singers, and the shorter scale sounds like siblings singing together.

Most professionals do have a preference, but it is fairly evenly split between the two.

There are, as it should be noted, other scale lengths as well for guitars with standard tuning (as oppose to baritone guitars, etc. ). The 25″ scale as use on Paul Reed Smith (PRS) has been becoming popular as what is often perceived as a perfect compromise between the two.

Some guitars, primarily student guitars but also some professional guitars such as the Fender Jaguar and the big bodied Gibson Byrdland, have even shorter scale necks (usually in the 23″ to 24″ range) which are still tuned to standard pitch.  Rickenbacker’s model 325 as used by John Lennon has a 20” scale! On student instruments these scale lengths are generally referred to as 3/4 size guitars, which have reduced bodies sizes to match.

If nothing else: if you don’t have a guitar with either scale length, it’s a good excuse to buy one.

Jake Kelly is a man on the constant search for enlightenment, if anyone finds it let him know so he can get some. For more of this hombre’s ramblings and the rest of L2P check out L2Pbandspace and L2Pnet.com.


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