GUITAR SCALE LENGTH- DOES IT MATTER?Copyright 2009 Steve Carmody
When evaluating a guitar for purchase, there is one technical feature which can make
a big difference in the feel and sound of the instrument that is often not considered-
the scale length.
WHAT IS SCALE LENGTH?
With guitars (and other fretted instruments such as banjos and mandolins), the scale
length is defined as the distance from the point where the nut meets the fretboard to
the middle of the 12th fret, times two. The resulting end-point of this span defines the
general location of the string saddle(s) in the bridge. The significant vibrating portion
of a guitar string sits between these two points (nut and saddle).
The range of scale lengths used in guitars designed for standard concert tuning goes from
around 20.75", as in the Rickenbacker 320 model, to a 26" scale length, which is often
used on classical (nylon strung) guitars, particularly those designed for Flamenco
stylings. Many of the so-called "travel" guitars have scale lengths around the 22"
HOW DOES SCALE LENGTH AFFECT GUITAR DESIGN?
The structural design of a guitar is dictated to a degree by the choice of scale length, and there are a couple reasons for the short and long limits of this particular range.
The playing range of most guitars (as defined by the positioning of the fret bars in
half tone intervals) in standard tuning, is from about two octaves below to two octaves
above middle 'C' on a piano. Given this tonal range, and the tension of six steel
strings, there is a minimum structural resistance that a guitar neck and body must
have to avoid collapsing when tuned to concert pitch.
Structurally, the longer the scale length, the more the tension of a given string tuned
to a given note increases. Therefore, when tuned to the same note, longer scale guitars
have more pounds of pull on the structure of the guitar than do shorter scale guitars.
For all guitars, the tension of the strings is a consideration when deciding
how to shape and reinforce the neck.
On acoustic guitars, the tension of the
strings has a structural impact on the sounding box of the instrument, as well. Too much
string tension can distort or destroy a lightly constructed box. This could be
true on a solid body guitar, but is less commonly an issue. In any event, consideration of
the impact of string tension on the structure of an instrument absolutely figures into
the design, and the choice of a scale length.
A case in point would be the acoustic "travel" guitars which usually have
scale lengths around the 22"
range. Using this short scale length (therefore less tension), the makers can get away with
with a reduced body size, resulting in a compact,
easily portable guitar, which can be tuned to concert pitch using standard guitar
WHY DOES SCALE LENGTH MATTER TO A PLAYER?
At a basic level, the scale length determines how far the frets sit from each other.
The longer the scale length, the further apart the frets are. This can make a huge
difference in the suitability of a particular guitar for a given player.
Someone with smaller hands will find that certain chord patterns that are unreachable
on a longer scale guitar are quite manageable on a shorter scale instrument. And on the
other hand (so to say), someone with larger hands may find the fretboard too crowded
on a shorter scale guitar. Also, in the ergonomic vein, the first fret on a longer
scale instrument lies much further from the body of the instrument, which requires a
These physical differences may not seem like much, but if you play an instrument whose
size is not suited to you for extended periods of time (gigs, rehearsals, or even long
practice sessions), you may eventually notice the effects of your guitars design on
your body (sore hands, arms, shoulders, and/or back).
In addition, because of the variance in string tension depending on scale length, the
physical ease of depressing and stretching the strings is also affected by the scale
length. As a result, shorter scale guitars, such as many Gibson electrics with a
scale length of 24 & 5/8" (versus the longer scale Fender Stratocasters and
Telecasters at 25&1/2"), may feel as if they can be played with a lighter touch.
While some players may tune down a couple half steps to facilitate string bending, a
shorter scale guitar, in and of itself, will yield a more flexible string feel.
Rhythm guitar players may find that a longer scale length guitar is more suited to
their style( Bluegrass players have confirmed this point for years with their choice
of Martin D-18's and D- 28's, both of which are at the long end with 25.4" scale lengths)
. Because of the higher string tension, a longer scale guitar may enable them to have a
relatively low string height while still allowing a hard right-hand attack with minimal
string buzz. Flamenco guitars often have a longer scale for this same reason. Bluegrass
players will find that they can drive a longer scale guitar harder and achieve
more un-miked volume.
The scale length of a guitar does matter. It impacts both how a guitar feels in the
hands of the player as well as how the strings themselves feel when played. Since scale
length affects string tension it also affects the suitability of certain guitars for
certain styles of play. Next time you are thinking of buying a guitar, consider the
scale length of the instrument and how it might impact your comfort with the instrument
as well as its suitability for the music you are intending play.
Steve Carmody is an independant guitar repairman and luthier with a shop in Silver Spring, Md.
He has been doing guitar repair and restoration full-time since 1990.
Questions about this article or anything else related to guitar repair? Send e-mail to - GuitarRepairShop@aol.com