When I was shopping for my first guitar, there was a lot to learn.
Among many other things, I remember noticing all kinds of different scale lengths.
But I had no idea what that actually meant.
What is scale length on a guitar? And what effect does it have on sound and playability?
In the end, I got a guitar with a scale length shorter than the norm. Not because I thought it would be better, but because it’s the standard length for Gibson guitars.
Not that I got a Gibson. I got a ESP LTD EC-256, which has a Gibson Les Paul body shape
So are there any advantages to the shorter scale length? Yes, but also some drawbacks.
Keep reading to get guitar scale length explained in full detail. You will learn what it means and what effects it has on the was your guitar plays and sounds.
Table of Contents
What Is Scale Length On A Guitar?
The scale length of a guitar is the length of the section of the strings that emits vibrations. This is typically the distance between the guitar’s nut and the bridge.
The nut stops the vibrations on the top end of the strings and the bridge stops them on the lower end of the guitar.
In other words, you get the scale length of a guitar by removing the parts of the string you don’t play one (e.g. the strings heading from the nut into the tuning pegs). It’s a simple parameter that describes the “usable” portion of a guitar.
But why does scale length matter to guitarists and do you need to know all about it, if you’re a beginner? It wouldn’t hurt to understand how it impacts your tone, playing, and tuning stability.
Below, we will help you understand how scale length affects tone other elements of performance in guitars, what some of the most common scale lengths are in popular guitar models, and how to work around “bad” scale lengths.
All Scale Lengths Sound Different
Before diving deeper into why scale lengths sound different, let me briefly mention how pickups work. Most guitars have neck and bridge pickups. The neck pickup is usually brighter, since the vibrations from the strings travel a shorter distance to this pickup.
The story with scale lengths goes in the opposite direction. Longer scale lengths paint the tone with brighter colors (shorter are warmer). Technically speaking, it doesn’t matter how quickly the vibration can reach the end. but how much headroom it has to expand along the way.
Even though we all perceive sounds differently (and subjectively), most people would describe the tone of guitars with larger scale lengths as “full-bodied” or “rich”.
That’s because both tones and overtones have a bit of extra space to soar, characterized by a bit more mids and highs than usual.
On guitars with shorter scale lengths, the tone does not travel quicker, but reaches the end faster because the distance is shorter. Furthermore, the distance between semitones is smaller as well, narrowing the pitch of each tone.
Most people would simply call such guitars “warm-sounding”, but I’d describe the tone of such an axe as “narrower” instead.
With less space for the tone to develop, we hear a bassy sound that never got the chance to properly communicate with the tonewoods.
Effect Of Scale Length On Guitar Tone
Scale length affects a guitar’s tone, since the longer the vibrating section of the string is, the more headroom each string has. Guitars with longer scale lengths usually sound much brighter than their short-scaled counterparts.
In addition to having a fairly noticeable effect on the guitar’s tone, the scale length of a guitar also affects playability, intonation, and tuning.
Of course, you can’t actually change the scale length of your guitar to affect any of these changes, aside from buying a new guitar with a shorter or longer scale length. Or you can apply workarounds to minimize the negatives, if you’re not satisfied with your current guitar’s scale length.
Effect Of Scale Length On Playability
Scale lengths affect the amount of tension the strings are under. That, in turn, affects playability. For instance, Fender Junior guitars are purposefully made with shorter scale lengths, since it’s the easiest way to boost playability and ensure beginners don’t have a difficult time understanding the basics.
Junior guitars, however, sound much warmer, simply because their scale lengths are barely over 22 inches. On the upside, shorter scale lengths put far less tension on the strings, although this is not a rule.
Less tension means fretting the notes feels easier. However, if you try to lower the action on a guitar with an already short scale length, the strings may end up dangling, which can completely muddy up your tone. If you are even able to play them, that is.
On other end of the spectrum, there are many guitars with longer scale lengths (just look up any newer Ibanez guitar). They are favored by rock and metal players since that genre of music is primarily driven by loud, rich-sounding guitars.
Baritone guitars are different from regular guitars due to their longer scale length. This gives them a different sound and makes them popular in certain genre. They are especially connected to the surf rock genre, but are also popular in metal.
Effect Of Scale Length On Intonation
Again, it’s all about the cause rather than the effect. When the strings are firmly held in place by the locking tuners, they are tight, sharp, and granted, a bit more difficult to use. However, tight strings rarely fall out of tune.
On guitars with shorter scale lengths, the action is a bit floppy, meaning that the tension on the strings is quite weak. As you play, the strings gradually fall out of tune, especially if the guitar is improperly stored. Even if you don’t play it and store it properly the strings will still fall out of tune over time.
None of this matters as much if you are using a string-lock system (e.g. NutBuster) since no matter what you do to the strings above the nut, the portion of the strings that produce vibrations (scale length) remain firmly in tune, and fully usable.
Average Sizes of Scale Lengths on Guitars
The typical scale length of an electric guitar nowadays is 25.5 inches. This particular length has been a standard for several centuries, following the standard set by a famous guitar manufacturer Antonio De Torres.
In the early 18th century, classical guitars were mainly created with a scale length that measured 25.6 inches. Even the slightest deviations can impact tone, playability, and intonation. However, when the difference is as small as 0.1 inches, only professionals and individuals with perfect hearing can spot the change.
If you’ve been on the market searching for a guitar, you may have noticed that certain models feature fractions such as ¾, ½, or ⅚, next to the title. These numbers often indicate the scale length relative to the standard (25.5 inches), but are sometimes used to describe the size of the entire instrument compared to the norm.
Some of the leading contemporary guitar makers today use different scale lengths for their products.
For example, PRS Guitars typically makes guitars with 25-inch scale lengths. Fender adheres to the standard and makes guitars with 25.5-inch scale lengths. Ibanez, uses even larger scale lengths, making guitars with 26.5-inch scale lengths.
Guitar Scale Length Explained: Final Thoughts
Different guitar manufacturers use different scale lengths on their guitars. There is no real standard in the industry, although 25.5 inches is seen as a kind of standard.
There are reasons each brand chooses a certain guitar scale length. Both shorter and longer scale lengths have certain advantages and certain disadvantages. In the end, we as the consumers have to decide which scale length is right for us.
Of course, a beginner generally won’t know that. The good news is that slight differences in guitar scale length won’t make much difference to a beginner. I recommend doing what I did and just getting the guitar you like best regardless of scale length, as long as it does not have an extremely long or short one.