The Long and Short of It – Scale Length Explained

Nov01

Although it’s very rarely considered when buying an instrument, the guitar’s scale length (or neck length) is an integral ingredient in shaping an instrument’s tone and playability. Scale length has nothing to do with playing scales and everything to do with the length of the strings from the nut (that white thing the strings go over, up there by the headstock) to the bridge. Why does the length of the strings matter? The scale (length) of the neck (and, ultimately, the strings) determines two major aspects of a guitar’s personality: the distance between the frets, and the tension (or tightness) of the strings.

The distance between frets is calculated by some logarithmic formula that I have absolutely no clue about. Luckily, it’s not really important unless you’re building your own neck from scratch. In a nutshell, the shorter the scale length, the closer the frets are together.

This is a good thing if you have small hands or are a young beginner. Also, many rhythm guitarists, like Elvis Costello, John Lennon and Kurt Cobain, prefer (or preferred) shorter scales when comping or chording. On the other hand, a longer scale length comes in handy when shredding and playing leads in some styles (like those of Malmsteen, Vaughn and Atkins) because it keeps you from “tripping” over your own fat fingers when getting all acrobatic.

Scale lengths can vary as much as three inches from the shortest to the longest, and that doesn’t even count basses. So you can see how that variation can affect a guitar’s “feel.” A guitar’s feel is also affected by the tension of the strings. A guitar with a shorter scale length (like the Gibson Les Paul) requires less tension to reach concert pitch than a guitar with a longer scale (like the Fender Strat). This is true, as long as both are strung with the same gauge strings. One advantage of less string tension is a “looser” feel, making bending and vibrato more fluid.

So, then, why aren’t all guitars built with a shorter scale? Obviously we’d all benefit from that slinky feel, right? Well, guitars with greater tension benefit from a “tighter” sound due to better clarity in their higher overtones. This is often referred to as “twang.” Shorter scale guitars also have trouble accepting heavier gauged strings because the slackened tension causes wider vibration and fret buzz.

All this falls into the category of “tone.” Why doesn’t a PRS Custom 22 sound exactly like a Les Paul? They both incorporate dual humbuckers and a solid body, so they should sound the same, right? However, the PRS has a longer scale length and, therefore, a tighter, somewhat brighter, sound. Shorter scale guitars, though, tout that beautiful buttery tone which make Les Pauls and Jazz boxes such invaluable tools.

Now that you have a bit of neck length knowledge, get out and play some different model guitars to get a feel for what all of this means.

Here’s a chart of some common models and their scale lengths to help you along. Good luck on finding that next “special friend.” And, when playing guitar, remember that, just like in life, it’s always best to stick your neck out, no matter what the length.

Scale chart

About Tony Nuccio

Tony Nuccio is the founder of the website Lefty Guitar. He is the author of two articles on Guitar Noise: When You Are Left Handed – Right Just Feels Wrong and The Long and Short of It – Scale Length Explained. You can email him at tony@leftyguitar.com.

Comments [9]

  1. David Walker says:

    Yes and I’m left handed and have been now for 65 years. The scale of the neck is crucial when setting up the Roland VG series of electronic floorboards using the GK MIDI pickup system. I recently purchased a Gordon Smith Graduate Slimline. I have a USA Fender Strat and my main guitar is a PRS Custom 22 (birds inlay etc). I wish I’d had access to your article when I was in my teens – I would have had a substantially greater chance of finding what suits me rather than blundering into the first decade or so of misunderstandings and mistaken purchases. But it’s been a fun journey.

  2. Frank Santelia says:

    In the 70’s to the 80’s I had serveral groups.I enjoyed playing my Guild guitar.In 1982, broke my left arm-(wrist-elbow-dislocated my shoulder. The Othopedic guys never set my wrist or elbow correctly. I cannot turn my wrist the way I use to play my guitar.I would like to play again.What would be your suggestion for a shorter(Gibson toned )neck guitar. I await your answer.

    • Frank,
      After a car accident left Les Paul’s right elbow mangled, his surgeon set it in position to play guitar. For you any 24.75″ scale-length Les Paul would be a tribute. THere are tons of copies out there also, some as nice for a better price, for example the Agile AL-3125.

    • Pardon me for responding, I know you didn’t ask my opinion. Some thing you may want to look at is how deep the neck is set into the body of the guitar. Some necks hang way out on the guitar. My Rickenbacker has a short scale but the neck is such you can access every fret. You may want to consider a short scale Gibson Byrdland that has a relatively recessed neck. I don’t recall off hand but I think it is in the 23″ range. Nice guitar too I might add. Wish it were a part of my collection. Try one out!

  3. “Shorter scale guitars also have trouble accepting heavier gauged strings because the slackened tension causes wider vibration and fret buzz”

    The exact opposite is correct. Shorter scale guitars require heavier gauge strings to make up for the lack of tension and avoid buzz. Although with a proper setup you can use 9ers in a Les Paul for example without buzz.

  4. To be fair u can play anything on any guitar any scale length really the scale length needs to suit the guitarist more then anything I own a very wide array of guitars all going from 24 3/4 scale les Paul to a 30 inch scale 8 string agile. An I will say this I absolutely love the sound of my les Paul an esp mc 500 nothing sounds an feels better I tune down a step and a half ussually an the guitars have no problem with string gauges. I’ve used bloomers I’ve used slinkys an all it needs is a slight truss rod adjustment an there fine . If ur just guessing a 6 string guitar u don’t need anything more really then the 25.5 scale I prefeer the Ibanez rg stuff the wizard 1 n 2 necks are possiable the fastest necks ever built the great thing bout the slightly longer scale is down tuning holds string tenstion better an there for its a little bit less slop to them . Now a normal guitarist should never need to exceed 25.5 scale unless u get in too extended range guitars 7 n 8 string guitars require a longer scale granted u can get a 7 string in a 25.5 scale but the short scale makes the low B sound like poop. The longer 27-28- scale holds the tention a lot better an sounds years better . The great thing bout the extra scale length is u can also set ur stringaction even lower since the strings are tighter they have a tighter vibration range as well so althothe strings are harder to bend an vibrato they make playing accually easyier at least for me. The only down side is that u start to lose some stretch on ur frett hand . But the really cool thing is u can get a fanned frett board holding the 27 scale on the bass end an 25.5 scale on the high end making solos an arpeggiies easyier to play unless u like the extra fret spacing so u don’t Tripp over ur hands .

  5. Robert Mark Murphy says:

    Great article.I played my acoustic blues on a long scale Taylor and I was unaware of the scale importance when I purchased the guiitar.Now with my short scale Simon and Patrick I can hear and feel! All the difference.Fingerstyle and short scale is way to go.

  6. I having been playing a while and always wondered why I like a particular guitar over another and have come to the conclusion that it depends on two issues: the scale length and head angle. My long and short of it is such…. Long scale is better for tone and playability. Something people don’t consider is the head angle. For both scales I do not like the angle to be greater than 13 degrees.

    OK bass guitars, short scale is better, more thumpy tone (try a Hofner). Just MHO…

    Thanks, and may the tone be with you, Bruce

  7. michael fitzgerald says:

    hello , reading your article on guitar scale length, I have an old Hofner senator which has been left unused for years. Since then strings have come loose and the bridge has come adrift, it is a movable bridge which can be raised or lowered My question is what length should there be between the nut and the bridge and how do I set the height of the bridge. mike

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