Guitar Scale Length — Does It Matter?

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Here at Humbucker Soup, we’re all about looking into the dirty details of guitar gear to help our readers find the best instruments for their needs. Of course, we guitarists make plenty of obvious considerations when looking for a new axe, including pickups, materials, and electronics. However, one thing that is often overlooked when buying guitars is ‘scale length.’

When you look at a row of guitars in a shop, it is pretty clear that different scale lengths exist. The question I’m here to answer today is why.

What Is ‘Scale Length’?

The ‘scale length’ of a guitar is calculated by measuring the distance between the center of the 12th fret and the nut’s front edge. That distance is then doubled. It is a common misconception that we get the scale length by measuring the distance from the nut’s front edge to the bridge, though most bridges have angled saddles for intonation purposes, which can create a bit of confusion.

How Is Scale Length Measured?

To get an accurate scale length measurement, let’s use the example of a standard Fender Stratocaster. I start by measuring the distance from the nut’s front edge to the 12th fret and get 12.75”. To get the scale length number, I then double that distance to get a 25.5” scale length.

Can My Guitar’s Scale Length Affect the Way I Play?

Scale length has a significant impact on the way we play. Let’s dive in and take a look at the many ways in which scale length can affect playability.

String Tension

The main impact scale length has on a guitar is string tension. A short scale length doesn’t require much tension to tune the strings up to the correct pitch, while a longer scale length needs much higher tension. As you probably know, string tension plays a major role in a guitar’s playability.

Let’s take a look at two popular guitars to understand the impact of string tension better.

A Gibson Les Paul with a 24.75” scale length plays differently than a Fender Stratocaster with a 25.5” scale length. If we were to string up both of these guitars with the same strings and use standard tuning, the first thing that you might notice is that the strings feel tighter on the Fender while vibrato and bends are easier to perform on the Gibson.

If we were to take this example even further and throw a Squier Paranormal Baritone guitar (27” scale length) into the mix, you would notice that lead playing would feel insanely tight.

String Action

String action is the gap between the frets and the strings. Guitars with ‘low action’ have less of a gap between the strings and frets than guitars with ‘high action.’ The action comes from the amount of tension in the strings. Strings with low tension need more room to vibrate freely without hitting the frets and buzzing.

Because guitars with longer scale length increase tension with string gauge equal, they provide lower action without unwanted string buzz. When playing a short scale guitar, you must use strings with higher action if you don’t want them to buzz. To get low action on a short scale guitar, you must use heavier string gauges.

Fret Spacing

As scale length increases, so does the spacing between the frets. Again, we can use the comparison between a Fender Stratocaster (25.5”) and a Gibson Les Paul (24.75”). The fret spacing is slightly larger on a Strat compared to a Les Paul. While the distance might not be overwhelming by any means, it could have an impact on playability for those with small or larger hands.

When you compare guitars on more extreme ends, such as the Fender Jaguar (24” scale length) and the Jackson Pro Series (26.5” scale length), the distance is much more obvious.

String Gauge

The beauty of scale lengths is that we can remedy their potentially ‘negative’ impacts on playability by using proper strings. A guitar with a longer scale length will need higher tension strings, though that does not mean you are stuck playing with high tension strings.

The other half of the equation comes together with string gauges. String gauge has a huge impact on tension. You can increase or decrease your tension by simply changing out the string you are playing with.

Let’s pretend you just purchased a 26.5” scale length guitar, and the increased tension is bothering you, as you’re unable to bend and solo like you could with your Les Paul. To remedy this, you must swap your strings out with a lighter string gauge. The lower the string gauge you choose, the less tension you will have. Ultimately, you can get a long scale length guitar to play like a short scale length guitar.

Of course, you’ll need to consider setting your guitar up for any changes in tension, as jumping down to lighter gauge strings could cause problems for your intonation.

Tonal Impact

Now, let’s get into the nitty-gritty on how scale length can impact your tone.

Scale length distance determines where the harmonics or overtones of your strings occur on your guitar. Therefore, scale length fundamentally determines the overall tone of your guitar. A longer scale guitar has greater harmonic spacing, providing an open, shimmering tone. A shorter scale guitar, on the other hand, has harmonics tightly packed together, resulting in a warmer or thicker tone.

To be clear, I’m not just talking about the harmonics you get when you lightly tap your finger above the fifth, seventh, or twelfth frets. I’m talking about every harmonic element found within each note of your guitar.

Try this for me. Pick up your guitar and play your harmonic on the seventh fret of the low-E string. Now, rather than allowing it to ring out, continue running your finger down the length of the string, keeping your touch light, and listen to the harmonics as they pop out.

Yes, harmonics occur everywhere, creating a more complex tone than you may have originally thought.

A Word On Multi-Scale Guitars

Okay, so what about these wild multi-scale guitars that you’ve likely seen, such as the Ibanez RGMS8?

These multi-scale guitars, otherwise known as ‘fanned fret’ guitars, typically have more than six strings, which gives them a pretty good reason to have unique scale length. As you now understand, string tension increases as scale length increases. To stop a low note from buzzing, such as a low F# found on an eight-string guitar, it needs high tension. Of course, once you make it up to the higher strings, the last thing you want is extreme tension.

Multi-scale guitars become shorter in scale length as they move toward the higher strings. While a low string on an eight-string guitar might have a 28” scale length, the high string on that same guitar might have a 25.5” scale length.

Bottom Line – Do I Need To Be Concerned With Scale Length?

In summary, guitar scale length is certainly something you should concern yourself with when looking for a new axe. If you are sensitive about the feel and tonal characteristics of your guitar, scale length is especially important.

However, scale length is only one of many things guitarists must consider when looking for a new guitar. From hardware to electronics to woods and beyond, there are plenty of things to research before making your final decision.

Tyler Connaghan Tyler is a guitarist, singer, producer, composer & engineer based in Los Angeles. In between duties at Humbucker Soup, he swims in the shark tank of music licensing for film and television. His favorite axe is his custom Pelham Blue Fender Stratocaster.