By Robert M. Matthews
Many people think of scale length of a guitar as the length between the nut and the bridge-in other words, the playable or “business” length of the guitar string. In reality, this length is slightly longer than the official, specified scale length which is called the nominal scale length.
The nominal scale length is kind of a hypothetical ideal number. It is calculated by measuring the fixed distance between the nut and the 12th fret and then doubling this number. It is, in effect, the string length of a perfect ideal guitar in which the 12th fret would divide the strings exactly in half.
The actual “real life” scale of a guitar is longer than the nominal scale (and the 12th fret does not divide the strings exactly in half) because strings stretch as we push them down to the fretboard and the resulting notes become sharp. We adjust the intonation to compensate for string-stretching by slightly increasing the string lengths above the 12th fret which brings the raised tones back down to their proper pitch.
So, what then is the standard scale length for a guitar? In fact, there is no such thing. Different manufacturers make different guitars with different lengths of scale.
A classic example for electric guitars is the length of the Gibson scale versus the length of the Fender scale. Gibson uses a 24¾-inch scale length on both the Les Paul and SG guitars. Fender, on the other hand, uses a 25½-inch scale length on its Stratocaster and Telecaster models.
Why the difference-and does it even matter?
Yes it does. If we put the same gauge strings on our Fender and our Gibson guitars; we will find that, after we tune both guitars to concert pitch; the Gibson will have less tension on the strings. If the tension was equal on both guitars, then the shorter-scale Gibson would sound a higher note (because the strings are shorter). So the shorter strings need to be tuned with less tension to lower them down to concert pitch.
Since the Gibson strings are under less tension, bends and finger vibratos are smoother, more fluid and easier to perform. The guitar generally becomes easier to play.
So, doesn’t that mean that shorter guitars are better? If fact, can’t we even go a little farther and say the shorter the better?
No we can’t. We are dealing with something here called an engineering tradeoff. This means, in the real world, when we improve one thing, another thing gets worse. In this case, shortening scale length makes the guitar more playable, but makes the sound less brighter.
We all know what happens when we loosen our guitar strings too much. Or when we press that whammy bar down too far. We get that pffftttt kind of sound of overly-loose strings. We lose brightness. Now, of course, this example takes things to the extreme, but it does show us what happens in the extreme. We lose the bright overtone-the high frequencies when we loosen strings.
That’s one of the reasons why Strats and Telecasters have that classic twang and screaming lead sound and Les Pauls have that wonderful low-end crunch.
Scale length is a measure of the string length of a guitar. Different guitars have different scale lengths. The scale length of a guitar affects both the playability and the sound character of the instrument.
Robert M. Matthews (better known as Bob Matthews) is currently retired after more than 30 years of engineering and management experience.
As an avid guitar player for more than 35 years, Bob has created a website specifically for guitar players and future guitar players.. Feel free to visit the site at http://www.Learn-Guitar-Quick.com for great guitar-related information.
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