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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.


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" range.


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 strings.


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 longer reach.

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.
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