What The Heck Is Scale Length?
To be precise, the scale length of a guitar is the vibrating length of its strings, ie, the distance from the center of the saddle to the nut. The scale length dictates the placement of frets on a guitar’s fingerboard, with the 12th fret falling at the exact middle of the scale.
Perhaps the two best known scale lengths (the ones often referred to when attempting to describe a guitar’s “feel”) are those of Fender’s Stratocaster – which has a 25 1/2“ scale – and Gibson’s Les Paul – which is officially listed as 24 3/4”, but is said to be closer to 24 5/8“.
Why Is Scale Length Important?
Besides being one of the most important deciding factors in an electric guitar’s overall tone, scale length plays a huge part in the inherent ”feel“ of an instrument.
A longer scale, like that of a Strat or Tele, helps to produce crisp, almost bell-like tones, but also makes for tighter strings, and a harder feel beneath the fingers. In fact, many guitarist who primarily play Stratocasters find the shorter scale of the Les Paul to feel sloppy in comparison – a little too loose.
Of course, many other guitar players – myself included – prefer the softer feel, and slightly muddier tone that a Les Paul’s shorter scale length produces. To my ears the warmth and roundness of a Les Paul just sounds more organic, and the tension of the strings is well suited to my playing style.
What About Strings?
String gauge, too, has a large effect on how any guitar ultimately performs, and can go a long way towards shoring up the the perceived shortcomings of a given scale length.
For instance, because of their inherent differences in string tension, a Les Paul and a Stratocaster strung up with the same medium gauge strings are going to feel vastly different under the fingers; the Strat will be taught and punchy, while the LP will be buttery smooth – but also more likely to buzz.
However, using heavier gauge strings on the Les Paul’s shorter scale will bring its performance much closer to that of a Strat or Tele strung with mediums. And of course the opposite applies as well – a Strat strung with lighter gauge strings will more closely match the performance of a shorter-scaled instrument.
Summing It Up
In the end there are pros and cons to any given scale length, and your preference for one scale over another will ultimately be dictated by your playing style, the tone you’re after, and what feels best to your fingers.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember, particularly for those new to the joys (and frustrations) of playing the electric guitar, is that while you may be stuck with an instrument’s scale length, you have a wide range of options in string gauge, and making good use of those options can go a long way towards making your instrument more of a pleasure to play.
When all else fails, experiment… its the surest way to gain a truly intimate knowledge of your instrument.
Resources on guitar scale length:
Scale Length & Tone – by Ralph Novak
Guitar Shop With Guitar ER