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5 string scale length issues?

Discussion in 'Luthier's Corner' started by rockandroller, Nov 8, 2002.

  1. I'm convinced that my next bass purchase will be a 5 string, and fairly conventional (IE, using a headstock...)

    But i'm wondering if any luthiers would like to comment on the pros and cons of 5 strings that use 'different scale lengths'

    I have never owned a 5 string, but i once converted a 4-string to "contra-bass" sort of tuning, BEAD. I am pretty sure that the B string was a .118 or so (it was over a decade ago)

    that particular bass sounded SWEET and it was 30.125" scale length (copied off my rickenbacker 3000). It played great, but i couldnt get used to transposing all the time (too lazy) so converted it back to EADG (which was easy, since it had a zero fret)

    anyway, i'm really partial to the short-scales, having played one for most of the last 30 years, so am almost convinced i should have the new 5-string built that way too.

    Unless somebody can talk me out of it! I dont mind the 32 inch scale so much either, but i dont find 34" to be very comfortable. It seems 35" is popular for 5 strings too, but at that point I would just as soon pick up an upright!

    anybody here think that shorter scale (maybe with heavier guage strings, and optimized break angles) is just as feasible as one of the 'stretch limos'?

    all your comments are appreciated, my next bass is gonna be in the 'playable art-work' category, so i want it to sound good too!
  2. FBB Custom

    FBB Custom TalkBass Pro Commercial User

    Jan 26, 2002
    Owner: FBB Bass Works
    Fodera has a medium scale 6 string on their page. It would seem that it can be done.

    In fact, I have strung one of my own 33" scale basses BEAD. I thought it was okay, but I prefered EADG so I restrung it. I think a lot will depend on the stiffness and responsiveness of the neck as well as the string gauge and setup and your own expectations on how aggressive you can get with the setup.

    If I were going to do a medium scale 5 string today, I would probably use something stiffer than maple for the neck, probably a wenge/jatoba laminate neck. I would use graphite spars, and probably medium guage strings, and I would expect the action of the B string to be a little higher than if it were a 35" scale bass.
  3. I'm leaning towards a multi-lam neck, probably maple with ebony and purpleheart stringers, like 7 piece or so, with dual truss rods. I'm not fond of graphite...

    Anyway, if a 'medium scale' 5 string will have high action on the B string, would that be because of excessive string excursion? (due to lower tension?) If that is the case - wouldnt using heavier guage strings result in higher tension and thus less excursion?

    or is it just a 'fact of life" that longer scale lengths must always yield a lower action? I have played a LOT of fender basses that seem to contradict this idea, compared to my short-scales which have been set up amost "touch-low"

    I know there is probably a delicate balance between string gauge and scale length, (in terms of maximum playability), but i always thought that the nut and bridge "break angles" were the over-riding factor. I recall having a discussion with someone from RotoSound about this many years ago...
  4. FBB Custom

    FBB Custom TalkBass Pro Commercial User

    Jan 26, 2002
    Owner: FBB Bass Works
    There is an intimate relationship between gauge, scale length, and tension. If you change one, you have to compensate somewhere else in order to tune to pitch. So, if you shorten the scale length, you either have to bump up the gauge or lower the tension. If you don't bump up the guage, there will be lower tension, and more excursion, and more rattle. This is why people say B sounds "tight" on a long scale bass, becuase the same guage string is under more tension.

    I don't really believe too much in the arguments that you can screw around with the break angle and the length of non-vibrating string to get a tighter or looser feel. People argue both sides, but the physics indicate that the 3 factors are scale length, tension, and string guage. That's it. Of course, a proper string break over the nut and bridge is necessary to prevent the strings from popping out of the nut slots, and to ensure that the speaking (vibrating) length of the string is the same as the scale length.

    I believe that the stronger you can build a neck, the less it will deflect. A neck built straighter, and with better quality materials, with a uniform stiffness distribution throughout the neck, will deflect most uniformly under tension, and will give you the lowest setup possible.
  5. lamarjones

    lamarjones Supporting Member

    Aug 27, 2002
    Raleigh, NC
    hmmm....not sure I am technical enough to know if what was said either promotes or detroys what I am about to say, but over 20 basses into it, I think I have a thought...

    I dig on 35" scale these days, strictly. It is because I like to use 'over the counter' strings (well I like DRs, but you can find em most places, i just meant a common gauge), and while I use precision on my b string (almost exclusively a 5 player), I do like to slap on it, sometimes hard.

    I have had 34" inch scales where I had to be way to careful in order to get a booming sound out of it. Mostly, I would have to be precise in order to dodge the floppiness. most 35" scales don't have that problem IMO. I can beat the mess out of it, no problem.

    That said, my R bass is about as good as my MTD. Almost. it is a 34" scale, but the b is way tighter than any 34" I've had. There are two things about it, not too sure which one if coming more into play. It has the extended b configuration on the headstock. Meaning the peg on the headstock where the b string is wound is farther up than a normal bass would be. Maybe around the area of where a b peg would be on a 35". Also, the headstock is tilted back, causing more 'down' pressure on all the strings.

    Anyways, i may be wrong, but all the string are tight. Not way too tight, but pretty tight, the way I like it. i get a normal 34", and I can bend the g to the b, it just feels way loose. But my R bass, I bet I can't bend it any past what I could bend on a roscoe. (IMO, one of the tightest tension-having basses out there)

    PS- I just woke from a two hour nap, and have no idea if I made any sense, for am I gonna check my grammer. But thanks for letting me ramble:)
  6. You call that rambling? you should hear me when i get going... :)

    Myself, I like to bend the strings a bit, so not "too tight" but on the other hand, I like ultra-low action without rattles, (i dont use a pick, nor whack the strings terribly hard) and i especially like a short-scale bass. So granted there are some trade-offs!

    I have over the years resorted to playing 32, 33, 34 inch scale basses, but generally only under extreme duress!

    It's just not very comfortable for me (I dont have "basketball player hands") and if I am going to invest in a bass that is in the $4000+ category, I would hope that it will be comfortable, aesthetically pleasing AND sound like a damn fine instrument should.

    So I'm hoping to hear from some luthiers who have successfuly fashioned short-scale FIVE STRING instruments, and can confirm that the 30.125" scale length is not an 'insurmountable challenge'.

    Although, i do admit that the 'over the counter' strings factor is rather a meaningful one.

    I also have this wacky theory that a more sonorous instrument 'overall' can be had with careful selection of "length of non-vibrating string " both fore and aft - the idea being that the overtones of these "secondary sympathic" string lengths have the potential to add some pleasing high-frequency overtones... after all, they are physically related to both the vibrating wood, and the core of the strings. I'm interested in this particularly as there is a growing body of 'hard evidence' about the psycho-acoustic contributions of frequencies in the 20Khz-100Khz spectrum, previously thought to be "inaudible to human hearing"
  7. Balor


    Sep 24, 2000
    Montréal, Québec
    Don't seem to be abel to find it on d'Addario's site, but they use to have a .pdf listing the tension of all there strings. It also offered a formula to evaluate string tension, you could change the scale length to know by how much the tension would change at a given pitch. Here's what I for a short scale bass.

    31.125in 34in
    B 27 34
    E 28 36

    The guages are .130 for the B and .100 for the E string. The numbers are in pounds. They don't offer .130 for the short scale bass. I'll let you draw you're own conclusion.
  8. Balor - that's very interesting, thanks!

    Come to think of it, the B string I put on the short-scale so many years back was likely a .128, not a .118

    ...the fact that they dont offer a "short scale" string is actually of no consequence.. i always try make sure my short scale basses are designed to accept "garden variety" long-scale sets (via combination of the appropriate "length of non-vibrating strings" both fore and aft...)
  9. Balor


    Sep 24, 2000
    Montréal, Québec
    Just to clarify, what lamarjones said can be explain by neck stiffness. The stronger and stiffer the neck the tighter the string will feel. Everything else being equal, scale length and string guafe are the easiest variable to control. To get a stiff neck, you need much better materials, know how and good design. All I can say is good luck.
  10. Andrew Jones

    Andrew Jones Banned

    Feb 28, 2001
    Northampton Mass

    I have basicly the same Questions except Im thinking of trying a 33 scale 5 string. Ive seen Lincoln Goines Play anumber of times and the B on his Fodera sounds good thats a 33 inch scale ash neck. is ash stiffer than Maple?

    Balor whats the difference between a 33 inch scale and 34?

  11. Balor


    Sep 24, 2000
    Montréal, Québec
    about 2 pounds....
    Numbers can only tell you so much. A well build 32 in scale bass might sound and feel better than a 34. It's hard to tell. John Turner seems very happy with 34 inch Conklin, but I prefer 35 inch scale when it comes to a B string.
  12. FBB Custom

    FBB Custom TalkBass Pro Commercial User

    Jan 26, 2002
    Owner: FBB Bass Works
    Ash varries in density quite a bit. I don't believe it to be stiffer than maple, on average.

    Scale length = the distance from the nut to the bridge. Take a 34 inch scale bass and chop off the neck at the first fret and you basically get a 32" scale bass.
  13. yes, and chop off TWO frets and you get my beloved short-scale! One "fender fret jig" already contains all three scale lengths :)

    incidentally - chop ANOTHER two frets off, and you have a Stratocaster! (Maybe Leo only had a single - universal - fret cutting jig!)

    I guess if you added one fret the other side of "zero" you would get a 36 inch scale? (Maybe thats the magic size for a 'extra-long-scale'???)

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