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The Great Scale Length Debate

Discussion in 'Luthier's Corner' started by Danny Adair, Apr 4, 2002.

  1. First of all, warmest welcome to the fine luthiers who share their knowledge with us TB'ers - your contributions help make this a truly great website.

    I've heard myriad impassioned pleas for different scale lengths, and I am curious to know this: how does scale length affect the tone of a bass? I'm not just interested in the B string - I'm interested to understand the impact on higher strings, too.

    Thanks very much for your help!
  2. This is what i gathered from Melvyn hiscock's book 'make your own electric guitar':

    strings on a longer scale length need to be tensioned more to acheive the same pitch. this increases sustain and clarity (much like heavier strings need to be tensioned more and have similar results)

    but, like with heavier strings, there is a downside: if the scale length is longer, the frets have to be farther apart, so reaching notes can be more difficult.

    that makes sense for the B string as well, because with a note that low, it's more apparent if it has clarity problems.

    i'm no luthier, and i may be completely off, so don't quote me.......but it does make sense to me.
  3. HI:
    I found this article on Mr Novax's website

    It explains the physics of string length and the properties of strings at thes given lengths. He also explains about the use of different scale lengths to satisfy each string proper tension and spectrum.

    I'm not sure what you consider tone of a bass, but I was under the impression that the vibrating string and resonating woods and electronic ultimately decide the tone. So i guess a string at a proper length may allow the tone to come thru better.
    There is a excellent thread going on
    Which goes into depth about whats contributes tone the wood or strings. In case you didn't see it.

    I'm hoping a luthier does answer this i would love to read their expert opinons
  4. dhuffguitars

    dhuffguitars Luthier/Bass Wanker depending on your opinion

    Sep 18, 2001
    I am a fan of Ralph Novaks system (no pun intended:D ), I have yet to use his system, but hope to real soon.

    I currently prefer a 36" scale on ALL my basses, including four strings. To me a clearer sound comes from the bass. The tension on the lighter strings isn't that much more than a 34" bass. But the basses can be more bright and punchy, that is probably why I prefer not to put the stainless strings on these basses.

    Also I disagree with people that have a hard time adjusting from a 34" to a 35" or a 36" scale, I think a lot of it is mentally. Take the 36" scale, where the first fret is located it is almost exactly where the nut is located on a 34" scale. To see if you can stretch that far take your 34" scale bass and play the 1,2,3 frets with your 2,3 and 4th fingers.
  5. alexclaber

    alexclaber Commercial User

    Jun 19, 2001
    Brighton, UK
    Director - Barefaced Ltd
    This doesn't seem quite 'great' enough - let's restart this debate!

  6. bryanjnkns


    Oct 18, 2006
    Yes, i am very curious myself. I have been shooting around the idea of makeing a long scale 4 stringer, but i am still compiling pros and cons in comparison to a 34'. Any help would great!
  7. contakt321


    Jul 31, 2006
    New York, NY
    Check out Carl Thompson's site, he has some interesting ideas and opinions on scale length. I played a 36" 4 string of his and it sounded incredible, but it was a work out both in terms of reaching the right frets on the low notes but also in just playing the strings because it was higher tension.
  8. I've got a commercial 34" and a home-rolled 36", I have average-sized hands and it is a slight stretch to play the 36". I do have to work a little harder, but I get used to it after awhile.

    I actually like the higher tension on the 36", I can lower the action somewhat and get a lot less fret rattle compared to the 34" (I tend to be a little heavy-handed in my RH technique).
  9. Disclaimer: This post is concerned w/feel & playability, not tone. :ninja:

    I think this is a valid point but when I've compared 34 & 35 inch scales, the upper horn length, strap button placement etc all made the basses hang similarly. This make for a slightly longer reach to 1st position, of course. If a builder kept this in mind & adjusted the strapped-on position of the bass so that both the nut/1st position and the bridge were moved 'out' so to speak I think it would not change the overall feel as much. For example, I started an electric upright a couple of years ago(still unfinished :rolleyes: ). I designed it to be roughly between a BG & DB in dimensions & have a small body for some acoustic projection. I had not intended this, but it coincidentally sits very well on my lap(how'd that happen?). Amazingly, closing my eyes & reaching for where my hands felt like they should comfortably go made it clear that this thing would be quite playable horizontally(BG style)or vertically(DB). The point to all this? It(the unfinished EUB)has a 37.5" scale. :meh:
  10. alexclaber

    alexclaber Commercial User

    Jun 19, 2001
    Brighton, UK
    Director - Barefaced Ltd
    The reason for my bump is that I'm planning a 5-string custom and right now I'm about 75% leaning towards 36" scale and 25% towards 35" scale (34" is out - I'm too damn fussy about low B tension).

    Curious to hear view on the effects on tone on the low strings, on the high strings, down by the nut, and up by the last fret. Particularly keen to hear how it affects the G-string. Playability is whole other issue but I'd like to hear any personal experiences.

    One thing in my favour is that I'm used to playing a 4-string Warwick and the nut is a long way away when standing - so if this 5-string has the upper horn come to the 12th fret the nut will be a similar distance away despite another 2" of scale length. Also, because I'm currently play a 4, I'm used to working down in first position - with a 5 one has the option (assuming it fits tonally) to shift to the 6th position a string lower, which makes the stretch much smaller.

  11. klocwerk


    May 19, 2005
    Somerville, MA
    in my experience, tighter strings give you a more defined, and slightly "thinner" sound. Although the thinner thing could be a result of the fact that the 35"ers I've played have been cheaper basses. :D
  12. It is definitely nice to be able to slide up to #5 or #6 on a 5er, no question. This also makes it easier to transpose when your singer decides he needs to change the key... :spit:

    As you say, it won't be such a reach if you can slide the scale relative to the upper horn, however your RH fingers may feel the difference as you're playing further from the bridge. However, this may be offset by the increased string tension.

    A longer scale also gives you the option later to re-string it as a sub-contra with some of those sickly thick Conklin strings. :ninja:
  13. bryanjnkns


    Oct 18, 2006
    OH YEAH! music-smiley-006.gif
  14. bongomania

    bongomania Supporting Member Commercial User

    Oct 17, 2005
    PDX, OR
    owner, OVNIFX and OVNILabs
    I have short fingers, so I go for short and medium scale basses. Yes, I know lots of short-fingered bassists are fine with long scale, but not me. Anyway, I have bought loads of different short and medium scale basses, as well as some long scale ones, just to try them out and see what works, what doesn't, and what effect the scale length may have on the tone. There were lots of differences in sound and feel between the various basses, but most of those differences I felt were the result more of the construction, materials, electronics, etc. The only real scale-length difference I could feel/hear was on the E string (and B in the case of a 5'er). In that case, if the neck and body were very stiff, then the E string would be "normal" i.e. the same as an average 34" E, but if the neck or body had more "give" -e.g. hollowbody, bolt-on neck, softer woods- then the E could get a little bit floppy or muddy sounding.

    If you're trying to decide between 35" and 36", though, if all else was equal I would be very surprised if there was any detectable difference.
  15. tribal3140

    tribal3140 Inactive

    Nov 9, 2004
    near detroit...uh
    My .00000002$

    I have played short scale 32 and 34
    and current own 10 35" scale basses
    have played 36" and novax basses.

    my surmisation.
    34 can feel loose if you have are use to 35, 36" etc.
    34.5 is very nice with a headstock angle of 15degrees
    this debate highly hinges upon headstock angle too!!
    that increases down tension greatly!!!
    carey Nordie uses 34.5 often but it really feels like 35.5 because of the headstock angle I think 15 degrees
    avg is 13 degrees or the string tree thing .

    My deal is
    I play alot of chords and play frequently play (about 90% of shows with my eyes closed)

    I cant switch back and forth because my sense of the fingerboard will be off from 35 to 34 etc..

    and I cant play the novax because of triad like chords past 12the fret are impossible to play without tapping them but in a variation technique like strum/slap they cant be played at all- likeI have witten them
    I tried!!!!!
    its just impossible to translate certian fingerings and chordings from standard single scale to the novax.
    only past 12 though from 0-12 its pretty much the same!

    so I'd say 34.5 with a steep headstock angle or 35..
    nice tight and clear.
    but thats just me.
  16. pilotjones


    Nov 8, 2001
    For the record, the headstock angle does increase the downbearing force at the nut. It does not change the tension of the string while vibrating.

    [Remember: a string with a certain vibrating length, and a certain "weight" (mass per unit length), and at a certain tension, will produce a certain pitch. Raise the tension, keeping the other factors the same, and the pitch goes up. There are no two different possible tensions for a given particular string, at a given length, at a given pitch.]

    Changing the downforce at the nut could have some effect on tightness of feel, if (and only if) any two angles being compared are such that at the shallower one the string is slipping over the nut, and at the steeper one it is not slipping over the nut.

    The change of downforce at the nut could also debatably have an effect on tonality.

    Any effects that may be produced will be negated once you fret the string, taking that end of the string out of the equation.
  17. knuckle_head

    knuckle_head Commercial User

    Jul 30, 2002
    Owner; Knuckle Guitar Works & Circle K Strings
    36" will afford/provide more tension but there is another up-side...

    You can maintain or slightly increase tension and narrow your gauge at the same time - it makes for a much livlier sound and a good deal more harmonic content.

    my 1/50th of a buck......
  18. Suburban


    Jan 15, 2001
    lower mid Sweden
    Scale affects tone and tension as mentioned earlier. It also affects palyability.

    The question to ask is: what do I want?

    I play 41" URB and 30" Vagabond with equal pleasure, and 34" or 35", too. Different tone, different feel, different ergonomics. For me, the best compromise re. EBG is around 33"-34".
  19. Phil Mastro

    Phil Mastro

    Nov 18, 2004
    In that case, go for 35.75" :bag:
    Seriously though, why not?

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