Short Scale Acoustic Guitars – Everything You Wanted to Know

Today we are going to be taking a closer look at short scale acoustic guitars. So if you have ever wondered:

  • What is a short scale acoustic guitar?
  • Is a short scale guitar easier to play?
  • Do short scale guitars sound any different?

We’ve got you covered.

The short Answer

Short scale guitars are considered more comfortable to play in some instances, due to the lower string tension involved. This makes fretting individual notes or bending the strings easier. The closer fret spacing is also an advantage if you happen to have small hands, however this can be a disadvantage for those with large hands due to the fretboard feeling cramped due to the closer fret spacing. All things being equal, short scale guitars sacrifice some brightness and bass response compared to a standard scale guitar, also due to the lower tension of the strings.

What is a short scale acoustic guitar?

Short scaleScale lengths tend to differ between guitar manufacturers. The definition of what a short scale guitar is, is therefore not strictly standard across all acoustic guitars. In general however, most guitarists with experience playing both  short and standard scale guitars would consider a standard scale length to be 25.5 inches (648mm). Based on this, a scale length below 25.5” would be considered a short scale guitar in most cases.

The scale length represents the length of the guitar string that is able to vibrate between the nut and the saddle. But, as explained in a recent article, this isn’t exactly the case, as this methodology doesn’t allow for the different properties (the strings’ ability to stretch, along with density and mass) of each individual guitar string on your guitar.

You can check the full article on how to measure scale length here.

Why am I hearing a lot about short scale guitars lately?

Small body acoustic and travel guitars are becoming increasingly popular and many of these utilize a shorter scale length than the standard 25.5 inches.

There’s a few reasons for their increasing popularity.

Depending on the guitarist and their individual preferences, short scale and small body acoustic guitars can be an appealing option as they are more portable, and in some cases more affordable, particularly in the low to mid-price ranges. Guitars such as the Gretsch Jim Dandy with 24″ scale length represent very good value.

Short scale guitars are also more comfortable to play for many guitarists, especially those with small hands. They are also well suited to fingerstyle guitar which is also enjoying a resurgence.

In the following section we’ll discuss why and how short scale lengths affect playability and why they are preferred by some along with the impact a shorter scale may have on tone.

How Guitar Scale Length Affects Playability

Scale length affects the playability of the guitar due to the differences in tension the strings are subject to based on the length of string that is able to vibrate.

If you took a guitar string and suspended it between two objects (such as the nut of the guitar and the saddle) and then plucked the string, it would vibrate a specific number of times per second.

The number of vibrations per second defines the pitch of the note played. In music, the number of vibrations per second is measured in Hertz (Hz). For instance a middle C note, also referred to as C4 (5th fret of the G string) has a frequency of 261.6 Hz.

If you then extended the length of the section of the string that could vibrate (the scale length) by 1 – 2 inches, the string would need to be tightened (tension increased) to match the number of vibrations measured per second (Hz) of the first position when played.

To put this in simple terms, if we did not increase the tension when increasing the scale length, the 5th fret of the G string would not have a frequency of 261.6hz, and would no longer be a middle C.

Are short scale guitars easier to play?

In simple terms the longer the scale length the more tension required to tune a guitar string to pitch.

This increase in tension affects how easily the notes are fretted.

For example when fretting a note the string is pushed against the fretboard. If your guitar strings are under higher tension as is the case for a standard scale compared to a short scale guitar, the strings will require more effort to press down.

This is also the case when it comes to bending a string to a specific pitch. The more tension, the more effort required to move the string and alter the pitch when bending.

Higher tension also occurs when changing to heavier gauge strings. If for example you normally play light gauge acoustic guitar strings e.g. 11 – 52’s and wanted to switch to heavier gauge strings (as they can result in a fuller sound) e.g. 13 – 56, the tension of the strings would need to increase to account for the additional mass of the new strings.

As a result, using a short scale guitar with heavier gauge strings would cancel out the lower tension the shorter scale guitar would otherwise provide.

Fret Spacing

Standard v short scale fret widthWhile a shorter scale length applies more tension to the guitar strings, by virtue of the fact that the length of string that can vibrate is now shorter, this also means the individual frets must be narrower to accommodate the number of frets typically found on an acoustic guitar (20 frets).

This can be both a good and bad thing depending on your preferences.

Some guitarists, especially those with small hands may find this advantageous as it requires less hand span, or stretch between the fingers to play otherwise difficult chord voicings.

However those with larger hands may find short scale guitars less comfortable to play, especially with regard to chords as the fretboard may feel more cramped than it might for a standard scale guitar. This increases the higher up the neck you play as the fret width reduces, making complex chord shapes higher up the neck even more difficult.

Action

Less tension on your guitar strings can also contribute to a lower action, which in most cases makes the guitar easier to play. Similar to the impact lower tension has on the effort required to fret notes, a lower action reduces the distance required to push down on the string.

As short scale guitars apply less tension to the bridge and headstock of the guitar, the amount of relief decreases unless taken into account by making adjustments to the truss rod.

Fret Buzz

Alternatively, a short scale guitar may be more affected by string buzz, particularly with regard to the strings buzzing the fret wires.

Due to the lower action, the strings are closer to the frets, and additional to this the strings are slacker on the neck. As a result when they are played they vibrate on a wider arc, increasing the chance of the string coming into contact with the fretwire.

How Guitar Scale Length Affects Tone

While scale length certainly affects the tone of an electric guitar it has arguably less of an influence on acoustic guitars. This is because acoustic guitars are more holistic with regard to tone e.g. an acoustic guitar’s tone is influenced by the tonewoods of the guitar, the body shape, the bracing, even the tuners, along with the nut and saddle materials.

While these all can make some difference on an electric guitar, they are far less prominent due to the electronics playing such a dominant role.

With that in mind, when comparing tone in most cases a standard scale guitar will be more responsive and have more brightness and bass response, thanks mostly to the additional tension of the strings.

Shorter scale acoustic guitars, tend to sound more compressed and warmer (again, all things being equal) with more of the mid-range frequencies being present.  However due to the decreased tension of the strings, short scale guitars are typically less responsive. Keep in mind, tone is almost always affected by playability.

Fundamentals and Overtones

Another aspect that can be affected by scale length are the overtones produced. In simple terms, a shorter scale length results in more closely aligned overtones, giving the impression of a more focused, warmer tone as opposed to the more complex, richer sounding, shimmer produced by a longer scale guitar.

What’s an overtone?

To first understand what overtones are we need to discuss the fundamental tone.

The fundamental is the sound produced from the primary vibration e.g. the lowest frequency or resonance produced as a result of the string’s vibrations being transferred to the guitar’s soundboard. As a result when a guitar string is plucked the main sound we hear is the fundamental. However, the primary vibration causes other resonant frequencies to fire resulting in overtones.

Overtones make up the harmonic series. They are higher frequency integers of the fundamental tone, yet because they produce sound at the same time we hear them as one, although they are heard at different rates of decay e.g. some overtones have greater sustain than others.

We hear sound differently based on the volume of the overtones we hear, this is also known as timbre and is influenced by many things, including the shape of the guitar and the scale length. In the context of the acoustic guitar, an abundance of overtones is often described as ‘rich’ sounding. In simple terms, the more overtones we hear the more interesting or complex the sound becomes. A lack of overtones is often described as plain sounding.

Testing Short Scale V Standard Scale

If you don’t own a short scale guitar and are interested in hearing the difference, a crude but effective test you can do is to add a capo to the first fret.

This shortens the scale (you will also need to detune the guitar to standard pitch with the capo on) and as the first fret is no longer accessible, the  remaining frets feel narrower.

Keep in mind this isn’t going to provide the same results as comparing two identical guitars as per the video below, as for one, the nut material is no longer contributing to the tone of the guitar. But aside from having two identical guitars, with the only difference being scale length it can give a rough indication of both playability and tone.

 

Do short scale guitars have better intonation?

Considering the affect string tension can have on how much a guitar string stretches when fretted it’s fair to assume the shorter scale length, and subsequent lower tension associated with it would have some affect on intonation. Theoretically, shorter scale guitars (all things being equal) should have slightly less issues with intonation.

This is much the same when comparing string gauges, all things being equal the lighter gauge string will be subject to less intonation problems. In reality however, the differences are not sufficient to be noticeable for most of us.

Do short scale guitars cause issues in open tunings?

Open tunings are another aspect to consider when it comes to short scale acoustic guitars. After all, when tuning to an open G for instance, we are loosening and therefore reducing the tension on the low E and A string, the two heaviest gauge strings on the guitar (the high E is also loosened).

While largely based on my own anecdotal evidence, the change in tension is not sufficient to cause problems. This may be more of an issue if using particularly light strings but otherwise I wouldn’t be overly concerned about playing in open tunings on a short scale guitar.

Summary

There’s little doubt that regardless of the physical differences between short and standard scale acoustic guitars, any change to scale length from what you are usually accustomed to will have an impact on how you play the guitar, which will often indirectly affect the tone of the guitar, regardless of all other aspects.

Being the owner of both short and standard scale guitars, I can attest to the fact that any change in scale length take time to adjust to. So if you find yourself playing a short scale guitar be sure to give the guitar some time. It is likely to grow on you, especially if you have smaller than average hands.

Do you own a short scale acoustic guitar? How have you found the transition from standard to short scale? Why not leave a comment below and join the conversation.

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