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If you’re purchasing an acoustic guitar, you’ve probably already taken a number of things into account — body style, playability, electronics, etc. But what about scale length? You might think of short scale acoustic guitars as being for smaller players, but a guitar with a shorter scale length has some surprising advantages for players of all sizes.
Short Scale Acoustic Guitars – Everything You Wanted To Know
Now, we’ll take a closer look at the world of short scale guitars. Keep in mind that these are not necessarily the same as mini guitars — short scale guitars usually have scale lengths that are just slightly shorter than that of a standard guitar.
What Is A Short Scale Acoustic Guitar?
When you think about different types of guitars, you probably imagine different body styles. And while the scale length might not seem especially important, it has a major impact on playability and sound.
But first, what is a short scale guitar? Scale length, simply put, is the distance between the inside edge of the nut and the saddle. But since many acoustic guitars have compensated saddles and many electric guitars have saddles that can be adjusted individually, accurately measuring a guitar’s scale length this way is next to impossible.
Most manufacturers will list a guitar’s scale length online. But don’t worry if you can’t find it listed anywhere — there’s a quick and easy way to figure out scale length. Just measure the distance between the inside of the nut and the 12th fret, and then multiply that distance by two.
Generally, the “standard” scale length for an acoustic guitar is 25.4-25.5 inches. Anything shorter than that is technically considered to be a short scale acoustic guitar. But as we noted briefly above, guitars whose scale lengths are much shorter are often classified as 3/4-size, 1/2-size, or “mini” guitars. For example, the Yamaha JR1 is a 3/4 size guitar designed for smaller beginners, and it has a scale length of 21.25 inches.
When you hear someone reference short scale guitars, they usually are referring to an instrument whose scale length is When you hear someone reference short scale guitars, they usually are referring to an instrument whose scale length is only about an inch to an inch and a half less than standard scale length. It doesn’t hurt to ask for clarification, though — there is no “official” definition of a short scale acoustic guitar, so some people may have slightly different ideas of what makes something a short scale.
What are Some Short Scale Acoustic Guitars?
There are plenty of short scale acoustic electric guitar options, as well as options for all-acoustic short scale guitars. You might be surprised to hear that many legendary Gibson acoustic models, including the J-45, could technically be called short scale guitars — the J-45 has a scale length of 24.75 inches.
Many parlor-style guitars are also short scale instruments. A great affordable example is the Gretsch G9500 Jim Dandy, a guitar with a 24″ scale length. And if you’re looking for something with a little more size than a parlor guitar, you might be interested in Martin’s 000 “auditorium” guitars. The Martin 000-28 is a great example, and with a scale length of 24.9 inches, it’s a short scale guitar as well.
For players looking for something a bit shorter (without wandering into mini guitar territory), it may be helpful to know that you can also find acoustic guitars with a scale length of 24 inches. One of these is the Martin D Jr-10E. It’s more affordable than many of the options we’ve listed, and it’s an excellent choice for players who love the sound of a Martin dreadnought but find the full-size version to be too unwieldy.
Why are Short Scale Guitars Easier?
You may find yourself looking at short scale guitars if you are a shorter player or have small hands. But regardless of your size, short scale guitars can be easier to manage in a number of different ways.
For one, these guitars tend to be a bit more portable. Most backpacking and travel guitars have at least slightly shorter than average scales so they take up less space when traveling.
Second, a shorter scale length can come in handy if you have short arms or small hands. Fretting closer to the nut can be a real challenge when it’s difficult to even reach all the way down the neck. Though it’s a relatively small change, playing a short scale guitar can make a sizable difference when it comes to easy playability. On a short scale acoustic, the frets are also spaced closer together. If you’ve ever struggled to stretch your hand far enough to hit the next note, you know what an asset that can be!
But perhaps the most important difference between short scale guitars and standard guitars is the string tension. When the scale length on an instrument is shorter, the strings require less tension to be tuned to pitch. For new guitarists, the lower string tension is an excellent advantage, as strings with lower tension are much easier on your fingers as your calluses are developing.
Lower string tension also makes string bending a lot easier, as it takes considerably less force to bend a string under lower tension. Less tense strings also mean lower action (the strings are closer to the fretboard), so the guitar will also be easier to play and cause less hand fatigue. Even for more experienced players, this lowered tension can make long sets and/or long practice sessions easier.
The reduced string tension also has another important benefit over guitars with standard scale lengths, too. While the difference isn’t major, short scale guitars tend to have fewer issues with intonation than guitars with standard scale lengths.
What is the Best Short Scale Guitar?
The best short scale acoustic guitar for one person may well be different than another person’s choice. And if you’re narrowing down your options, the selection process is no different from that of buying any other acoustic guitar.
Ideally, choose a model with a solid top. Solid-top guitars tend to open up and sound fuller over time, and there’s a major difference between the tone of a solid-top guitar and the tone of a guitar with laminated top. If you have the money to spare, an all-solid acoustic is a great choice, but the solid top is the most important.
And of course, make sure you take a look at the tonewoods used for each guitar. If you like a warm, midrange-heavy tone, you might prefer a mahogany instrument. But if you like the bright responsiveness typically associated with acoustic guitars, you may find that a spruce top is the better choice.
As always, if you’re looking to buy a short scale guitar, you might want to see if you can try out a few in person. If that isn’t possible, video demos are your friend — watch a few and see how the same guitar sounds in the hands of different players.
It’s worth mentioning that some guitars advertised as “short scale” models may be closer to being mini guitars. If you’re looking for something that sounds like a full-size acoustic guitar, make sure that the body of the guitar is still approximately the size of a standard acoustic. The Gibson J-45 is a great example of what to look for. Thanks to its 24.75″ scale length, it’s a short scale guitar, but it has a full-size, round-shoulder dreadnought body.
Fundamentals And Overtones
You’re probably wondering whether or not a guitar’s scale length has any impact on its tone. The answer here is yes. But to really understand the difference between a short scale and standard scale acoustic, you should first make sure you have a grasp of both fundamentals and overtones.
If you listen closely to a decent-sounding acoustic guitar being played, you probably will notice more than just the sounds of the main notes being played. Each time a note sounds, you’ll usually hear a collection of tones that seem to surround each note.
The actual note that a guitarist plays is called the fundamental. The other tones you hear are known as overtones. When you pluck a string, the string’s primary vibration (the lowest-frequency vibration it produces) is what creates the fundamental. This vibration also creates vibrations in resonant frequencies, and that’s what creates the overtones that you hear.
Thanks to the reduced string tension in a short scale guitar, you’ll usually hear a stronger fundamental — that is, the actual played notes are much stronger than their overtones. In a shorter scale instrument, the frequencies of the overtones produced are closer together. That creates a slightly less complex sound, meaning that you hear fewer overtones.
Of course, this isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing. Depending on your needs as a player, you may find that you prefer a guitar whose fundamental has a bit more presence.
Hopefully you now have a better idea of the important differences between short scale guitars and those with a standard scale. But if you still need to clear a few things up, here are some frequently asked questions:
Are short scale guitars bad?
Short scale acoustic guitar reviews aren’t really different from reviews of standard scale guitars. Some players will review a given guitar well, and some players won’t. Short scale guitars do have a slightly different sound than full-scale guitars. Some players prefer that sound and some dislike it.
There are a couple of potential disadvantages to a short scale guitar. If you have very large hands, you may find that fretting notes and chords is a challenge. Short scale guitars have frets that are spaced closer together, and that leaves less space for your fingers. This feature can get especially challenging as you move toward the body of the guitar. The frets are packed even closer together, so accurate fretting becomes a real challenge.
The other disadvantage only matters if you like to use dropped tunings (for example, double dropped D tuning) or alternate tunings. Because the string tension on a short scale guitar is already lower, lowering that tension at all can cause fret and string buzzing. That buzzing happens because the strings are relatively slack on the neck. So when they’re made even looser and then strummed or plucked, there’s a good chance they will hit a fret or two when you don’t want them to. However, adjusting the guitar’s action to better suit the tuning can help fix the issue.
So the short answer here is no — short scale guitars aren’t bad. But depending on your playing style and individual needs, you may find them to be better (or worse) for you than standard scale acoustic guitars.
What difference does scale length make on a guitar?
Though the difference between a standard scale and short scale guitar might seem small, it can have a major impact on tone and playability. here’s a quick rundown of the major differences:
- Lower string tension makes it more comfortable to play
- The strings are easier to bend
- The guitar is less likely to have problems with intonation
- Closer fret spacing makes playing easier if you have smaller hands
- Tonally, the guitar will sound warmer and mellower
Does scale length affect tone?
As you likely already know, virtually every aspect of an acoustic guitar shapes its tone in some way. Scale length definitely has an impact on a guitar’s tone, but it’s important to understand that its impact is far less than that of other factors. A guitar’s tonewoods, body style, and bracing pattern will all have far more impact on its tone than scale length does. Keep in mind that scale length’s impact on tone is also relatively small, and to the untrained ear, it may even be negligible.
Do short scale guitars sound different?
Short scale guitar acoustic tone is generally a bit different than that of a standard scale acoustic guitar. We mentioned above that the overtones produced tend to be of very similar frequencies. This feature tends to make short scale guitars sound a bit compressed.
Shorter scale guitars also tend to have more of a warm, midrange-focused sound. That sound tends to do especially well with fingerstyle playing, but whether it’s right for you or not is a matter of taste. By contrast, standard scale guitars tend to put more emphasis on higher and lower frequencies, leading to a somewhat mid-scooped sound.
What is the normal scale length for a guitar?
Guitars come in a range of different scale lengths. But the standard scale length is either 25.4″ or 25.5″, depending on the builder. Some builders, like Gibson, will use 24.75″ as a standard scale length on certain models.
Now that you have a decent understanding of short scale acoustics and what sets them apart, we hope that you’ll be able to decide for yourself whether or not one of these slightly smaller acoustics is for you. Remember to take into account the type of music you play, and be sure to look at more than just the scale length before making a selection. Happy playing!