Guitar Scale Length Explained: String Tension & Playability

Guitar Scale Length Explained: String Tension & Playability

How does your guitar’s scale length affect guitar string tension & playability? We talk about the effect of different scale lengths as well as how to adjust your strings to balance it out.

Guitar Scale Length Explained: String Tension & Playability

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Have you ever wondered how scale length affects the tension of the strings on your guitar? If you take one guitar with a longer scale length, you put the same set of strings on it as you do a guitar with a shorter scale length, which is going to have more tension? Today, we’re going to solve that question for you, give you a few pointers as to how to pick the right set of strings for guitars at different scale lengths.

The tension on any given string on your guitar is a product of the scale length, the tuning, and the mass of that individual gauged string. As a result, when you increase the scale length on your guitar, you’re going to have more tension, even if you’re tuning to the same pitch and keeping your gage of string the exact same. What this means is, on a 27-inch scale guitar, a set of 10s tuned to E standard is going to have quite a bit more tension on it than that same set of 10s tuned to E standard on a 25-1/2 inch scale guitar. Conversely, if you have, like, a 22-1/2 inch scale guitar or something around there, a set of 10s is going to feel way, way lighter. It’s going to have not nearly as much tension as it would on a standard scale guitar.

This, in effect, is the reason that a lot of players will use longer scale length guitars in order to tune down. Because of that longer scale length, you don’t need to go as heavy in gauge in order to tune down than you would typically. For example, if you wanted to tune a 25-1/2 inch scale guitar down to, like, B to B baritone tuning, you might have to use something like a set of 13s. Whereas, if you have a 27-inch scale guitar, you might be able to get away with something like 12s. That means that it’s just going to be a little bit more natural feeling to you, you’re not going to have to make that big compensation to having a way heavier set of strings on your guitar, but you can still effectively hit that tuning and keep everything under proper tension.

Where things get more interesting is when we’re making more incremental changes to scale length, because every string on your guitar isn’t going to react exactly the same to a given change in scale length. In general, the difference in diameter on a given gauge string is going to have a more pronounced effect on the smaller gauged strings on your guitar. The plain steel strings are the best example here. The difference between a 9 and a 10 is far more pronounced in terms of tension than the difference between a 46 and a 47 or something like that.

In practical terms, let’s imagine that you have two different guitars. One is a 25-1/2 inch or Fender style scale length, and the other is a 26-1/2 inch scale length. On the Fender style 25-1/2 inch scale length, let’s imagine you have just a standard set of 10s from 10 to 46. To get your 26-1/2 inch scale length guitar to play the exact same as your 25-1/2 inch scale length guitar, you’re only going to need to make incremental changes when it comes to the plain strings, and you’ll be able to make larger changes when it comes to the wound strings.

In effect, if you went with something like a 9-1/2 on the top end of your 26-1/2 inch scale length guitar, it would feel fairly comparable to a 10. In actuality, it would have a little bit too little tension, but at a certain point here we can only get so specific when it comes to gauge. At the same time on the bottom end, going from a 46 on that 25-1/2 inch scale length, you could go all the way down to a 44 on the longer 26-1/2 inch scale length, and you’d be right in the ballpark of what that tension would be on both guitars.

Now, the good news is you don’t really have to worry about becoming a math expert or really trying to dial everything in perfectly, because most guitar string sets are already constructed in a way that’s going to echo this basic mathematical principle when you just go down a gauge. A good rule of thumb to keep in mind is that a 1/2 gauge difference in the overall gauge of a set, so here I’m talking about the difference between a general set of 10s and a general set of 9-1/2s or 10-1/2s, that 1/2 gauge difference, which of course would be balanced out over the entire set by the manufacturer, is going to be good enough to account for about a 1 to a 1-1/2 inch difference in scale length. If you get way bigger than that, if you’re having, like a 2-1/2 or a 3-inch difference in scale length, then you’re going to want to go a full gauge difference.

Again, in practical terms, if you have a few different guitars with different scale lengths that you want to play really similarly, let’s say you have a set of 10s on your 25-1/2 inch or 25 inch scale guitar, once you get up to about 26, 26-1/2, or 27 inch scale length, you’ll want to go about a 1/2 gauge down in order to match the same tension at the same tuning. If you get all the way up to something like a 28-inch scale length or more, you’ll want to go a whole gauge down, all the way down to, like, a set of 9s.

Now, the inverse is also true as well. Let’s imagine that you had that same 10 gauge set on a 25-1/2 inch scale, and you’ve got something with a 24-inch scale length, you’ll want to go with something like a 10-1/2 gauge set. If you get all the way down to, like, a 22-1/2 or another really, really short scale length, you’d want to go all the way up to 11s, again, if your desire is to overall balance out all the tension between all of those different scale length guitars in your arsenal.

Now, is this a requirement when you have guitars at different scale lengths? Absolutely not. Maybe you like just using a set of 10s on all of your different scale lengths. You like how it feels a little bit stiffer at, like, a 26-1/2 inch scale length and you like how it’s super bendable on, like, a 22-1/2 inch scale length. That’s totally fine. If you really like to feel the difference in how your different guitar’s scale lengths affect the playability, keep your strings the same and just experience that difference for what it is. However, if you’re trying to account a little bit better for the difference in scale length, then I would keep these rules of thumb in mind order to help guide you into what is the right set for you.

Now, what if you’re using a different tuning on top of also using a different scale length on a given guitar? That’s where things can get a little bit more complicated. At String Joy, we prefer to handle those things yourself. If you send an email to [email protected] somebody will really work with you to help you dial in exactly what your particular guitar needs on it in order to sound right at a given scale length and a given tuning. If you prefer to do everything yourself, there’s a couple different string tension calculators on the internet that can be useful, but again, I really recommend reaching out to us because we’re more than happy to help you dial it in just right.

What do you think? Do you prefer to use the same gauge string on all of your different scale length guitars, or do you prefer to balance them out a little bit with different gauges of strings on each one? Let us know down in the comments.

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