Scale length is something that often gets overlooked by musicians, especially by those who are less gear-obsessed. But when it comes to bass, bass guitar scale lengths play a HUGE role in the sound and feel of the instrument. It wouldn’t be overstating it to say that finding the right bass scale length could be the missing piece in finding your sound.
This post will look at all the main scale lengths that are out there for basses, how they each came to be, and what makes them unique. But first, let’s cover the basics of scale length.
Scale Lengths Explained
It may seem basic, but it’s important to understand what exactly scale length is and why it matters. Put simply, scale length is the distance between the nut and the bridge. It is the distance between the two parts where the strings are actually seated, and therefore, the scale length is the maximum sounding length of the strings.
Now, you may be wondering how you calculate a single scale length when each string is slightly different due to the nature of bridge saddles. Typically, scale length is calculated by measuring the distance from the nut to the 12th fret (half the length of the string) and multiplying by two. This eliminates the need for measuring each individual string and calculating the average.
So how does scale length actually impact your experience playing the instrument? The biggest impacts of scale length are on fret spacing, string tension, and tone. All of these factors will greatly influence the feel and sound of your instrument.
Longer scale lengths give you more fret spacing, while shorter scale lengths give you less. Longer scale lengths have higher string tension, and shorter scale lengths have lower tension. Longer scale lengths tend to be more bright and snappy due to higher string tension, and short scale lengths tend to be more warm and full due to lower string tensions.
Make sense? OK good. With the basics of scale length covered, let’s move onto the different bass guitar scale lengths.
Long scale basses have a 34” scale length, and they are the original standard bass guitar scale length as developed by Leo Fender himself. They take regular long scale strings, which we offer. When Fender introduced the Precision Bass (P-Bass) in 1951, it had a 34” scale length because Leo wanted to shorten the upright bass scale enough for the instrument to be played horizontally rather than vertically, but not so much that tone and tension were sacrificed. Since the P-Bass quickly became the bass of the time, most other manufacturers simply copied the design—including the scale length. 34” scale length then quickly became the standard. But why did Fender choose 34”?
The story of how Fender chose the 34” scale length is unconfirmed, and there are many different theories. Some of these theories involve playing with numbers, such as 34” being directly in between 25” (Stratocaster scale length, though it’s actually 25.5”) and 43” (scale length of a standard upright bass), or 34” being exactly 4/3 of 25.5”. Another is that Fender got the information from a physics book owned by his secretary. While these theories may be fun, the truth is likely less exciting.
Most evidence points towards trial and error. Yup, not mathematical precision, but good old guess and check. According to a longtime co-worker of Fender, George Fullerton, they tried multiple scale lengths (30”, 32”, 34”, and 36”) and 34” just felt right. 34” was the best balance for playability, reaching lower frets, tone, string tension, etc.
Regardless of how he landed on 34”, long scale basses are now the standard and used by professional players every day. Countless classic records were made with 34” basses. Just one example is “I Want You Back” by the Jackson Five. The track features Wilton Felder on a 34” P-Bass playing one of the most iconic bass lines ever.
Extra Long Scale
Extra long scale basses are those with a scale length between 35” and 37”. Not much is known about the origins of extra long scale basses, but they likely date back pretty far. Some Gibson basses of the early 70s were slightly longer than the 34” Fenders of the time, and with the custom guitar and bass movement taking root in the 70s, extra long scale basses likely were established then as players demanded more customized instruments.
However, extra long scale basses didn’t become as popular until five and six string basses became more common in the 80s. Because five and six string basses typically add a low B string, a longer scale length helps with tone and playability. The longer scale keeps the strings from getting too loose or floppy. They are more common in metal and other heavier styles of music due to the use of extended range basses and downtuning. They also require extra long scale strings, such as these strings we offer.
For one popular modern example, Adam “Nolly” Getgood of Periphery uses an extra long multiscale bass (meaning it has different scale lengths across the strings) that has a scale length of 37” on the low B. The higher scale length on the lower strings allows for tighter and more focused lows.
Medium scale basses are those with a 32” scale length. Again, not much is known about the early history and origins of this scale length. However, they likely have been around for a very long time. Before Fender introduced the P-Bass 1951, Audiovox sold the very first electric bass with a 30.5” scale. Other small manufacturers were making various scale length basses, and some of these were likely 32” medium scale basses.
Many players love 32” basses and prefer them to the standard 34”. Two inches may not seem like much, but it can mean a lot in terms of playability. Frets are closer together, and the first and second frets are less of a reach. For players who aren’t gifted with long arms and fingers, 32” can be much easier to play. They also have a slightly lower string tension, making them easier to play. Medium scale basses require shorter, medium length strings, which you can purchase here.
Tonally, medium scale basses offer the best of both worlds–the big bassy lows of short scale basses with the high-end pop of long scale basses. Players looking to balance out their tone and get a versatile sound often land on medium scale bases. Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead frequently uses an Alembic 6-string bass with a 32” scale length, and it works well for his unique style and tone.
Short scale bases are those with a scale length around 30”. There are some slight variations between models and manufacturers, but they are generally close to 30”. As mentioned earlier, the first electric bass ever had a 30.5” scale length. Many other earlier basses, such as the Danelectro Longhorn and the Hofner basses, were short scale.
Short scale instruments originally started as student instruments since they were easier to play, but they quickly became popular with professional bassists. There are two main advantages to short scale basses—low-end and playability.
Because of their shorter scale length, they have more of a low end fundamental-centric thump than longer scale bases. Their frets are also closer together, making fretting easier for beginners, those with small hands, and guitarists learning bass. Lastly, they also have a distinct feel. Traditionally, short scale basses were strung with the same strings as long scale bases, resulting in lower string tensions. This gives the bass a sort of floppy feel. Nowadays though, companies like ours offer short scale bass strings that eliminate that floppy feeling (if you desire).
The most well-known and famous short scale bass player has to be Paul McCartney, whose Hofner 500/1 Violin bass is one of the most iconic instruments of all time. McCartney used the bass on countless classic records from the Beatles.
Last but not least are micro scale basses, which are around 28.6” and smaller. While small, these basses can pack a punch and can be incredibly useful. History wise, micro scale basses are more of a modern advent. In the past, construction techniques and technology made it difficult to make such short basses that were functional. But with modern techniques and technology, manufacturers can make surprisingly functional micro scale basses.
The main reasons for micro scale basses are playability and portability. A 28.6” base is only three-ish inches longer than a standard Stratocaster, making them much more ergonomic. Kids and those with smaller frames can use these basses with ease. Their frets are closer together, and the low frets are much easier to reach. They are also incredibly portable due to their size.
One downside however is that they often have very loose string tension, making the strings feel even more floppy. This can be corrected with the right strings, but finding short enough bass strings can be a challenge. However, it may be worth it if you need a smaller bass.
Tonally, micro basses sound like you’d expect—even bassier than short scale basses with less high end pop. Depending on your playing style, these basses may be too heavy on the low end. With the right gear however, you can still make a micro bass sound balanced.
The Ibanez Mikro series basses are one of the most popular micro scale basses on the market, and they sound remarkably good for their size and price, which makes them a great beginner bass.
The world of bass guitar scale lengths can be confusing, but the number of choices gives you plenty of options to find the tone that works for you. Each bass scale length has its own unique sound, feel, and use—from 37” behemoths to 28.6” micro basses. When looking for basses, make sure to consider which scale length works best for you in terms of playability and sound.