Multi-scale guitars and Fanned Fret guitars are becoming more and more popular these days, and they offer some interesting advantages for modern metal, particularly when playing in drop tunings. We dive into the history of multi-scale and fanned fret guitars, the advantages they offer, and of course, what the best strings are for multi-scale and fanned fret guitars.
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If you’ve been following modern metal, you probably see a lot more of these multi-scale or fanned fret guitars now than ever where the lowest sixth or seventh string has a longer scale than the highest string. Today we’re going to talk about why that is, what it is that multi-scale guitars do for you, what the history behind them is.
And of course because this is Stringjoy, we’re going to talk about what the best guitar strings are for multi-scale or fanned fret guitars. If you already know everything there is to know about these guitars and just want to know our recommendation about strings, skip to this part of the video or the strings section below.
What are multi-scale / fanned fret guitars?
The gist of it is that on these guitars the high E-string has a shorter scale on it than the bottom string could be a six string or a seven string or an eighth string. Then every sort of string along the way adjusts slightly longer in terms of its scale length. Not only do we have the nut seated at an angle here in order to make that happen, but we also have all the frets angled in different ways and the bridge is angled as well. All those three things combine to make the guitar playable, allow it to intonate properly, and allow it to play like a regular guitar for the most part, even though it has different scale lengths on each string.
Now, just at first blush even if you’re not really used to these types of guitars, I think the idea makes some sense. If you look at the inside of a piano for example, you’ll notice that the strings that are tuned to higher pitches are a lot shorter in scale length. And when you get down to those really, really low notes on a piano, they have a way longer scale length—that’s why grand pianos have that sort of funky curved shape to them.
So from that perspective, I can totally understand why it makes sense to take this same approach with the guitar, especially in the modern age where down tuning is more popular than ever.
Multi-scale guitar history
Even though you’ve probably only seen players utilizing multi-scale or fanned fret guitars for the past decade or so, especially in metal or progressive metal genres, the concept of a fretted instrument with a scale like this is a lot older than that actually.
The first example that I could find was an instrument called the Bandora that dates all the way back to the 16th century which looks not a lot different than this. Well actually quite a bit different than this. But it does have that same sort of multi-scale situation going on even though it’s a way older instrument and I’m pretty sure they probably weren’t tuning down the drop C on it.
In more modern times this concept was actually patented in 1900 by E.A Edgren and I want to show you a little excerpt out of his patent because I think it’s kind of funny.
It’s patented from 1900 covers and I quote, “a plurality of frets secured to said neck, said frets being positioned at an angle one to the other so that the first and last frets incline in opposite directions” Even though that patent was in effect in 1900, you still didn’t really see a lot of these instruments in Western music at least until 1977 when John Starrett invented the StarrBoard which is kind of a crazy instrument that uses the same idea but in a little bit of a different way than the guitar.
So for basically like 77 years in there, you really didn’t see much of anything using it. Now that all changed in 1988 when Ralph Novak patented this idea again for use on a modern guitar. Interestingly Ralph wasn’t a metal player or anything like that, he was a blues player and he noted that he liked to have a lot of flexibility on the high end of guitars but wanted a nice clean, crisp, sort of low end and he couldn’t really seem to get that with the available sets of strings that were there for him or the guitars of the day.
So he patented the fanned fret concept and then started making those guitars in 1988. Well that patent has since expired—as you might be able to guess by the fact that you see a lot of different companies making this type of instrument. He actually still owns the trademark for the term “fanned fret.”
Multi-scale guitars in modern music
Now, the modern use of fanned frets is of course a little bit different than the blues style playing of Mr. Novak, or whatever crazy folk they were doing back in 1900 on similar instruments. These days you really see these types of guitars used by metal and progressive metal guitarists.
And that’s largely because those guys are tuning down, and not only tuning down across the board and like a Tony Iommi sort of fashion, but tuning down to drop C or drop B or drop A and as a result I think a lot of players struggle to get their guitar to play well when they’re going that low on the bottom but still want things to be fairly flexible on top. For that reason I think a lot of players have found that multi-scale guitars provide a great way for you to get the tension that you’re after on the bottom end.
The reason for this is that tension is a product of the mass of the string, the pitch that you’re tuning it up to, and the scale length of the string. We’ve talked about this a little bit before. Because of that, if you increase any of those factors, pitch, string mass or scale length, you’re going to end up with more tension.
Now, I think for a lot of players, if you didn’t know that you could customize your guitar string gauges or know that there were different options available out there for you like we have at Stringjoy and you were pretty much stuck playing 10-46 or 11-50 but you wanted the tune down quite a bit, you can see why that would present quite a bit of a problem. You’d have a really, really floppy low C string with a 46 or a 50 on it.
I think that’s one of the big reasons you saw guitars like this catch on and continue to catch on today is because you can use regular off-the-shelf strings to play not-so-off-the-shelf tunings and still have a nice bit of tension on the bottom end, flexibility on the top end, everything that you’re looking for there.
The other reason a lot of people really like these is for ergonomic purposes, as many report that it’s easier to bend and slide into notes with the fanned fret guitars.
Best strings for multi-scale and fanned fret guitars
Now this is the Stringjoy blog after all, so as you might’ve guessed, we’re not going to finish this off without talking a little bit about the best strings for fanned fret and multi-scale guitars.
We have a lot of players reach out to us about this, because I think when you get a guitar like this, you have a pretty automatic sense that this will probably need some different strings than what you’re using on a normal guitar.
But this is where things get a bit tricky…
In theory if you were trying to get multi-scale guitar to play qith exactly the same tension as a straight fret 24.75 or 25.5 inch scale guitar, you would definitely need a custom set of strings to get you there.
For example, if you were to try and build a set that would play pretty similar to a 10-46 on a standard scale, you would want to go with something like: .010 – .013 – .017 – .024w – .032 – .042. A set like that would be about as close as you could get—at least with our strings—to having the tension feel about the same as a typical set of tens.
But there’s one issue with that. Personally I don’t think a lot of people that are getting guitars like this are getting them so that their guitar can have the same tension profile as a regular set of 10-46’s on the straight fret 25.5 inch scale.
Reason being, if you wanted that, there’s really not a lot of reasons other than ergonomics to even really get a guitar like this… It’s just going to have the same sort of tension as a 25.5 inch straight fret guitar and if you’re tuning down or anything like that, you’ll have the exact same problems on a guitar like this as you would otherwise.
In reality, if you want to lean into what a guitar like this can do—if you’re like most players that get these and you’re looking to down tune or you’re looking to have some more tension on the very bottom end—the right set of strings for a guitar like this isn’t any different than the right set of strings for another straight fret guitar.
Because what it’s doing in terms of increasing the scale length on the lower notes, giving you a crisper sense and more tension on the bottom—wll, that’s only going work if you have similar string tension that you’re getting on a straight fret guitar and then you’re expanding it a little bit with this multi-scale instrument.
I know people are going to say I’m crazy and that it doesn’t make any sense that a guitar like this should get a typical set of strings like you would on any other. I see that standpoint. Honestly, I’ve always thought about it. I know that we could sell multi-scale specific strings and we’d sell a ton of them. I don’t think people would need any convincing at all as to why an instrument like this would need a different set of strings—and we might one day if we find some different things that might help in terms of intonation or things like that. But in terms of string tension and the practical usage of instruments like this, it just doesn’t make sense to mess with the gauges too much—so long as you’re playing a set of strings that are balanced well in the first place.
Now, there is one big caveat I want to make here and that’s that if you’re using a guitar like this and you’re tuning down your sixth string or your tuning down your seventh string, a multi-scale guitar doesn’t absolve you from the need to use a different gauge of string on that sixth or seventh string than you find in standard sets to balance out your tension. We’ve talked about this a little bit how with straight-fret instruments when you’re drop tuning that sixth string, you’re causing a bit of a tension nightmare. A lot of typical sets of strings already have way less tension on that sixth string, so when you drop tune it you end up with between five and eight pounds less tension on there than the other wound strings—which trust me, is not what you want.
This is why using a set optimized for drop tunings like any of our Drop Tune or Heavy Bottom sets is going to be a lot better for you. For example, on my personal multi-scale guitar right now I’m playing it in drop C and I’m using our Drop Tune Medium set with gauges: .011 – .014 – .018p – .032 – .044 – .058, and I could even use a 60 if I really wanted to get the tensions a little bit more balanced.
Feel free to drop us a line any time if you have any questions about finding the perfect set of strings for your multi-scale or fanned fret guitar. You can write us an email, or use our string assistant and one of our string experts will be right back with you.
So, here’s my question to you all today for the comments below: What are your favorite songs in drop tunings that I should learn to play? Extra points for songs in Drop C or below. Let me know down in the comments, I’m excited to check them out myself.