Short scale classical guitars: pros and cons

The theme of this week is “Instruments & Design

Note: when talking about scale length I’m referring to string length from the saddle to nut. So don’t confuse scale length with “smaller guitar” necessarily. Just because the scale length is smaller doesn’t mean the luthier has built a significantly smaller instrument (although that is most often the case).

Are guitars getting smaller?

I remember even ten years ago seeing a few 660mm guitars around but now I’d be hard pressed to track one down. The standard has been 650mm for many years. However, I’ve started noticing, especially in the past five years an explosion of smaller scale guitars 640mm and less. I think this is a very good thing. People should be comfortable playing the instrument and not forced into a situation where they are stretching and struggling with the size of the instrument.

Pros of short scale guitars

  • comfort often equals better playing, reach, ease of technique, and general HAPPINESS
  • when choosing a short scale length you customizing the guitar to your body
  • besides the shorter string length, you often get a smaller body so the right hand can reach the strings without extending the shoulder forward (maybe)
  • you are rebelling against tradition and helping pave the way to a better and more accepting way (rock star style)

Cons of short scale guitars

  • if you need to switch guitars because of loss or damage you’ll suddenly be playing an instrument that doesn’t feel right…ouch!
  • that myth about the shorter string length diminishing power and projection (depends on design I think)
  • some luthiers, not all, may not have perfected the design of their small scales since they mostly build 650mms (easy to solve, go with a builder that regularly builds small scale instruments)

But how does the scale length affect the guitar’s performance? Hear’s what some luthiers have to say:

Gregory Byers on small scale lengths

…I commonly encounter the belief that scale-lengths of 645 mm or 640 mm are sufficient to accommodate players struggling with 650. There are surely players for whom these lengths are optimum, but I think the value of even shorter lengths is underrated. Take a guitar of 650 scale and capo at the 1st fret. You now have a scale length of 613.5. If your hands are small and you are having a struggle with 650, try this. In addition, if you can have a local luthier make a new nut for your guitar with closer string spacing, you might find an even better fit. (The normal string spacing at the nut is about 43-44 mm, E to E, center to center. A person with very small hands might benefit with spacing as close as, say, 37 mm. It is usually best to keep string spacing at the saddle unchanged, since no matter how small the hands, free-stroke playing requires about the same amount of space between the strings.)

I have great faith in shorter scale lengths and feel they have been unjustly “belittled” for having reduced power and volume. For people with smaller hands the increased playability could far outweigh any perceived loss of power. This loss can occur, in theory, because of reduced string tension or reduced box dimensions. Yet by using higher tension strings the first objection is overcome, and as for the effects of reduced box size, bigger is not always louder. Every design will have an optimum box size and shape to maximize volume, but a smaller box may actually increase projection or quality of sound. Some of the smaller Torres and Hauser I guitars faired quite well in the concert hall. These sizes are easy to adapt to shorter scale lengths. I reduce the size of the plantilla by only about 3-5 mm around the perimeter for both my 630 and 613.5 scale guitars. The sound can be very lovely and without one of my 650s for direct comparison, diminished volume is not obvious…

Quote source: byersguitars.com/FAQ/FAQ

Douglas Scott Short Scales Guitars

Three of my students own Douglas Scott guitars and two of them are short scale instruments. The guitars are just as clear and responsive as Scott’s 650mm instruments and super comfortable to play. Here’s what the luthier has to say:

Scott Short Scale guitars feature effortless playability for musicians with smaller hands while retaining my characteristic powerful, refined and noble concert sound. Scott Short Scale guitars are true concert instruments designed to enable players with smaller hands to excel as artists. Available in a multitude of scale lengths from 613.5mm to 640mm.

quote source: scottclassicalguitars.com

below photo source: scottclassicalguitars.com

Douglas Scott - Short Scale Guitar

Douglas Scott – Short Scale Guitar

Marcus Dominelli on String Length

This is from an interview I did with Marcus Dominelli on Classical Guitar Canada.

Bradford: What does scale or string length do to the sound?

Marcus: I’ve found that scale length does not really alter the sound much, at least not with my own guitars, in the context of say 640, 650, or 660 scale lengths. If you go much shorter, for example to a 610, 620, or 630, you’re going to get some changes, but usually the size of the guitar body has been scaled down as well, so we’re now introducing other factors that affect the sound beyond just scale length.

A longer scale length means a longer, heavier string. More tension will be required to bring this heavier string up to the same pitch as a lighter string. The stiffer tension will be felt by the player. I think this tactile change is a bigger difference than any tonal one. Conversely, a shorter scale will require less tension to reach the same pitch, and the string will feel more slack to the fingers.

As a general rule, a 640 scale guitar strung with hard tension D’addarios will feel similar to a 650 scale strung with medium tensions.

But as far as sound goes, the overall character of the woods, bracing, and other design elements, are far more important to creating the desired tone. Don’t let anyone tell you that a 640 scale will have dramatically less power or bass response than a 650 or a 660 scale length.

quote source: classicalguitarcanada.ca

Kenny Hill on Short Scale Guitars

I have a real affection for shorter scale guitars. Somewhere along the line some people have arrived at the assumption that a longer string will produce more power, and conversely that a shorter string will produce a smaller sound. Not necessarily true! In the 60s, 70s and 80s a lot of Spanish guitars had a 660mm string length and a lot of Ramirez’s had 665mm string length, presumably with the intention of making the guitar louder and more powerful. There are many beautiful sounding instrument with that kind of string length, but they are hard to play. Now the standard is 650mm. I think guitarists got tired of fighting with hard action instruments and wanted a more cooperative neck. A shorter string reduces the left hand reaches, and reduces the overall tension of the instrument, because the with the shorter length the string doesn’t have to be pulled as tight to reach pitch. Maybe this is counter intuitive , but this lower tension can actually allow the top of the guitar to move more freely, and actually produce more sound.

In a 640mm instrument we take this just a little bit farther. The difference is slight, maybe imperceptible, but this difference can tip the scales of comfort for many people. There may be a general perception that a 640 is a “little” guitar, or under powered and weak, but this just isn’t necessarily so. Before trying it I was skeptical, but over the years some of the best guitars I’ve made have been 640 scale. There tends to be an added warmth, malleability of tone, and cooperative feeling in both right hand tone production and left hand facility. And there is no sacrifice of volume. I’ve never had anyone, including outstanding players, comment about any inadequacies in a 640 scale. They just don’t notice. In fact I’ve seen them in “blind tests” chosen above 650 scales many times.

quote link: hillguitar.com

Conclusion

I was very hard-pressed to find cons or negative comments about shorter scale lengths from any reputable luthier or player. Let us not forget that instruments have been built with varied string length for centuries and that the modern guitar is but a child still. Nineteenth century guitars are tiny and they can project quite well. And besides, even if there is a change in the sound, is that a bad thing? When did being unique become a bad thing?

Do you play a short scale guitar? 

Please leave a comment letting everyone know what experience has been with shorter scale guitars.

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5 Responses to Short scale classical guitars: pros and cons

  1. Liz May 2, 2013 at 4:30 pm #

    I play a Kenny Hill New World Player 628. I use high tension strings and the sound is amazing. It’s loud and vibrant. I would never be able to play a longer scale. What would I gain by struggling to stretch three frets?

  2. France Begin June 12, 2013 at 8:22 am #

    I am a 5’3″ woman with small hands. I struggled for a long time before acquiring my new guitar, between a 640 and a 650 mm, took informations, etc. Almost decided to go with a 640mm. But I far prefer to try guitars and wait to encounter one I fall in love with, so of course I ended up with a 650mm. But that guitar was comfortable for me, because she has a rather small body.

    I recently acquired a 11strings alto guitar. Among caracteristics, it has a smaller body, perhaps equivalent of a 7/8 or a 3/4 guitar, and the scale is 570mm, and it is tuned in G instead of E. Well, I was quite surprised but its power, coming from a so small guitar. Gives me the impulse to acquire a smaller 6 strings someday, probably a 630mm

    The most important con, and the only one really pertinent IMO, of a smaller scale, is the possible problem to adapt to a full 650 scale if ever needed. But if one plays a 630, a 570 alto, and keeps playing on her 650, there should be no problem at all ;-)

  3. nysteak September 12, 2013 at 2:57 pm #

    The reason to go with 630-640 is that you really don’t need high tension strings. I think it’s a misconception. I intent to get a 630mm myself but these so called big name luthiers are prohibitive price wise. Some of the romantic guitars I heard have much shorter scale length with warm singing voices. To me, the Spanish tradition followers put me off somewhat. But to each to his/her own. I heard a pre-segovia hauser, it’s short scale and LOUD.

  4. Sally November 12, 2013 at 9:58 pm #

    Yes my short scale spruce classical comes from Spain by a famous company there and it is very loud. It is not the scale length for volume. It is the technique in making it, the inner bracings etc. I am female and 5 foot one and studied at a Conservatory for four years once. It suits me fine.The spruce has been played in and is even louder but with great tone.

  5. Joe de Victoria May 22, 2014 at 6:54 pm #

    I believe that a longer scale length will give you more sustain however for a string of any given thckness,a longer scale string will have to be tensioned higher than the string at the shorter scale to reach the same pitch. In addition the longer scale will make the fret distances longer and players with short hands/fingers will have more difficulty reaching the frets that are more than two semitones apart.

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