Bradford’s small scale guitar from the video: check out my article and video on my new small scale guitar: My new 2018 Small Scale Douglass Scott Guitar
What is small scale? When talking about scale length we are referring to the string length from the saddle to the nut. Don’t confuse scale length with a smaller bodied guitar necessarily. Just because the scale length is smaller doesn’t mean the luthier has built a significantly smaller instrument (although that is sometimes the case as with mine).
What is standard and are guitars getting smaller? Fifteen years ago I remember seeing 660mm guitars around but now I’d be hard pressed to even see one. The standard today has been 650mm for a number of years. However, I’ve started noticing, especially in the past five years an explosion of smaller scale guitars 640mm and less. Overall, I think this is a very good thing in terms of variety and making a connection between the guitar and people’s body type. People should be comfortable playing the instrument and not forced into a situation where they are struggling with the size of the instrument.
Pros of short scale guitars
- Comfort and relaxation
- 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 or having to spread the legs more than is comfortable
- Possible different sound, this can sometimes be good or bad depending. I think smaller bodied guitars tend to have a more focused sound. Up for debate.
Cons of short scale guitars
- If you buy one thinking it will make you a better player you are likely mistaken. You might be a bit more comfortable though.
- If you need to switch guitars at the last minute because of loss or damage you might suddenly be playing an instrument that feels large
- There is a myth about the shorter string length diminishing power and projection (depends on design and our perception of what is loud vs what projects). I think this is generally not true. But it’s a consideration you’ll want to ask the specific luthier about.
- 640mm is almost no difference, go with 630mm instead if you want to see a significant difference
- Some luthiers (not all of course) may not have perfected the design of their small scales since they mostly build 650mms. Easy to solve problem, just 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
Douglass Scott Short Scales Guitars
Featuring my characteristic powerful, refined and noble concert sound, Scott Short Scale guitars are true concert instruments designed to suit musicians with smaller hands. To achieve the optimal fit to the player, this model is available in a multitude of scale lengths 613.5mm and longer.
quote source: scottclassicalguitars.com
below photo source: scottclassicalguitars.com
Marcus Dominelli on String Length
This is from an interview I did with Marcus Dominelli.
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
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?
Factory Short Scale Guitars with Solid Wood
- Review: Cordoba C10 Parlor Guitar. $1000-1200
- Review: Cordoba C9 Parlor Guitar. $800-1000
Do you play a short scale guitar?
Please leave a comment below letting me know about your experiences with shorter scale guitars.
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?
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 😉
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.
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.
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.
Thank you for your great post. I have been in search of a more comfortable guitar for many years. I initially looked for smaller scale guitars, but had a hard time finding one that was modestly priced. I decided to venture into the hybrid nylon guitar dimensions. A hybrid generally still has a 650mm scale length, but uses a 48mm nut width. This made a huge difference for me. But over the years with a hybrid, I realized that stretches were still a problem, and I was thinking the 48mm nut width was too tight in some situations where my fingers could dampen a neighboring resonating string. By chance, I discovered the Cordoba Dolce. It has a 630mm scale length and a 50mm nut width (verse a standard 52mm). I think if playing comfort is your goal, along with scale length, you should also look at nut width. The Cordoba Dolce, for me, seems to be this Goldilocks sized guitar. I cannot tell any difference in volume or bass output. I can tell a difference in string tension though. It seems I can really dig into these strings. I think that allows a greater variation in dynamics since I’m now varying power quite a bit when I dig into the strings. For me, I’m loving the tactile feel of a 630mm scale length. I encourage anyone who feels the classical guitar is uncomfortable to play to seek out different sized guitars. Classical guitars, compared to electrics and steel strings, are generally the largest guitars out there when looking at a combined scale length and nut width, so don’t feel bad about using a non-standard sized nylon guitar.
When I started playing guitar, my journey began on steel strings. The scale length of those guitars never bothered me because of their low action, radiused fingerboard, and narrow nut. However, when I started playing classical guitar, I noticed they were much more difficult to play. The small frets, wide nut, high action, and flat fretboards made it feel like I was wrestling a beast.
Most of the classicals I owned, I had them set with ultra low action because of this. Many teachers wondered why I did this. My logic was that if I can’t cleanly play a piece of music, then what’s the point in making the action higher, using higher tension strings or a longer scale length? It has gotten to the point where my preferred classicals are the ones that I can actually play!
Recently, I have just obtained a New World Player 640S. The scale length fits my hand perfectly (I’m 5’8” and I have “child hands”). I really regret not trying them out sooner. I use hard tensions strings and the guitar sounds fantastic.
Unfortunately, I really need a handmade, concert classical, and pre-built 640’s are extremely rare. Considering that the classical guitar market is over saturated with luthiers, I’m going to have to have one built for me without hearing what it sounds like.
For anyone who has a nagging feeling in the back of their mind about trying out short scale, don’t hesitate to do so. You won’t regret it.
Cory I am in full agreement with your comments. The only reservation i have is that I do not wish to make a commitment to pay a few thousand dollars to a luthier – I do not know any luthier tht will make a short scale guitar priced under $3000. – without ever listening to the sound of the instrument.
As a sideline comment: I found an old Harmony Classical Guitar – Model H175 – built in the USA
in the Torres tradition with hand-applied fan quality. All solid wood – Spruce Top with back and frame of hard maple with a Mahogany neck wide genuine wood marquetry inlays on headpiece of all places at a Goodwill Industries store. I paid all of $25. + sales tax. The scale length is 620mm and a Nut/Neck width of 45mm. In the Harmony Company Original Catalog description – the 1970 edition – this guitar was listed at a price of $135.00 Its playbility and sound after 44+ years is still better than any currently marketed non-luthier made short scale guitar I have played to this date.
I’m a man with just average sized hands. Until a couple of months ago I only owned 1 guitar, a standard scale (25.5″) electric archtop. I never had any complaints about how it plays, and in fact I just completely rebuilt the guitar with new hardware, new electronics and a fresh and optimal setup. I recently purchased a second electric archtop to practice with at my office, and was amazed at the reduced playing effort compared to my first guitar, even with the same gauge strings, same low action and ideal neck relief. I finally realized yesterday (duh) that the second guitar is a short scale instrument, hence easier with both chorded and single-string playing. The issue is, I just spent a great deal of time, effort and money in modifying and improving the “main” guitar: Do I simply sell it and replace it with a short scale? Or continue to play both and in a sense become “ambi-scalular” (is there such a word?) Is it considered detrimental to keep switching between the two scales, or will playing both make me a better player? These are the issues I’m now grappling with. The other issue is that I’m mainly a sax player, and just dabble in jazz guitar (self-taught) so I’m still very much a student of guitar in that sense– Am I doing myself harm in this way…? Should I just “pick a scale and stick to it”?
I personally wouldn’t worry about switching back and forth as scale length differences really only result in a mm or less between specific frets. However, depends on the person and how intense they want to be…
Ambi-scalular??, made perfect sense to me! I find that certain chords I want to use in my playing span four frets and for me, it’s serious finger gymnastics to grip those inversions. I play a 1978 M.G Contreras and I’m at the age where life is too short to play long scale guitars, I’m planning to have a 640mm made for me.
I have little hands, I play an Asturias short scale. (Purchased from Classical Guitar 20 or so years ago) Cedar soundboard and Indian rosewood body. Apart from being easier for me to play, This guitar has such a punchy, resonant tone, which makes it very distinctive from any other guitar I have played. Maybe not as powerful as other guitars but very musical and fun to play.
Can someone give me an example of what kind of stretches they find difficult on a 650 scale that are helped by smaller scale, such as the Kenny Hill smaller scale guitars, to help me assess my needs? I have studied off and on and am probably in grade 3-4 level in some areas, but not all. What repertoire pieces and passages, for example, are easier on smaller scale? I started on a 3/4 size in high school, not knowing it was such, and later played full size, except for crossovers with electronics like Cordoba GK Studio. I would like to know if I should seriously look into smaller scale, or keep the guitar I have, an Alhambra 8C. My left hand span measures about 7 inches from tip of thumb to pinky, and about 5 inches from tip of index to pinky. Thanks for any comments!
I wouldn’t say that stretches will be easier so much as more comfortable. For example the Weiss piece I play (https://youtu.be/sUUcSZSbvuk) has many stretches that are more comfortable on a small scale. I don’t think people will necessarily play better on a small scale but it might be slightly more comfy.
I have been hunting a sweet sounding smaller scale smaller body guitar for a while. This article is awesome! Thanks for coming up with this with notes from good builders.
I’ve been playing 650 scale classical guitars for years, but at 74 years old my arthritis began to create discomfort in my hands. A music store owner in Folsom, CA, suggested a 640 scale and found for me a Torres replica guitar made in Mexico by Francisco Navarro Garcia. I was suspicious that I would have to give up volume and perhaps tone quality. I was very wrong. It is the best guitar I have ever owned, and many audience comments have confirmed that. And it is easier to play. Perhaps it is the Torres design, the quality of craftsmanship, and/or the French polish, but going smaller certainly did not bring with it any disadvantages in volume or tonal quality.
Kenny hill player 640 is amazing !!!!Previosly owned a 640 Kenny hill almeria.At 73 years old and arthritic hands my next guitar will be an even shorter scale Kenny hill Player.
I play a Richard Prenkert 640 scale cutaway guitar that I just love! I’m a small, 61 year old woman, although my hands are medium size, and I find the smaller-scaled, somewhat smaller-bodied guitar much more comfortable to play than my previous guitar. My Prenkert guitar has plenty of power and the sound is warm and sweet, thanks to Richard’s amazing skills as a luthier.
I’ve been playing a Douglass Scott 613.5 for 2 years now. I love it. I am a 72 years old man, and my whole body, not just my fingers, is less flexible than it once was. I very much agree with what you say about the comfort of the shorter scale and smaller body. The instrument just feels like it fits me. The Scott is a very fine guitar, and I don’t worry about projection or feel any need to compensate for its size. I played the Vivaldi d major concerto with a local chamber orchestra this past summer and held my own, although the voicing of the ensemble was reduced to avoid drowning me out. Thanks for affirming the wisdom of various size instruments for people of differing needs.
Due to arthritis, I am keen to switch to a short scale (630 mm)classical guitar, and would prefer one with cutaway and pickup, but this combinations seems not to exist. Custom made (in Australia) is probably beyond my budget.
Crimean makes a 630mm single cutaway nylon string guitar with a pickup. It is the Sofia S63CW model. Sound and playability are very good.
Thanks for the tip. Did you mean Kremona?
I believe Kremona of Bulgaria makes a classical guitar by the same name.
I gotta say getting a shorter scale HAS made my playing better. I have very small hands and I think it is hard to imagine the difference it makes unless you do have very small hands. I had a 630 scale and now have a Kenny Hill 615 which has taken most of the struggle out of my playing.
Playing guitar for me is all about enjoyment. I’m an amateur and don’t care about someone in the back row of an auditorium hearing me. I have owned probably over 40 classical guitars over the years including Ramirez 1a’s and Rucks. The funnest (and one of the loudest) guitars I own is a $79 old Hopf (not Dieter Hopf) made in Germany in 1979. I got it on eBay just out of curiosity. It is 640 scale and has a raised fingerboard that bolts on thru the back of the neck. You can unbolt it and throw the pieces in a suitcase. It has a thick spruce top and I think old darkened mahagony back and sides. The action is unbelievable for a cheap discount store guitar. Even assembly line guitar makers can accidentally turn out a great guitar every now and then, and great luthiers can turn out a lemon now and then. My other favorite guitar is a 635 scale Torres model built by Darren Hippner for $2,500. Spruce top and birdseye maple back small body. We designed it from one of those Torres models listed in that Torres book. It is also a joy to play and very comfortable. I still own one Jose IV Ramirez 1a, which is a 650 scale and better than any 664 scale Ramirez I have played, and 2 Rucks that are loud great guitars, but not as fun to play as my shorter scale guitars. In summary, I think a person just has to own and play a lot of guitars and eventually come up with a few favorites that fit their size and need. I’ve seen grown 6 foot men with short stubby fingers and young girls with long slender fingers, so guitar scale is an individual thing and volume has to do with guitar quality and luck of the draw, and matching up the right strings, which is a real challenge.
What model was your Hopf guitar?
I don’t have a Hopf guitar. In this video I’m using a Douglass Scott: https://www.thisisclassicalguitar.com/2018-douglass-scott-classical-guitar/
I never knew there were different scale length guitars. My whole life I’ve been playing a Spanish 665 scale-length guitar and have always struggled. I am short at 5’1″ with very small hands. Now that I know there are small scale-length guitars, I want one. I think if I got a 620, it would make an enormous difference in my ability to reach certain passages in pieces I gave up on because the stretches were physically impossible.
Sandy, I was like you (I’m 5’2″) and never knew about different scale sizes… when I was a junior-year college student studying guitar in 1978, I bought a ’78 Ramirez 1a (664 scale).. I loved it, but it played, as my teacher said, like a 2 x 4… over the years I had a new nut cut to narrow the string spread, the back of the neck thinned a bit, and many years later when it needed re-fretting anyway, a new fingerboard with a slight radius. Still, as much as I love that guitar, it didn’t love me; I finally bit the bullet (at age 56) and had a 640 made. Never looked back. The smaller guitar helped my playing immensely. I still play the Ramirez from time to time, and can do better on it than I ever did before, but it gets very tiring very fast now. My hand may be a big bigger than yours, but going from 664 to 640 was huge. Try all the short-scale guitars you can!
In praise of small guitars, let me add:
Alicia Kopfstein-Penk wrote a PhD treatise on sizing guitars the way violins are some 20+ years ago, and thereby legitimized the short scale instruments in their own right not simply as cheap instruments meant for early stage kids, but as worthy contenders for the concert stage. She worked with a luthier (Duane Waterman) to build a real concert quality short scale instrument. Visiting with her was an eye opener. As a result, I play a Waterman 590mm scale with Aquila Sugar 3/4 strings and don’t miss a full size guitar. Today if I play badly, it’s all on me…. not the guitar!
The 590mm is roughly equivalent to a 23-1/4 inch scale in electric archtop terms – which Guild Freshman M65 3/4 and Gibson ES140 3/4 both made workable versions in this size as “beginner” instruments (I’ve seen current prices ranging from $ 1,500 to $ 5,000 for these highly favored collectors), but today Benedetto makes a real high quality archtop (the “Andy”) in the same size as well. Highly valued Gibson’s Byrdland (archtop) guitars ($10,000 to $ 35,000 on Reverb) at 23-1/2 inches (596mm) were played by many rockers (the late Ted Nugent) and jazz guitarists.
I’d add that a Classical in the 640mm size will seem an imperceptible change for the most part – simply relieving a little strain – but giving up nothing in sound. But if your frame and hands are small, a more significant move might be warranted. Alicia’s recommendation is to try a capo on the 1st or 2nd fret as a test. If you find yourself inside 625mm or so as a comfortable range, then you’ll likely find some 5 and more fret stretches a lot more manageable in the 1st position. The trouble with small instruments again is often that the build quality assumes that the intent is aimed at youngsters and done on the cheap and not adults simply needing a smaller guitar.
But if you’re willing to step up to a good quality small instrument, your struggle isn’t over. The next battle lies in finding strings that help the pursuit of tone and volume your high quality classical is capable of sounding. Again guitarists traditionally fought the “strings made on the cheap” standard for small guitars. No more. Serious strings are out there and improving slowly, but improving consistently as never before. The best I’ve found are:
1) Hannabach Kinder 3/4 and
2) Aquila Sugar 3/4
Hannabach doesn’t know how to make a bad string and these are fine – really as good as their standards. Though Hannabach does have other higher-end short scale choices, they don’t seem to be available for sale in the US due the German HQ’s more traditional view of the US market. But then Rob Mackillop’s pursuit of a sweet gut-string sounds led him to discover and publicize Aquila Sugars. While they didn’t fulfill his objective, his complimentary remarks made them worth a try, and the sound is just amazing to my ears, and gives back all the volume you thought you had to sacrifice. Stringsbymail now makes these available in the US and thereby saving the not-insignificant shipping costs from Italy. No free lunch, your less stressed out left hand will have to control string noise… but most will find that’s a good trade.
Finally, in praise of hand training as well, let me add:
The late, famed jazz guitarist George Van Eps to whom the modern 7-string guitar owes its origin and chord melody owes a great debt, writes about small hands and finger training in his widely praised (but seldom used because Volume 1 alone has over 300 intimidating pages) Harmonic Methods series which is really really focused on applying a variety of fingerings to train flexibility into the hands while teaching the fingerboard and harmony and a unique (annotated) way of using standard notation in lieu of tab that underscores the rich vein of his thinking about the instrument. Some of the best exercises EVAR! By the way, Van Eps was inspired to play guitar after attending a Segovia concert in the 1920’s.