Q: “What’s the difference between a long scale bass and a short scale bass?”
A: In the context of guitars, bass guitars and other string instruments, scale length refers to the distance between the bridge and the nut, not the length of the neck. What we call ‘long scale’ basses have become more or less the standard scale length for basses, thanks to Leo Fender and the Precision Bass he introduced in 1951. But while the 34″ scale is now the standard, it wasn’t always so. In the early days of electric basses, a number of Fender’s competitors, including Gibson and Hofner, along with a number of lesser known builders, sold basses with shorter, more finger-friendly scale lengths. In general, short scale basses have string lengths less than 31″.
The first and most obvious reason to use a short scale bass is physical size. With their shorter necks, less distance between frets and more compact general dimensions, short scale basses are a good choice for young players and anyone challenged by the extra reach a long scale instrument requires. Although many bassists find the closer spacing of the frets more comfortable to play, for various reasons (sound not the least of them), long scale basses have remained more popular since the introduction of the first Fender Precision Bass in 1951.
In the 1960s, short scale basses were more popular than they are now, but many of those instruments were cheap student models with narrow string spacing and poor tone. As a result, bassists got a bad impression of short scale instruments and moved on to ‘pro’ basses – like Fenders.
However, many studios pros have long known a secret about the sound of short scale basses. The shorter strings demand lower string tension to be properly tuned. This gives the strings a kind of soft and floppy feeling but it also creates fatter, “blooming” low notes and what musicians perceive as sweet upper notes. So while long scale instruments were more common in professional settings, short scale basses didn’t fall completely out of use.
Short scale basses have a different tonal character than long scale basses, and here’s why: Each note played on a bass includes a series of harmonics that are predictable ratios of that note. The relative volumes of these harmonics give the instrument its unique sound. When the string length changes, the character of those harmonics (and their volumes) change. With shorter string lengths, the higher harmonics have less volume, which results in a thicker, darker tone than a long scale instrument.
The feel of a short-scale bass is due not only to the string length but also to the looser tension of its strings. If you tune a short scale bass with a ‘normal’ set of bass strings, the strings will have a lower tension than the same strings on a 34″ scale bass. This will give the strings a ‘looser’ feel, and also impacts the instrument’s attack, sustain, and dynamics. But many string manufacturers make short scale bass strings that respond more like standard strings on a long scale instrument.
A number of companies are making great short scale basses, including Lakland, Hofner, Epiphone, and yes, even Fender. Give ’em a try; while long scale basses are more common, they aren’t inherently ‘better.’