This article is about the differences between short and long scale bass guitars. If you instead are interested in the differences between 4 and 5 string bass guitars, you can view our article here. You can also view our article about learning bass guitar here.
If you are new to the world of bass guitar playing, you may not realize that there are two primary types of bass guitars: short scale and long scale. Although both types of bass guitars are legitimate instruments in terms of making music, there are some differences that you will want to understand, if you are looking to start playing bass and purchase an instrument, e.g. tone, playability, portability, etc. Let start by discussing the difference in scale length and how that affects tone and playability.
So, what is the difference between a short and long scale bass guitar? The primary difference between a short scale bass and a long scale bass is the string length. This difference in string length will affect tone and playability, and therefore is a personal preference for each bass player.
Let’s dive in deeper into the major differences between these two types of bass guitars.
#1 Scale Length
Let’s start off with the most obvious difference between a short and long scale bass: the scale length. Keep in mind, scale length is the length of the string measured from the nut to the bridge. Typically speaking, short scale basses have a string length of 30”, and long scale basses have a string length of 34” inches.
To give some perspective, if you are a guitarist interested in playing bass, the scale length of a Fender Start is 25.5”, and the scale length of a Gibson Les Paul is 24.75”. If you are a guitarist looking to transition into bass playing, a short-scale bass will be an easier transition based on scale length.
#2 String Tension
Scale length directly affects string tension and string tension has a primary role in affecting playability and tone. The principle of string tension is as follows: the shorter the string, the looser the tension on the string. The strings on the short scale bass will be looser than those on a long scale bass. Let’s see how that affects tone and playability.
Generally speaking, the shorter string tone will be less defined, rounder, “fatter”, “boomier”, etc. Conversely, the longer string will have a more “focused” tone and a more defined high end. Of course, these are subjective terms to describe the difference in tone. However, there is science to also explain the difference.
We won’t go into details here, but suffice it to say, it has to do with how overtones of the fundamental tone are different relative to different string lengths. If you have a guitar or bass, try this practical experiment. Play the E note on the twelfth fret, string six (string four for bass), and compare the difference in tone to the E played on the seventh fret, fifth string (string three for bass), you will clearly hear the tonal difference due to string length.
As a result of the shorter scale length, the frets on the short scale bass will be closer together. This has some big implications in terms of the difference in how the instruments can be played. Because the frets are closer together, chords, fast melodic riffs, string bending, and finger stretches are more easily accomplished on a short scale bass.
Also, due to the lighter string tension and closer fret proximity, if you have hand or wrist issues, or are simply prone to hand fatigue, a short-scale bass will be easier to play. This begs the question: If a short scale bass has all of these positive attributes, why is it that the long scale bass seems to be more popular?. This has a lot to do with history. Arguably, the most popular bass of all time is the Fender Precision bass or “P” Bass. The name precision was given to the bass because it used frets as opposed to the fretless upright bass. Therefore, notes could be played with “precision”. This bass became “the” go-to bass for all of the classic recordings, and record producers wanted this sound.
Also, the simple design of the electronics produced a consistent sound that musicians and producers were wanting to hear and reproduce on their records. This led to the P-Bass becoming the industry standard. There were short scale basses produced during the time of the P-Bass, but they tended to be looked upon as a type of beginner or student bass by the musical community. However, over time that changed with more and more prominent bassists using the short scale bass.
Another principal difference is the weight between a short and long scale bass. The long scale bass is on average four inches longer. Because the neck is longer, and therefore, uses more material, the weight of the instrument generally will increase. This can be important if you are standing for long periods of time while playing. It also is a factor when you are carrying the bass in its case.
The short scale bass is more portable than the long scale bass. Due to its smaller size, the short scale bass can be transported more easily, and will more easily be played in spaces that are small. There is less of a tendency of knocking over the priceless vase as you move in your playing studio with a short scale bass!
#7 Paul McCartney Played A Short Scale Bass
That is an important difference! Now, it seems that Paul’s choice of the Hofner 500/1 Violin Bass, which is a short scale bass, was due to financial reasons; the Hofner was more affordable than some of the “Pro” basses at the time. However, it can not be denied that the early sound of the Beatles is an iconic one having much to do with the short scale sound of Paul’s bass playing.
#8 Fender P-Bass Is A Long Scale Bass
Arguably, the most iconic bass is the Fender Precision Bass or P-Bass. First produced in 1951, you would be hard pressed to find a classic recording that did not use it. It became the industry standard sound for all recorded music. So much so, that on studio music charts, the title Fender would be used to designate the bass part. If you are looking for the classic bass instrument, the P-Bass is the one!
#9 String Gauge
Yes, there are different strings available for short and long scale basses. Of course, you can use long scale bass strings on a short scale bass; however, some specialized short scale bass strings have a thicker core to offset the lower tension of the short scale. Also, to offset the lower tension, short scale bass players many times use a higher gauge string than they would for a long scale bass. You can also experiment with flatwound or roundwound strings to really “dial in” the sound you are looking for. Generally speaking, flatwound strings will emphasize the mid and low frequencies, and roundwound strings will be brighter and more focused in the higher frequency range. If you are looking for that classic vintage bass tone of the past, try roundwound strings.
If you are just starting out, in terms of sound, you can’t really go wrong with either a short scale or long scale bass. However, you may find a short scale bass easier to start with, or a lesser transition from the guitar, due to its smaller neck length. If you are a bass player who is accustomed to playing a long scale bass, you may need to work a bit to get the same tone that you are used to hearing from your long scale neck, or adjust to the different tone of the short scale and develop an appreciation for its unique qualities.