Welcome to Bass Gear Magazine’s Luthiers’ Round Table! As we have done in the past, with this column, we tap into the collective minds of some of the best luthiers on the planet. The Round Table Luthiers include (in alphabetical order): Sheldon Dingwall, Harry Fleishman, Vinny Fodera, Randall Wyn Fullmer, George Furlanetto, Mike Kinal, Kenneth Lawrence, Gerald Marleaux, Carey Nordstrand, Michael Pedulla, Roger Sadowsky, Pete Skjold, Michael Tobias, and Joe Zon.
Here is the question for this installment:
Q: What considerations do you give to the scale length(s) of your basses? What scale length(s) do you prefer to use, and why?
Michael Pedulla – I have experimented with my basses in 32”, 34” and 35” scales and have found that the 34” scale is best for my bass designs. The 5- or 6-string bass is not all about the B string; the object is to maintain the balance and feel between all strings. The simple scientific reason for a 35” scale is that the B string is thicker, and therefore requires the longer scale between the nut and bridge saddle to maximize the fundamental. However, by the same parameters, the thinner G and or C string require a shorter scale (like a 32” scale). To best visualize this, look in a piano and you will see that the “bridge” is angled so that the shortest string (highest pitch) is shortest, and progressively gets longer as the strings get thicker (lower pitches). The scale length also affects the tension and the focus of the fundamental on all strings, thinner or thicker. I found on my basses that the low B did not get any better (in feel, focus or fundamental strength) using a 35” scale, but it did noticeably affect the G string. Specifically, the bottom dropped out on the pitches in the upper register (less fundamental, thinner) and the instrument as a whole did not balance as well. The low B on my 5-string basses with 34” scale maintained balanced tension (feel), strong fundamental, and instantaneous focus (some string designs more than others), while maintaining a smooth balance across the fingerboard – which is also the consensus of the many professionals that use Pedulla basses on stage and in the studio.
Of course, there are many design features that contribute: the string design, the neck angle, the bridge; basically all the design and crafting of the instrument can make a difference in the outcome. There is no single design feature in any instrument that determines its sound qualities or playability. It’s a matter of how all of the details of design and construction are combined. After 42 years of experience, experimenting and field-testing my bass designs, I’ve found that the 34” scale provides the best results.
Harry Fleishman – The first bass I designed and built in 1969 was a 34”-scale EUB that I could play on a strap while dancing around. When I opened my first legit shop in Denver (in ’75), I didn’t make anything but 5-string, fretless basses for the first few years. That was the mid-70s, and I went to 35” for a couple of reasons. The first was that the low B sounded more solid to me at 35”. The second was that the upper notes sounded good to me, as I liked the “zizz” in the high notes. Third – perhaps most interesting to me, intellectually – was that when I started out making EUBs, I noticed that the muscles and tendons of the left hand gave a teensie bit more range of movement in the upright position than the horizontal. This is easy to test. When I did rough calculations, it seemed to be about 3% or so, which translated to approximately 35”, which seemed to make 35” feel more “normal” for bassists making the transition to EUB. Since I hadn’t seen any EUBs with an “electric bass” scale, this seemed like a good idea (and still does). The left hand fingerings felt the same as they had for one transitioning to vertical playing. However, no one made an electric, flat-wound, 5-string set for my basses (which I hadn’t even thought to check!), until GHS agreed to make me ten sets custom, which I appreciated greatly.
Around 1977, I made a multi-scale bass with a 33”-35” range of scales. I didn’t invent this idea; it was patented in 1900 by E.A. Edgren (along with micrometer tuners!) and showed up on a drawing from the 17th century of an Orpharion. I came to the idea from a friend’s invention of a tapping instrument called a Starrboard, which had 24 strings in half-steps, and 24 frets in half-steps. Stringing and tuning it was problematic with one scale length, so we brainstormed and went with, as I recall, 26” for the high end, and 32” for the low strings. Once the idea came, it seemed like a logical thing to do it for a bass to give the lows more “oomph” and highs more “honey.” I’ve made mostly multi-scale basses since the early ‘80s, although I’ve used 34” for most basses I designed for other companies, and 35” for the Jackson AntiGravity bass I designed for Fender.
Since everything I build in my shop is a one-off, so many other factors come into play that I cannot honestly say I have strong feelings about what works best or how it affects the overall voice. It’s a pain in the ass, but I seemed to gravitate toward the multi-scale (33.5” to 35”), and mostly fretless. But even I don’t think multi-scale fretless is easy to play…
I have attached a photo of the newest AntiGravity: Flamenco Bass, which is a multi-scale fretless, weighing in at 4.5 lbs.
Randall Fullmer – Since I’m a custom builder, I’m willing to work with each customer on a whole variety of issues, one of course being the scale length. The factors that go into it for me are the customer’s preference, his or her ergonomic comfort level, matching scale lengths to other basses that they’re currently used to playing, the string count and the genres of music that they play.
I have built 31”, 32”, 33”, 34”, 34 1/2” and 35”. I completely agree with Michael Pedulla on his point that the scale length is just one of many factors that end up contributing to the overall playability and tone characteristics of a bass. Setting the ergonomics and comfort level aside for a moment, the tonal characteristics of the bass have led me to different preferences. For a 4-string, I have concluded that 34” is perfect. EADG just feels and sounds best to me at 34”. I have made many 5-strings at 34 1/2”. It feels a perfect compromise between a slightly more taught low B and not quite the reach of a 35” bass. I also like the sound and overall playability. Having said that, I’ve made many 35” and many 34” 5-string basses, as well. Tonally, the 34” 5-string has a slightly rounder and more raw and expressive tone to me than with a 35” scale. The 35” is slightly more pure on the harmonics, but gets ever so slightly more sophisticated and clinical in character. Words really fail at this point for me, but there is a definite character change in going to 35”, for me.
But on a 6-string bass, I love to go to 35”, especially if the player will be doing lots of chord comping in the upper register. There is a more piano-like sound to a 35” 6-string bass; a clarity and distinction. For 6-string jazz and classical playing, 35” is it, for me.
In terms of going with shorter-scale lengths and keeping a taught low B, I also have drilled through the body at the bridge and installed ferrules in the back, so that the bass can be strung through the body. This can add at least an inch to the length of the string and can improve the low B, keeping it nice and solid on a 34”, or even a 33”. I have also switched the string order at the headstock to allow a longer throw to the low B and E string. There are many things that one can do to insure a solid B on a shorter-scale bass.
Ultimately, there aren’t too many “correct answers” when it comes to scale lengths. There are preferences and solutions to try to make those preferences the best they can be. Those are my thoughts … and now, time to go cover myself head-to-toe with sawdust!
Roger Sadowsky – I am 100% with Michael Pedulla on this one. I only build in 34” scale. Of course, I have experimented with 35”, but for my basses, I do not find 35” makes a better B string than 34”, nor does through-body stringing. Like Michael, I do not like the sound of my G string at 35” either, especially in the upper register. So for me, it is 34” for everything. I understand the attraction of longer and shorter scales to some, but I can’t do everything! 🙂
Pete Skjold – The first basses I ever made were 35”-scale, and at the time (early to mid-90’s), it was a real buzz. It got a lot of positive press and was a cutting-edge concept that many high-profile builders adopted as standard scale length on their basses. Most notably to me was Modulus Graphite. On my basses, it did make the B string more piano-like, due to the lack of overtones and the fuller fundamental. I was happy with the overall feel and tone, as well. Over the next several years, I got players asking me if I could do 34” and even 33”. Much of this was due to the way the 35” scale affected the higher strings, especially the high C string of a six. I did a 34” as a fluke, and it came out so well, I totally had to adjust my thinking. The B string had more quality to it at the shorter length – meaning more harmonic content, which made it actually a bit louder with the initial attack.
As I started making basses for players like Damian Erskine (who spent a good amount of time in the upper register and played 6-string), I was pushed to get the higher strings to have as much depth as the lower notes. One of the ways I did this was to go to 33” scale, which totally opened up the higher register, and once again, the low B was full and present. But as the scale length decreased, I could hear more overtones develop, and this is why I have made my standard scale length 34”. This is “home base” for the average player, but I still have players who benefit from 35” and 33”, depending on their playing style and genre. That is a whole other can of worms. So for me, I use 34” as my go-to, and the 33” for players spending equal time in the upper register. I love 33” for fretless, especially when there is a high C string present. There are builders going to 30” now, and it is amazing some of the results I have seen with them. I have thought of trying a 30”-scale for fun and I am interested to see what results I get. The one thing that keeps echoing in my mind, though, is, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Michael Pedulla and Roger can attest to that! And then again, you have Sheldon Dingwall, LOL! Can’t wait for his response!
Sheldon Dingwall – I can’t make up my mind, so I use as many scales as possible – often on the same bass, LOL! I also found a longer G (and especially C string) was too tight and too thin-sounding for my liking. For the G, 34” works great, as does 32”. I’ll admit that the difference between those two scales on the G is subtle. However for the C string, going shorter (in our case, 33.25”) does make a pretty noticeable difference.
My comments from here on are limited to our fanned-fret basses with our strings (or Kalium, in the case of F# or E0 tuning), and for the most part are focused on the B and E strings. For live work and dense mixes, I prefer our longer scales. They just have a tighter, more controlled bottom end. For us, it’s less about the fundamental and more about the 2nd and 3rd harmonics. The 2nd and 3rd harmonic make up a large part of the note, and especially on the lower strings are the easiest to reference pitch from. On the B especially, they are the part of the note that I feel cuts through the mix and brings out the articulation. On lower-pitched strings, longer scales and optimized strings help keep the 2nd and 3rd harmonics closer in tune with the fundamental. Distortion and time delay effects are less smeared and messy when the 2nd and 3rd harmonics are tighter and more in-tune. The extra scale length and tension are less affected by heavy attack, helping reduce how much the pitch pulls sharp, initially. Lastly, as you play further up the neck on the lower strings, a longer scale length and optimized strings help reduce 2nd and 3rd harmonic pitch modulation (warbly, steel drum-like tone).
Michael Tobias – I have done many different scales over the years, the shortest being 30”, and some experimentation with scales as long as 42”! That one was for Chris Squire… He wanted a low B, but as a 4-string, and wanted to capo the 5th fret, so he could have a normal 4-string. Fun, but a really long neck! For the most part, we do 35”-scale basses. I like the low B at that length, and the high strings, because while they are a bit tighter than a 34, I don’t believe it gets in the way. Our 34” is has a most respectable low B. We are making more 34” of late, mostly in the Saratoga series, and some regular 5’s and 6’s. We only manage a few 4-strings per year, and they split 50/50 34 and 35.
We offer a 32” signature bass for our artist Lynn Keller that has a 16mm spacing. We started making 30”-scale basses this year, and I was very surprised at the quality of the low B on the prototype we made. LaBella made us a set strings designed for a shorter scale, and while the tension is lower overall, the low strings are excellent and the high strings are nice. I try to cater mostly to our customers’ needs, so after consulting with them, we build what suits them.
Mike Kinal – I have used many different scales over the past 40 years on a number of solid-body and acoustic instruments. Generally, I get most players requesting 34” for 5-string basses, with the occasional 35”. Most players that move to a 5-string have spent a number of years on 34” instruments, so to add another string with the same fret spacing comes natural. Many of these players also like the tension of the strings on a 34”. I introduced a 30” compact bass which is acoustic that has become fairly successful with players in small musical settings. These basses are generally 4-string. First and foremost, I listen to the player’s wants and needs; if asked, I will give my input from my past experience.
Gerald Marleaux – We have built many different scales in past, like you guys, also. Our last big project was a 40”-scale 4-string, tuned BEAD one octave down (low B at 15.3Hz). The strings were special made (2.45”-gauge for the B). That is very, very deep!!! Our Soprano model is built with 22.5” scale. On longer scales, like 35”, I like how the B string performs sound-wise, but playability sometimes gets lost. Plus, the string action needs to be bit higher, mostly.
For the G string, I have had better experience with shorter scales, like 34” and 33”. It gives more bottom and the tone is stronger … the same as some of the other luthiers have experienced. Most basses we build employ a 34” scale. For me, it’s the best solution for great playability and balanced sound. The playability on 33”- and 32”-(or less) scale basses is very great and easy, but you have to take care for the right construction in combinations with wood choice. It’s not only different scale length that matters!
George Furlanetto – The introduction of the low B on basses completely changed the design thinking for scale lengths. To accommodate a better sounding B, I went to a 34.5” inch scale, but found the higher strings a little thinner-sounding than the rest. So in conjunction with our string manufacturer and Alain Caron, we experimented with differing string gauges, windings and cores to achieve a balanced feel and tone for all six strings. To attain a better tone and feel, we developed both the bass design and string design at the same time, for the best result. Our BN series remains at 34.5” – still a comfortable length to avoid hand strain.
Our vintage series, on the other hand, remains at the standard 34”, for the player who retains the muscle memory and feel of vintage instruments. We have made custom instruments in 33”, 32”, 30”, and as short as 29”-scale, at which point we design as long a string length as possible for the B and E strings.
Fodera – As you know, much of our philosophy (at least with regards to our Custom instruments) revolves around what the player wants, not what we think is “best.” It is this attitude that resulted in our enthusiastically working with Anthony Jackson back in early 1980’s on the development of his 36”-scale signature contrabass guitar, then with Matthew Garrison in the 1990’s on his 33”-scale signature instrument, and again with Matthew two years ago on an updated signature instrument that is just 30.75”-scale. In recent years, we have made it a point to limit our custom bass builds to scale lengths between 30.75” and 36”, because, to us, these represent reasonable endpoints outside of which certain trade-offs start to outweigh any potential benefits – at least as far as building “bass guitars” is concerned.
Although we offer literally any scale length between 30.75” and 36” in our Custom program, for our Standards – basses where we control the specs, entirely – we have chosen to build using 34”-scale. 34”-scale represents a very good “middle ground” where sonics, playability and feel are all well-balanced. It also doesn’t hurt that Leo Fender made this scale length a de facto “standard” all the way back in the early 1950’s when first developing the electric bass. Because of this, virtually every bass player has at least some familiarity/experience with a 34”-scale bass guitar.
Among the three of us, Jason plays 34”-scale, Joey plays 35”-scale and Vinny plays guitar (25 1/8” and 25 1/2”-scales, if you must know!). Finally (and hopefully interestingly), we will leave you with a list showing the percentage that each scale length we built between September 1, 2016 and August 31, 2017, represented of the total number of basses that we completed.
Kenneth Lawrence – Like many of us, I have also experimented with longer scale lengths, but also like many of us, I returned to 34” as my most common scale length – with 33” as my second most common. Many of us were weaned on Fender basses, so the 34” scale feels and sounds like “coming home.” Plus, it just works! I do also love the 33” scale, and I’ve found its low B not lacking at all, and it doesn’t lose the inherent character of the rest of the strings, as long as you pay attention to the pickups, pickup placement, strings, etc. As Mike Pedulla eloquently stated, there are myriad factors involved in each of our recipes, so it can be a little misleading to isolate just one factor/feature and characterize its influence. My approach leans towards a more “organic” sound (you can call it “woody,” or “acoustic,” or whatever) at its core, and I’ve found that the 34” and 33” scales help me to stay in that ballpark and still have good clarity and tambour in the low B and E strings.
One of my main approaches in working on my designs, etc., is satisfying the player in myself. I still play 10 to 16(+) gigs and sessions a month, and I want my instruments to feel a certain way on my body and respond in certain ways to my hands. As we all know, a bass (especially) will feel, sound, and behave differently in different rooms and different musical situations. Having experienced many of these, personally, has been a huge help in my work on my instruments. That said, my personal 5-strings are 34” for my fretless and 33”-scale for my fretted (both are a chambered, single-cut design).
Joe Zon – We use 34” scale on all our basses. Players’ ears are accustomed to the tonality a 34”-scale exhibits, and it’s a comfortable scale length to play. A while back, we offered 35” scale on some models to accommodate player request, but found it made the voice of the instrument too bright and edgy. Due to our neck design and construction, the 34” scale functions extremely well, providing a balanced tone from note-to-note across the fingerboard in harmonic structure, clarity and articulation. String tension is also familiar to the hand, as well.
More recently, we’ve been building some basses having a 32” scale with excellent results. It took a bit of doing, but we managed to get the B string to have the same focus and projection as it does on the 34” scale. It’s a bit more fun to play because of the smaller distance between the frets. Interestingly, many of the 35”-scale die-hards are now requesting 32” scale to help alleviate their carpal tunnel and rotator cuff issues.
Carey Nordstrand – I’ve been all over the road with scale lengths. When I started out, I was really all about 34.5” scale as the perfect length for a 5-string bass, combining the definition of a longer low B and not making the G string too thin. [That’s what my hero George F was doing on his basses.] It seemed to work really well and also it was something a little different for a J-bass back then, so it helped us stand out a little bit. I still think it’s a very good all-around length, but as a player, I’m personally very much into 34”, these days. It just feels so much more like “home.” I’ve also been playing 4-string a lot more these days, and 34” is really the only option, there. Over the years, I’ve also done 35” 5- and 6-string basses. For me, they feel quite big and I tire easily while playing them. If I actually practiced and built up some chops, that wouldn’t be an issue, but I’m pretty busy these days, so that’s a tough haul. The more open piano-like tone is not really what I’m after, either, so that’s kind of a put-off, too. I’ve also done 33”, 33.5” and even 32” basses, on occasion. I really like these shorter scales for a couple reasons: 1.) when set up right, they are super easy to play (see my issue with practice time above); and 2.) they tend to have a fatter, thicker sonic character, depending on the pickups and preamp.
I personally don’t currently own a bass with a scale length longer than 34”. And I really don’t feel like I’m missing anything in my live jamming situation, or my very wide-ranging work in my studio. That said, lots of players are happier with the longer scales, and they work beautifully for them. Maurilio here in my shop is making his own line of basses, and his 35”-scale is just perfect for that instrument and his hands. In the end, I say to each his own.
BTW, if you’re curious to hear what my playing and tone ends up like in a track, please check out my recently released album at www.mobajones.com.
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Editor-in-Chief, Tom Bowlus, surprised his parents by riding home from grade school on his 10-speed with an upright bass. Thus began a life-long love of all things bass… After writing reviews in 18 issues of Guitar World’s Bass Guitar Magazine, Tom founded Bass Gear Magazine in 2007. If there is one thing Tom loves more than playing all kinds of cool bass gear, it’s telling people about cool bass gear!