Do you play in drop-D, or other alternate tunings? Do slack strings and bum notes get on your nerves? Do you have giant fat fingers and curse your guitar? Maybe your puny weakling digits can't take the pressure. You might find some answers to your problems after reading about scale length.
Science is for nerds! Most guitarists I know aren't much interested in the science of guitars. If something feels right, it just feels right, and that's why some players have loads of guitars for different purposes. But what if you don't have the luxury of a big collection? Or maybe you're just thinking about starting, and you're a terrible procrastinator. Read on, and maybe you'll discover what's best for your needs.
Let's consider two well-known guitars, a Fender Tele and Gibson ES330. Set them up with the same gauge strings: .010" - .046". Measure the treble E string from nut to saddle, and you'll get this:
Fender: 25 ½"
Gibson: 24 ¾"
That's only ¾" (19mm, or 3%) difference in length, but it's enough to affect string tension, which affects yer wee fingers. In the world of non-Trump science, a .010" E string on a Fender requires 16.2 lbs of tension, where the Gibson needs 15.25 lbs.
Let's move to the other side of the fretboard.
With a Tele in standard tuning, the .046" bass E requires 17.5 lbs of tension, where a Gibson needs 16.45.
Consider your own anatomy: if you have sausage fingers, a short scale could mean you have a harder time with accuracy where the frets get closer together. The upside: strings are easier to bend. On the other side of the coin, if you have tiny Trump fingers, a Fender scale might impede your guitar-god mega-chords.
If you're a nerd, and also into alternate tunings, keep reading. If not, skip toward the end…
Let's say you're using a Tele in drop-D. That E-string tension drops from 17.5 pounds to 13.9. The string feels floppy, and sounds out of tune. If you want to keep the guitar in drop-D permanently, you might consider a .052" string at a tension of 17.4 pounds, closer to the original .046" E tension. Your dropped D will hold a tune better.
Same drop-D scenario, with a typical Gibson scale of 24 ¾": the .046" E needs 16.45 lbs of tension. Drop it to D and it becomes 13.06. Again, if you want to keep the tuning in drop-D, you might go for a string with a unit weight of 0.0004813 lbs per inch… which by my calculations is damn close to that .056" string mentioned above.
If that's a blur (or if you don't believe it) check out D'Addario's website . They have a comprehensive chart of string tensions and a formula for calculating them.
**( Micro-science alert : the bass E on any scale will be slightly more than the stated scale because of intonation compensation.)**
OKAY, THE BORING STUFF IS OVER
If you want easier action in standard tuning, go for a shorter scale. If you want to play in E-flat, using a longer scale will mean the strings aren't quite as loose as they would be on a shorter scale. If you want to play in a really low tuning, use a thicker gauge (and get the nut altered appropriately). If you've got hot-dog fingers, go for a long scale. If you have corn-nubs, play short. If you're still procrastinating, visit Cash Converters and buy a cheap banger to get going.
And if you're a massive nerd, check out the links below to cram loads of useful factoids into that bulging brain of yours.
But most importantly of all, spread the love. Visit me and I'll fix up your broken guitar stuff.
When this Gretsch Tennessee Rose came in, its owner said they were having a hard time loving it. But why? It's magnificent! A Gretsch like this is synonymous with Brian Setzer, George Harrison, and Poison Ivy. When you pick it up you want to play like them… But… this Rose is actually a bit of a weed.
Every guitar needs a setup from time to time. A guitar might leave the factory with a decent setup, but sooner or later it'll need to be adjusted for its owner. Guitars with a long working life suffer age effects just like us. Over the years, wood can shrink or swell, and different owners make adjustments to suit their own playing styles. One magical day you bring home the vintage guitar of your dreams, but after the elation fades, you realise it's uncomfortable. Chances are it needs a setup.
A typical setup is a cocktail involving string height, neck relief (truss rod adjustment), and intonation. But to get your guitar playing just right, it might also need some nut work, fret dressing, or even a refret. What about the electrics? Jack socket, pots, switches, pickups, grounding schemes… all these things need to be in good condition if you want your guitar to be gig-ready, because playing a dodgy guitar on stage is... I'll stop before I curse that sort of thing.
As a guitar tech, my job is to ensure other people's guitar stuff is ready for gigging and recording. To me, a guitar setup doesn't end with playing action – it means getting the guitar in overall good shape. That's why I say setups start at £30.
Some guitars are quicker to get gig-ready than others. But here's a rough guide:
new, well-made & maintained guitars – £30 to £40 plus strings
old beaters with a chequered past – maybe up to £80 or beyond, plus strings and replacement parts.
So what about the original question How do you set up a guitar? Here's a vague answer: You do all you can to make it play great . But if it looks like it's going to be a lengthy process, and you're pressed for time or money, You do what you can to make it...okay .
The next question you might ask me is Can youdo all the things to make a guitar play nice? I can do many things, but here are some things I don't do:
• refrets (not yet anyway)
• acoustic crack & body repair
• acoustic neck resetting
• straightening a warped neck
Some of those processes require special tools, environments and techniques.
But...most guitars that come to me are in decent shape, so chances are I can set yours up.
So what are you waiting for? Get it in, get it playing well.