The winter months are a great time to pick up a new skill, like learning to play the guitar. But if you are new to the instrument, buying the first guitar you see can inhibit your learning experience. In this case, size does matter when choosing a guitar.
To choose the right size acoustic guitar for you, first, learn how to measure a guitar. It is a common mistake to look at the total length while overlooking scale length. However, scale length dramatically affects how a guitar plays. Understanding those effects will help you find your best size.
Read on to learn more about measuring a guitar, scale length vs. total length, the various guitar sizes on the market, and how to choose what is right for you.
Measuring a Guitar
You cannot choose the right size acoustic guitar for you if you do not know how to measure one. So let’s review how to do so. In sum, you can measure a guitar in two ways: One method is measuring from end to end. The other important measurement is the scale length.
To get started, here is a breakdown of the three main parts of the guitar. I included a diagram from Guitar Gear Finder as a guide:
- The headstock (in green): The guitar’s headstock is where the tuning takes place. It also holds the strings in position to avoid pitchiness. Some essential parts of the headstock include the nut, truss rod, head, and tuning pegs/machine head.
- The neck (in red): The guitar’s neck contains the fretboard. Guitarists push down certain strings onto the fretboard to create different pitches and chords. This technique is fingering.
- The body (in blue): The bottom half of the guitar is the body, which contains several essential parts of the guitar. The bridge comprises string pegs that hold the strings in opposition to the nut. Furthermore, the body stores the soundhole, which naturally amplifies and adds resonance to the strings’ vibrations.
Measuring the Total Length
The total length of a guitar is straightforward. The term describes the measurement from the top of the headstock to the bottom of the body. You can determine total length by aligning a tape measure with the guitar strings and measuring from the tip of the head to the base of the body.
Take a second to refer to the diagram of various guitars that I displayed earlier. Notice how different their bodies look? This structural difference means a huge difference in total length depending on the guitar. Unfortunately, that means that the standard total length of a full-size guitar could be anywhere from 36 in (91.4 cm) to 40 in (101.6 cm). That’s a reasonably unreliable standard when evaluating what determines a ‘full-size’ guitar.
In sum, total length is affected by many physical characters that do not impact how a guitar feels to play, like headstock, for example. This discrepancy makes the total length an ineffective quantifier for measuring a guitar.
Measuring the Scale Length
Scale length, compared to the total length, is an arguably more reliable guitar measurement. Unlike the total length, scale length undoubtedly affects what a guitar feels like to play. This measurement is more specific and focuses on the length between the nut and bridge of the guitar.
It is essential to note that tape measuring from the nut to the bridge is not always the best way to measure scale length. Bridge length can vary between strings due to accommodations for intonation. Instead, I recommend measuring from the nut to the 12th fret and then doubling the number.
Ways That Scale Length Affect Guitars
Scale length impacts the playing experience significantly. Any minor changes drastically alter how a guitar feels to play. All of these changes relate heavily to string tension and how it changes your fingering. I’ll go over how scale length makes a difference below.
String tension is the primary factor that indicates a guitar string’s pitch. Less string tension results in lower pitches, whereas more tension raises the pitch. However, a string wound on a more extended scale requires more tension, or lack thereof, to affect pitch. That is why guitars with long scale lengths need more tension to tune up strings, while guitars with short scale lengths require less.
First, let’s address what string action is. A string’s “action” is the space between the guitar’s strings and the fretboard. This detail makes more of a difference than you may think. Too little action can result in strings vibrating against the fretboard, causing buzzing. On the other hand, too much action means more effort to push down the strings when fingering. The extra effort can make playing uncomfortable, especially when playing guitars with steel strings.
As it turns out, string action is directly affected by string tension. Strings with less tension lie lower, which means they need more space from the fret to avoid buzzing.
When accounting for no change in string gauge, a longer scale length increases string tension, which means that it is possible to achieve lower action without fret buzz. Conversely, guitars with a shorter scale length will require more action to play lighter strings without buzzing. It is possible. It is possible to play low action strings without fret buzz on a short scale length guitar, but only if there is a string gauge change.
If the scale length is longer, the space between each fret will likely increase proportionately. This change may not be noticeable to most guitar players. However, fret spacing can have a noticeable effect on your fingering if you have smaller or larger hands.
Scale Length and Its Relationship To String Gauge
Based on what you just read, you may assume that guitars with a high scale length have unmalleable high-tension strings. However, the scale length is not the only determinator of string tension. One can also adjust string tension by adjusting the string gauge.
String gauge refers to the thickness of the guitar strings. It gets measured in diameter by a thousandth (.001) of an inch. (or 0.00254 cm). For example, a ten-gauge string equals .01 in (or ten-thousandths of an inch) (0.0254 cm). The lightest string in the set defines sets of strings. For example, if the ten-gauge string is the lightest in a set of six, the whole set gets called 10s.
Different string gauges suit different music genres, with lighter gauges favoring classical music while thicker gauges serve hard rock. Pop music can take advantage of either gauge, depending on the song. String gauges affect tension and amplification power. Lighter gauged strings are more accessible to fingerpick, which works well in classical music. But heavier gauges provide more vibration and can tune down without sacrificing tension, suiting rock.
What’s vital to remember is that thicker gauges create more tension and lighter gauges generate less. Therefore, you can use a guitar with a different scale length without sacrificing your preferred tension. All you need to do is restring the guitar with strings matching your desired gauge.
The Different Sizes of Guitar
Now you should have a basic understanding of how to measure a guitar. While calculating the total length can provide some details, the best measurement is scale length since it affects playability. But what sizes of guitar are there, and what is standard? Here is a breakdown of the various guitar sizes you may come across.
What Is a Full-Size Guitar?
A helpful place to start is understanding what constitutes a full-size acoustic guitar. We will use this measurement as a reference point to describe the full-size acoustic guitar’s smaller counterparts.
Before going further, I should note that there is no definitive “full-size” guitar. Different types of guitars have varying scale lengths. Furthermore, even similar kinds of guitars differ in build when made by other manufacturers. I can, however, offer a general reference point.
A full-size guitar generally has a total length of 38 inches long (96.5cm) and a scale length of 25.5 inches (64.8cm).
How do you check if a guitar is full-sized? Focus on its scale length. If the scale length measures about 25 inches (63 cm), then it is full-sized. Even if the total length is much longer or shorter than 38 inches (96.5cm), it does not affect the guitar’s size as long as the scale length is considered full-sized.
However, if a guitar’s scale length is far lower than 25 in (63 cm), let’s say 20 in (50 cm), for instance, then it is likely a scaled-down guitar. Scaled-down guitars serve multiple purposes. Some scaled-down guitars get used for travel. However, scaled-down guitars can also help musicians with smaller hands or children.
Here is a comparison of a scaled-down guitar and full-sized guitar:
In this case, the scaled-down guitar not only has a shorter scale length but a shorter total length as well. These changes in size make a marked difference in how they feel to play. However, this is not to say that scaled-down guitars always have a shorter scale length. Some travel-sized guitars, for example, have a shorter total length while maintaining a full-length scale. So, while scaled-down guitar size usually corresponds to scale-length, the two are not synonymous.
Furthermore, you could compare two ‘full-sized’ guitars that are quite different in size. Dreadnought acoustic vs. Les Paul electric guitars are a solid example. Both have entirely different total and scale lengths, resulting in a different feeling when playing them.
Now that I addressed full-sized guitars, it is time to address how scaled-down models compare. There is a multitude of variations in sizes when it comes to guitars. However, the four standard sizes reflect four quarter-sizes of a whole full-sized guitar, as illustrated below:
I should clarify, the naming system reflects four quarters of a whole guitar. However, the sizes of these scaled-down instruments are not equivalent to their name-sakes. So, let’s go through one size at a time:
- 4 / 4: The 4 / 4 guitar is a full-sized classical guitar, as displayed in the above image. The following three sizes are scaled-down versions. The 4 / 4 generally has a total length of 38 inches long (96.5cm) and a scale length of 25.5 inches (64.8cm)
- 3 / 4: 3 / 4 guitars typically have a scale length of 23 inches (54.4 cm) and a total length of 36 inches (91.4 cm). This size is closer to ⅞ of a full-sized guitar than ¾.
- 1 / 2: A 1 / 2 guitar usually has a scale length of 23 inches (54.4 cm) and a total length between 33 and 34 inches (83.8 and 86.4 cm). In this case, there is only a significant change in total length. The scale length is similar to a 3 / 4 guitar.
- 1 / 4: A 1 / 4 guitar typically has a scale length of 19 inches (48 cm) and a total length of 31 inches (78 cm). Compared to a full-sized guitar’s specs, a 1 / 4 guitar has about ⅘ of its total length and ¾ of its scale length.
- 1 / 8: Yes, there is even a 1 / 8 guitar. The 1 / 8 is the most miniature-sized guitar available for children, with approximately 17 inches (43.2 cm) of scale length and 29 inches (73.7 cm) total length.
- 7 / 8: A 7 / 8 guitar suits young beginners or those with smaller hands. It is only an inch shorter in size than the full-size guitar (scale size of 24 in (61 cm) and a total length of 37 in (94 cm)).
I could keep going, but the main point is this: fractions get used to name scaled-down guitars. However, fractions do not accurately depict the sizes of scale length or total length.
Full-Sized Guitars Part II: The Variants
As I mentioned before, there are many different sizes of acoustic guitars. However, I was not only talking about scaled-down guitars. Full-sized guitars also come in a wide variety, respecting the various needs of the musicians who play them. Here are some examples:
- Dreadnought: The dreadnought is the classic acoustic guitar shape. This variant is well known for its big body, producing a lot of sound and abundance on low-end tones.
- Parlour: The parlour guitar lives up to its name of being a more travel-friendly guitar. Being the smallest full-sized guitar, it’s an instrument you can carry on-the-go to the parlor or pub to play a quick set. Parlour guitars are not as bass-driven as larger sizes but are not treble-heavy like their scaled-down counterparts.
- Auditorium: Auditorium guitars have a medium-sized frame but boast a heavy bass sound due to their body’s bulky bottom end. This guitar is excellent for smaller musicians seeking larger sounds.
- Jumbo: A jumbo guitar, as the name suggests, is one of the most giant full-sized guitars out there. And with big size comes even bigger sound. However, they are harder to carry around and manage because of their size. However, even smaller-bodied musicians may find the allure of a jumbo’s sound too good to pass up.
How Do I Choose the Right Size Acoustic Guitar for Me?
At this point, I am sure you know much more about acoustic guitar sizes than you did when you started. However, you probably never realized how many options there are, and that may complicate things. Plus, the question still stands: How do you choose the right size guitar? Now you know how to measure a guitar and the effects of scale and body size. The last step is to focus on your needs. Consider the following.
- Your physical body type: Sometimes, it helps when you pick a guitar size that suits your body, especially when first-learning. For example, adults with small frames may find a parlour guitar up to the task. In contrast, average to large-framed players are better suited to dreadnoughts. However, I would never recommend avoiding a guitar because of its size. If it speaks to you, then I say ‘rock on!’
- Skill level: Skill level matters when choosing a guitar size, especially for children. If you are a younger reader, consider starting with a 2 / 4 or 3 / 4 guitar. The youngest of children should begin with a 1 / 4 guitar. You won’t only benefit from the smaller body, but a shorter scale length that will decrease string action for easier fingering.
- Playability: I mentioned how scale length affects a guitar’s playability. However, there is no ‘correct’ feeling when playing guitar. Some musicians prefer more string tension while others prefer less. Always try a guitar before you buy it, so your senses can guide you to a confident decision.
- Sound & Musical Genre: Guitar sound varies by size, affecting the type of music it suits best. Differences in body and scale length also affect how much treble and bass sounds a guitar produces and what venues it can play effectively. I would suggest studying the musicians you idolize playing the type of music you wish to play, and see what size guitar they use. Also, trying before buying is a must. Let your ears be your guide!
In short, the right acoustic guitar size for you is different from anyone else’s because you have your own unique needs as a musician.
However, you will find yourself lost if you don’t know how to measure a guitar correctly. Scale length is critical to understand because it affects the way a guitar sounds and feels to play. Once you know what is out there, I recommend trying out your top choices to see if they stack up to your needs.