Our resident tone expert, Stew McKinsey, continues his series: Factors in Tone. Learn more about how scale length and pickup placement influences your tone.
In this second piece in the “Factors of Tone” series, I want to focus on scale length and pickup placement. There’s been plenty written on this site about pickup design, and there will be more of that ahead, but for now let’s look at what happens when you change the span of a string and where along its length you put the things that convert its vibration into musical sounds.
As you increase the scale length, a string speaks differently. For a reference, let’s keep in mind what a 4-string P- or J- sounds like. This is typically a 34” scale and that is probably the most common version of the instrument recorded over the last several decades of electric music. This length allows for good warmth, character, detail and presence.
As you open up the scale, moving to 35”, 36” or more, the low end opens up. Instead of the fat sound that we think of as bass, you get more and more of the ‘piano-like’ quality where the low frequencies have more detail and clarity. This is a boon styles like prog and metal, but may not be necessarily the right quality for pop or soul.
Conversely, as the scale gets shorter, the sound becomes thicker and warmer. If you’ve ever had a chance to play a Mustang or any of the ukulele basses, the amount of low end they deliver can really shock you. The whole idea of tiny but muscular can mess with one’s brain, but there’s no denying what we all hear and feel.
So why do people make fan fret or multi-scale basses? There are actually a few reasons for this beyond the fact that they do look striking. With a longer scale on the bass side of the neck and a shorter scale on the treble side, there is greater clarity in the low end and more muscle in the highs. It also balances the tension across the strings better.
Similarly, where the pickups are located along a scale length has a far bigger impact on the sound than most people may realize. These rules here are simple, too: as the pickup moves closer to the center of the scale, the sound becomes fatter. As a pickup moves closer to the bridge, the more detail and focus it produces, but the less bass content it can reproduce.
This is a part of why a single pickup bass will have a different sound from one with a set of pickups. It’s also why the 60’s J-basses and the 70’s instruments have such different sonic signatures.
What all this means is that the number of things that play into what you need to think about in the way your instrument sounds may be more than you first thought.
In the next article, I’ll address the actual choice of pickups as they relate to a player’s style.