Size Matters: A Roundup of Short-Scale Basses

Now that we’re well into the bass guitar’s seventh decade of popularity, it’s easy to take certain of its essential details for granted.
By Jonathan Herrera ,

Now that we’re well into the bass guitar’s seventh decade of popularity, it’s easy to take certain of its essential details for granted. But back in its nascent days, the instrument’s fundamentals were still in flux. Most builders agreed on the essential premise of the electric bass, but not on its execution. Yet, as Orwell (and many others) said, “history is written by the winners,” so it is that Leo Fender’s Precision Bass became the archetype for the breed. One of the Precision’s most mimicked design elements was its 34" scale, yet at its 1951 debut, the proper scale length for the electric bass was still up for debate. The early P-Bass competitors, like the Gibson EB-1 and the Höfner 500/1, sported finger-friendly sub-31" scales, but the Precision’s immense popularity marginalized the short-scale approach to where it sits today: a niche that’s often unfairly maligned for being more suitable for beginners and retro geeks.

That the short-scale bass is occasionally mischaracterized as being somehow less “pro” than a 34"-scale bass probably has more to do with the historic array of dubious short-scale options than it does the truth. Over the past several years, though, a new crop of builders has reenergized the short-scale segment, proving that scale length is just another variable in bass design that has nothing to do with an instrument’s real-world viability.

Before moving to the instruments, it’s important to understand what makes a short-scale bass such a different animal. First, let’s discuss terminology. Over the years, “short scale” has come to mean any bass with a scale length 31" and under, with the average being 30" or thereabouts. While it may seem insignificant, subtracting four inches from a bass string’s vibrating length has a profound impact on timbre and feel. Most obviously, the frets are closer together, meaning a short-scale fingerboard is almost too easy to navigate compared to a 34"-scale bass. Chords, long stretches, and other taxing techniques are easier to pull off thanks to the closer confines.

The timbre of a short-scale bass is unique thanks to physics. Beginning with Pythagoras’ ingenious insights into the effect of string length on pitch, a deep understanding of the behavior of a vibrating length of string has since emerged. Essentially, a string vibrates in such a way that the fundamental frequency of a note is accompanied by a series of overtones that are predictable ratios of that fundamental. The relative amplitude of these overtones is largely what gives an instrument its unique sound or timbre. When the length of a string changes, the character of its overtones also changes, resulting in a timbre shift. That’s why when you play an E on the 12th fret of the E string it sounds so unlike the E at the 2nd fret of the D string, despite their being the same pitch. If you compared the open E, let’s say, of 34"-scale and 30" scale basses on a spectrum analyzer (a piece of test equipment that visualizes the overtones), you’d observe a substantial difference, notably that the shorter-scale bass has lower amplitudes in its higher overtones. The result is a naturally thicker and less brilliant sound. For this same reason, short-scale basses (all other factors being equal) have a fatter sound than their 34"-scale equivalents.

The unique feel of a short-scale bass is not limited to its shorter length but also to the looser tension of its strings. When a short-scale bass is tuned to standard pitch, its strings will be looser in comparison to a 34"-scale bass with strings of identical mass. While the immediate impact is obvious under the fingers in the form of a slightly floppier feel, this also impacts a string’s attack, dynamic sensitivity, sustain, and tuning stability. Thankfully, most strings designed for standard-scale basses will work just fine on a short-scale, provided the bass is well designed and set up.

One great advantage of short-scales is their light weight and excellent portability. For the touring bass player or anyone bothered by the load a standard bass can put on a shoulder over a long gig, short-scale basses are an excellent choice.

Below you’ll find a guide to some of the best short-scale basses that are in current production, with approximate street prices. For the manufacturers that make several, I chose a representative instrument of the line. That doesn’t mean there aren’t great options on the vintage market, although many older basses tend to offer less sonic diversity than their modern alternatives. Regardless, it’s a boom time for short-scale basses. With top players as wide-ranging as Owen Biddle, Justin Meldal-Johnsen, Tim Lefevbre, Stanley Clarke, Jesse Murphy, Mike Watt, Paul McCartney, Allen Woody, and many more all favoring a short-scale on occasion, the message is clear: The only thing you lose with a short-scale is length.

ALEMBIC CLARKE STANDARD
$9,200
www.alembic.com

The pioneering Northern California boutique bass company Alembic has been on the leading edge of short-scale design for decades, starting with the modded Guild Starfire basses made for Jack Casady and Phil Lesh back in the late ’60s. While the luthiery has a list of custom options as extensive as any, it also offers a few standard models, including the Stanley Clarke signature bass. The Clarke Standard is just about as fancy a bass as you’ll find, with a gorgeous, bookmatched flame-walnut top, bronze and brass hardware, and a delicately carved body contour that screams expensive.

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BIRDSONG CORTO2
$2,150
www.birdsongguitars.com

Born in the Texas Hill Country, Birdsong basses are built to be lighter, shorter, better balanced, and easier-playing than standard-scale basses without sacrificing tone or playability. The company offers several models, and they share a 31" scale, passive electronics, 17.5mm string spacing, high-end parts, and an assortment of choice tone woods. The Corto2 is Birdsong’s J-style model with twin soapbars, J-style pickup spacing, and a rear-mounted control cavity.

BURNS NU-SONIC
$1,150
www.burnsguitars.com

The ultimate accessory for the discerning bass player of late-’60s London, England’s Burns Guitars still makes basses much like those it offered back in the days when mods and rockers were duking it out for hipness supremacy. Its Nu-Sonic bass offers a basswood body, Indian rosewood fingerboard, two groovy single-coil Nu-Sonic pickups, and a cherry red finish. There’s a famous picture of George Harrison playing a Burns Nu-Sonic on a Beatles session in ’66 because he couldn’t play Macca’s lefty bass. That should be endorsement enough.

CALLOWHILL OBS
$4,800+, depending on options
www.callowhillbass.com

If you’ve seen former Roots bassist Owen Biddle playing a strange-looking 6-string on TV and thought, Hmm … now that’s a big guitar, you were actually looking at a Callowhill bass. Philadelphia luthier Tim Cloonan makes some of the finest instruments available, no matter the scale length. His short-scale models were built and refined with help from players like Biddle, Tim Lefevbre, and Steve Jenkins, and they currently represent the state of the short-scale art. A builder with a fun aesthetic eye, his designs are blessed with sinuous curves and bold, impressive finishes.

EPIPHONE EB-O
$230
www.epiphone.com

Modeled after the legendary Gibson EB-O, the Epiphone edition is as old-school as it comes in its overall concept and approach. While its single Sidewinder “mudbucker” (so called because of its placement close to the neck) pickup might make it a one-trick pony, that one trick is just the ticket if you’re after a thick tone with maximum fundamental. Plus, at the price, there’s hardly a better way to check out what the whole short-scale thing is about.

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EASTWOOD AIRLINE MAP
$900

www.eastwoodguitars.com

Taking a page out of the Burns book of bass design, Eastwood’s range of instruments evoke (or duplicate) some of the most visually arresting designs of rock & roll’s early days. The Airline Map is modeled after the Valco National Map guitar, sold through Montgomery Ward from 1958–64. It’s available in black, striking seafoam, and white, and sports a chambered mahogany body, Alnico Hot-10 humbuckers, and a bound maple neck with rosewood fingerboard. It’s the perfect bass for gigs that require a maximum grooviness quotient.

FENDER PAWN SHOP MUSTANG BASS
$800
www.fender.com

Long a go-to for short-scale fanatics on a budget, the Mustang bass is one of Fender’s more eccentric creations. In “Pawn Shop” guise, it gets the hotrod treatment, featuring a “competition” racing stripe that looks especially good on the stock Olympic white finish. Unlike the original Mustang, the new version sports a beefy humbucker for added chunk. While it may not enjoy the massive popularity of its Fender cousins, it’s a legit axe in its own right with creamy tone and massive eye appeal.

GUILD STARFIRE
$1,520
www.guildguitars.com

Undoubtedly one of the most coveted short-scales on the vintage market, the iconic Guild Starfire is back in a mid-priced imported edition. The Handsome Gibson 335-esque body is semi-hollow and sports a Guild BS-1 BiSonic pickup, an unusually large single-coil that has a cult following among the tone cognoscenti. The laminated mahogany body looks good with the Indian rosewood fingerboard, while the simple adjustable bridge offers rosewood saddles that help take the edge off the tone.

HÖFNER IGNITION SERIES VIOLIN BASS
$338
www.hofner.com

Few basses are as distinctive and iconic as the legendary violin bass, thanks to a certain Liverpudlian who loved its light weight, small neck, and sweet tone. The Ignition Series leverages the low-cost of Asian manufacturing to offer a remarkably affordable take on the venerable classic. It has many details inspired by the original, including a spruce top, set neck, and flame-maple back and sides. And yes, it’s available in a right-handed edition, thankfully.

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KALA SOLID MAHOGANY U-BASS
$650
www.kalabrand.com

I know what you’re thinking, and no, I’m not trolling my own story. While the U-Bass is nothing like the other instruments listed here, it certainly offers a short scale and, most important, sounds just as capable as much more traditionally designed basses. Most every person that’s picked up a U-Bass remarks at the incongruity between the instrument’s big sound and tiny size. Kala offers many variations, but the solid mahogany edition is perhaps the most traditional. To amplify the 21"-scale bass, Kala uses a Shadow U-Bass Active EQ.

LANDING L1
$2,385
www.landingbass.com

Landing is a relatively new entrant to the scene that’s exclusively dedicated to short-scale basses. Its L1 model is available with various wood and finish options, Hipshot and Gotoh hardware, and pickups from EMG, Lace, Aero, or Bartolini. As finishing experts, Landing is all about working with its customers to achieve the look and feel they want.

MUSICVOX SPACERANGER
$900
www.musicvox.com

If you’ve fully embraced your quirky side, the short-scale Spaceranger could be just the ticket. Its retro-futuristic look screams ’60s, as does its vintage-style construction. The Spaceranger’s mahogany body supports two Musicvox special-design humbuckers governed with a volume/tone and 3-position switch circuit. The Kluson-style tuners and Tune-o-matic-style bridge round out the vibe-y look.

ROB ALLEN MOUSE
$2,400
www.roballenguitars.com

Southern California luthier Rob Allen has been steadily beating the short-scale drumbeat for over a decade, and his unusually beautiful basses are a testament to his expert craftsmanship. The Mouse is available in fretted and fretless models and offers a semi-hollow body, bird’s-eye maple neck, oil finish, Fishman Matrix piezo pickup, and a single bridge-mounted volume control. True to its namesake, the diminutive Mouse is a mere 5.5 pounds.