It may seem obvious, but not all guitars are built the same.
I’m not even talking about color, body shape, or aesthetics. I’m talking about size. The size of guitar you buy can depend on a number of factors and it has an impact on the feel and sound of your guitar.
To help you decide which size guitar is best for you, here is everything you need to know about guitar sizes.
Let’s start with what is common amongst all guitars. With the exception of the Steinberger guitars you saw in “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure”, pretty much all guitars have a head, neck, and body.
That’s as anatomical as it gets, I promise.
As you would guess, the head is at the top and houses your tuning machines. The neck is below it along with your frets and fretboard. The body is at the bottom and houses your sound hole/pickups, bridge, and tone controls.
All three parts serve to hold your strings in place so that you can play confidently and sound the way you want to sound.
How To Measure a Guitar
How exactly do you measure the size of a guitar?
One might think that measuring the entire guitar from the top of the head to the bottom of the body would be the best way. This is called the “Total Length”.
It turns out that this measurement isn’t very useful because of the wide variety of designs available for guitars. Consider headstock sizes as an example. Every single guitar manufacturer in the world is legally required to create a unique headstock shape. That is why you only see a Fender Stratocaster headstock shape on Fender Stratocasters.
While headstock shape varies in size and shape from one guitar to the next, it doesn’t affect playability much. Just because a 70’s Fender Strat has a huge headstock, and other guitars don’t doesn’t mean the smaller headstock guitars aren’t full size. Yet there can be inches of difference. The same can be said of neck and body shape.
Scale Length on a Guitar
The most effective way of measuring a guitar is by its “Scale Length”. Scale Length is measured from the bridge to the nut. This is a much more useful way to measure guitar size because it not only is a much more direct point of comparison from one guitar to the next, but it also affects the playability of the instrument, making it much more useful information to know.
Longer Scale Lengths result in tighter string tension, while shorter scales create looser string tension. This is especially apparent in extended range instruments like 8 string guitars.
In order for strings of different sizes to feel and intonate right, scale length has to be adjusted. Some guitars even use multi-scale designs to make the scale length longer for the low strings, and shorter for the high strings.
What Is A Full-Size Guitar?
Whether it be electric, acoustic, or classical, every style and manufacturer of guitar has a different standard design. This is why Total Length has it’s uses, but is not the best way to determine the size of a guitar.
The definition of a full-size guitar can be somewhat confusing.
Typically speaking, full size guitars have a Total Length of approximately 38” and a Scale Length of approximately 25.5”.
While this varies widely, any guitar that is close to these measurements would be considered full size. As guitars approach a scale length of 20”, they are more likely to be considered scaled-down guitars.
Other Guitar Sizes
There are four generic sizes that can be assigned to guitars: ¼, ½, ¾, and Full-Size. These sizes can be misleading, as they are not a perfect scale degree measurement.
Case Study: Full-Size vs ¾ Size
Before I was a full time writer and musician, I was a scientist in a microbiology lab. I’m going to use some of that old science training to compare a couple of my guitars.
My Martin 000RS1 is a full-sized sapele acoustic guitar, while my Baby Taylor is a mahogany ¾ size guitar. As much as I would like to own every guitar out there, I can’t, so comparing two acoustic guitars of different brands will have to do.
Despite the label of “Full Size” for the Martin and “¾ Size” for the Taylor, it is clear from the photo that this measurement system is not exact. However, you can see that the Total Length and Scale Length of the Taylor is indeed shorter than the Martin. You can also see that the fret length is shorter.
I wrote a complete post on 3/4 size guitars vs full size guitars where i go into detail about all the differences and things you need to be aware of.
Is a Scaled Down Guitar Right For Me?
There are a few things to consider, the first of which is how big of a person you are. If you are an adult, a full-size guitar will suffice under most circumstances. If you or the person you are buying for are smaller, then scaled down guitars might just be the right choice.
Buying a Guitar For a Child
Buying a guitar for a child can be rather tricky. For one, children grow quickly and can outgrow smaller guitars, so you don’t want to buy a guitar that is too small. You also don’t want to get them a guitar that is too big. You want to buy them something that is both comfortable and practical, that will ideally last for a couple years while they are learning how to play.
As I mentioned before, smaller guitars have smaller scale lengths. This is ideal for children or beginners because you are giving them smaller frets and looser strings. This makes fretting and bending easier while their fingers build strength. I would also suggest nylon strings, as these have a warmer sound and don’t hurt as much as steel strings can. There is also the added incentive that smaller guitars are less expensive, so even if a child outgrows the guitar, you aren’t going to be set back too much.
There are also options for little kids that reduce the number of strings, therefore reducing the neck width. My favorite is the Loog Mini Acoustic Guitar; a ¼ size guitar that only utilizes the smallest three strings. Not only is this guitar super cute and kid friendly, they are quite well built and sit at a price point that is perfect for seeing if your kid will stick with the instrument.
Having fewer strings makes the guitar more approachable while being a stepping stone to the regular six string guitar, as everything they learn is directly applicable to regular guitars. Compared to most other ¼ and ½ size guitars, I would be more likely to hold onto this one for its novel design.
A word of caution: whatever size guitar you decide, don’t buy a toy guitar. They are cheap but will not last or hold your kid’s attention past a couple weeks. There are solid options at affordable prices.
Here is a basic guide for the size of instrument you should get for your child based on age:
- ¼ Size: 2-5 years
- ½ Size: 5-8 years
- ¾ Size: 8 and Up
- Full-Size: 12 and Up
This is just a generalization. Just because someone is a certain age does not mean that they have to play a certain sized guitar. My first guitar was the Baby Taylor shown above, which was given to me by my father when I was twelve years old.
I was a smaller kid, so my dad rightfully thought that this would be a good start for me. I have now had that guitar for over 15 years and I still play that guitar on occasion, despite it being ¾ size.
Benefits of Smaller Guitars
Just because you are an adult doesn’t mean that you can’t play smaller guitars. If the build quality of the guitar is suitable for professional playing then you will find the following to be true.
Smaller guitars make fantastic travel guitars. There have been many times when I have packed up the back of my Subaru for a camping trip and found that a full-size guitar wouldn’t fit. Smaller guitars can also come in handy when your band is going on tour. Sharing space in a van or a trailer with other musicians can mean that compromises have to be made.
A smaller body means a smaller, focused sound. Often times full-size guitars can have bottom end and heavy mids that eat up EQ in a band setting. Not so with smaller guitars, which typically have a direct mid-range punch and chiming high end to them. Ed Sheeran is an example of an artist that uses a smaller acoustic guitar for this very reason.
Smaller Frets Means Big Stretches
That’s right! If you have smaller frets it is easier to grab complicated chords that require big stretches. It is also good for making large leaps while shredding out a solo. Paul Gilbert makes great work of this with his Ibanez PGMM31 Signature short scale guitar. It doesn’t hurt to have big hands, but if it’s good enough for him it’s good enough for me!
If you are a working musician you will know how hard having a guitar over your shoulder gets after 3 or 4 hours of playing time. Small guitars can be as light as 5 or 6 pounds. Give yourself a break and play a smaller guitar for a few songs, or the whole set!
Instrument for Recovery
The most revealing and exciting perk I found in my research on small guitars is the idea of using them for recovering from hand injuries. Whether it is carpal tunnel or a newly healed broken finger, working over smaller frets and lower string tension makes it more comfortable and possible to play guitar while recovering from an injury. Add nylon strings so as not to hurt your callus-less hands and you will feel like you never skipped a day of practice!
Why I Think ¾ Size Guitars Are Best For Learning
I learned how to play guitar on a ¾ size acoustic guitar. I may be biased, but I am convinced that ¾ size guitars are the perfect option for most players who are just starting to learn how to play.
First, the ¾ size guitar is small enough for children to play, but large enough for adults to play too. This means that investing in a ¾ size guitar doesn’t have to be a short-term investment. If you buy a good one, it can stick around for a lifetime.
There are some high quality ¼ and ½ size guitars out there, but the selection is nowhere near as great as it is with ¾ size guitars. I can’t help but think about the guitars I would see at Cracker Barrel or Toys R Us when I think about the smallest guitar options. These are toys, not instruments.
The reason for this is that manufacturers know children will outgrow small guitars, so there is little value added in making a high quality instrument for this age group. ¾ on the other hand are appropriate for children and adults, so the quality is built to last.
Even though the quality is solid, the price is still affordable. If my Baby Taylor were to get destroyed while traveling, I would be hurt because of the sentimental value, not the financial value. Getting a replacement would be easy and affordable. This is also why I choose to take it out on the road with me instead of my higher end full-size guitars.
Easier, But Still Challenging
¾ size guitars offer enough relief in fret size and tension to make playing easier, but they aren’t so small that jumping up to a full-size guitar is jaunting. This is good whether you are learning, recovering, or taking a break from full-size guitars.
Smaller Guitars Worth Buying
- Baby Taylor (Acoustic)
- Martin LX1 (Acoustic)
- Fender Music Master (Electric)
- Vangoa ¾ (Classical)
- Yamaha CGS102A (Classical)
- Hohner HAG250P (Classical)
- Protégé by Cordoba (Classical)
- Loog Mini Acoustic (3 String)
You may be asking yourself why guitar size really matters. I would argue that the most important aspect of guitar size is feel.
Even though the size of your guitar can certainly affect your sound, there are many ways in which tone can be altered to compensate. This is not the case with feel.
For instance, smaller guitars have a much different feel than their full-size counterparts. They weigh less. This can be either appealing or off-putting depending on your previous playing experiences.
Scale Length, and therefore string tension, has a huge effect on the way the strings feel underneath your fingers. Sure, you can change this by tuning your instrument down, but this isn’t always a practical solution. Maybe you have a band that would have to tune down with you. That won’t always pan out.
Balance is another aspect of guitar feel that changes from smaller guitars to larger guitars. Smaller guitars can sometimes get bottom heavy, as is often the case with shorter scale set neck guitars like the Gibson Les Paul.
Larger scale guitars can have what is called “neck dive” wherein the weight of the neck is greater than the body, causing the neck to dive down. This is usually only a problem in extended range guitars though. Whatever the case may be, the feel of your instrument is going to affect how you play and how you hold yourself on stage.
Choosing a guitar is a big decision, but if you know what size of guitar you are after, your options start to become much clearer.
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- A Comprehensive Guide for Mastering the A Chord
Davis Wilton Bader is a professional guitarist/writer based out of St. Louis, MO. He plays in the bands Lumet and The Outskirts.