The length of the neck on a bass guitar is one of those curious variables that make the bass such a varied instrument. You don’t hear of long scale or short scale violins do you? Ok, now I’m worried incase someone comes out of the woodwork to prove me wrong! I’m no expert on violins, so let’s stick to bass!
Scale length refers to the length of the vibrating bit of the string (from the nut down to the bridge). Despite the general metrification of the world, it is usually measured in good-old inches, with 34 inches being the most common scale length for a bass. It hasn’t always been that way. Back when I first started playing bass, it wasn’t uncommon to find short scale 30 inch basses in music shops, as well as the occasional medium scale 32 inch bass.
The long scale 34 inch bass dominates as the standard these days for a range of reasons. A longer scale length means higher tension and/or thinner strings can be used, generally producing a better tone. Intonation is also less tricky at longer scale lengths (keeping the bass in tune across different notes). 5 string basses are often made in the slightly longer 35 inch scale length. This helps to keep the low B from being too flabby and gives a punchier sound in the view of many.
It was probably Overwater who first pushed things further, introducing the 36 inch scale, and today the longest scale length I know of in production is the Dingwall fanned-fret bass, which has a scale length of 37 inches, but only on one side of the fretboard! A longer scale length also means more space between each fret (read: bigger finger stretches for octaves and the like), which is why many players like to stick with a 34″ scale.
Think of those on upright bass, where a 41″ scale length is very common. Of course it is a different playing style, but you can see why double bass players user fingers 1 and 4 for playing octaves – you need that reach. Which length is best for you? Well, if you have extra-big hands, the world is your oyster. If not, then sticking with a 34″ scale probably makes the most sense. It gives a broad choice of basses. That said, if you are in the 5+ string club, check out a 35″ scale and see if it is to your liking. Remember, if you are using a longer scale length you’ll need to check that any strings you buy are long enough to fit your bass.