Should you try a short-scale bass?

It may make your bass playing less painful and more enjoyable

By Jon Liebman
September 16, 2022

Has your bass playing been hampered by arthritis, sore joints, or some other physical malady that’s made it difficult if not downright painful to lay down even a simple groove?

There may be a solution.

Chances are your bass has got a 34” scale length, referring to the distance between the nut and the bridge. That’s pretty much the standard of your basic P and J basses. 

If you’re hurting, though, a bass with a shorter scale length may solve your problem, or at least make playing bass less painful.

Shorter may be better

A lot of my students who have pain when they play the bass have tried switching to short-scale basses. Generally, they find a huge improvement in their comfort level, making the pain more manageable.

Short-scale basses typically have scale lengths less than 31”, a significant reduction in size. 

With the frets being smaller and closer together, short-scale basses are not only easier on the hands, they’re also more easily navigable, especially if your hands are small.

Short-scale basses naturally have shorter strings, which bring out a distinctive tone a lot of bass players just love.

Who plays a short-scale bass?

Among the better known short-scale bass players are Mike Watt, Tina Weymouth, and Owen Biddle. Perhaps the biggest short-scale proponent of them all is Jack Bruce (watch some YouTube videos of Cream and you’ll see Jack in action with his prized Gibson EB-3).

The subject came up in a recent conversation I had with Buckcherry bassist Kelly LeMieux, published as this week’s FBPO interview. 

“I recently got a little short-scale Gibson Tribute bass,” Kelly says. “I think Spector makes a short-scale also. It’s 30 or 31.”

Don’t lose the “fun factor”

I always say playing bass is not supposed to hurt. Kelly agrees, saying the “fun factor” needs to be front and center.

“Learn songs that you like, that are not too complicated,” he says, “cuz if you get hooked into it, you’re like, ‘This is fun! I can jam with my bros!’”

Kelly suggests that people dealing with certain physical challenges may want to give short-scale basses a try.

“Those are really cool if you’ve got issues with hands, arthritis, all that fun stuff,” he says. “Surprisingly, you can get a nice little thump out of those bad boys too!”

Here’s another option

If going from a standard 34” to a sub-31” is too dramatic a leap for you and you’d rather ease into it, you can try a medium-scale bass instead. Those are generally in the 31”-33”-inch range.

Either way, all hope is not necessarily lost if you love playing the bass but are discouraged because it’s become difficult or painful. Consider trying a smaller bass and see if it makes a difference. Hopefully you’ll find it helpful.

Your turn. Have you found that a short-scale or medium-scale bass has made it easier for you to deal with arthritis, tendonitis, or some other physical woe? Leave a comment below and let me know your story. And be sure to watch my interview with Kelly here.

Comments on Should you try a short-scale bass?

  1. Hi Jon,
    I’ve made the switch to short-scale bass, for many of the reasons you talk about: the discomfort of larger-scale bass. It all started when I was gigging regularly with a giant fretless Taylor ABG, and got all kinds of aches and pains in the plucking arm and hand. Then things got worse in the left hand too, even with solid body 34″ basses (fretless P-Bass, etc.)
    So my short-scale journey started with a fretless SX 30″ P-Bass with good results. Then Jerry Jones built me an unlined fretless Longhorn bass, and Jimmy Wilson made me a lined fretless Landing 30.5″ P-style bass. The latter two are my main instruments. Just for giggles, I wanted to try fretted, so I picked up a Mustang Bass and have loved it! For extra giggles, I got the Kydd Carry-On 30″ electric upright, and it’s very, very good! Like the others, it’s friendly on the hands. I recently picked up a Squier Mini P-Bass and it’s much better than one would think. I do prefer the Mustang Bass, however, because it has more of that “thud” you talk about. One concern to take into account is balance. If the shorter bass has heavy tuning keys, I suppose that could be a problem, but so far none of those listed above have any balance (neck dive) problems at all. Another potential issue for a fretless short-scale bass might be intonation, though I’ve adapted enough such that my intonation on a fretless 30″ is as good as on 34″. The bottom line is that I concur with your suggestion that those who are struggling with the larger basses give the short-scale bass a try.

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      That’s a lot of great information. Thanks, Michael!

  2. John Faulkinbury says:

    Jon
    Thank you for this post and addressing some of the positives of playing a short scale bass.
    As an older player that is dealing with some of the issues that you mentioned. I am strongly considering making the switch to playing a short scale bass.
    Looking forward to others that might post comments that have added a short scale to their playing.
    -John

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      Thanks, John. If you decide to go that route, please leave another comment and let me know how it goes. Good luck!

  3. Petey says:

    I think every bass player should have a short scale bass in his/her collection. I have a Sterling by Musicman short scale stingray and “love” it! I’m thinking about adding a sire short scale Jazz bass also. I was told that tone is a little different but that’s just an opinion. I’ve seen too many “pros” playing short scale basses and their ‘tone’ was killer! I like short scale basses!

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      Cool. Thanks, Petey!

  4. John A Sillasen says:

    Short scale basses are great. I started on an EB-O and a Les Paul Triumph Recording Bass after that. The Gibson Thunderbird IV was a true long scale with its own unique sound. None compare to the current Alembic Brown Bass. A short scale with a true 2 octave neck just like the Les Paul Triumph except it has tone variations that just don’t quit! Nothing wrong with a short scale bass at all, no matter how heavy.

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      Wow, John. It looks like the short-scales are really hitting the spot with you! Thanks for the comment.

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