The current version of the Fender Mustang Bass (above) features, as the model always has, a short 30” scale.
Most bass guitars are long-scale instruments. Students and other younger players, however, may prefer to start with a short-scale bass guitar and then “graduate” up to a long-scale bass.
Fender itself defined the long-scale bass guitar when it introduced the profoundly influential Precision Bass® in 1951; joined later by the Jazz Bass® (1960) and other long-scale models, such as the Telecaster Bass® (1968) and the Jaguar Bass® (2006). All have a 34” scale that, while universally accepted as a standard length, can be a bit of a stretch for younger players.
Realizing this, Fender introduced its first short-scale bass guitar, the Mustang® Bass, in summer 1966. The last Fender bass guitar designed by Leo Fender himself, the Mustang Bass had a student-friendly 30” scale with an accordingly shorter distance between frets and a generally more compact physical size that made it easier to play for kids and players with smaller hands and shorter reach (Fender had been offering smaller student-model electric guitars since 1955). Another short-scale model, the Musicmaster Bass, debuted in 1971 and remained in the Fender line until 1981.
Between the mid-1950s and mid-1960s, several other makers introduced their own short- and medium-scale basses. Standards basically settled into the dominant long scale established by Fender (34”; rarely, other makers have offered longer scales) the less prevalent but nonetheless commonplace short scale (30” and slightly longer) and the much less often-encountered medium scale (around 32”). It bears remembering here that the term “scale length” refers to the distance between the bridge and the nut—the entire vibrating length of the strings—rather than the length of the neck or fingerboard.
Today, Fender’s widely varied bass guitar selection continues to encompass several quality short-scale models. These include the modern version of the Fender Mustang Bass, the Squier Vintage Modified Mustang Bass, Squier Vintage Modified Jaguar Bass Special SS and Squier Bronco™ Bass. All have a 30” scale.
In addition to the obvious size difference between long- and short-scale basses, is there a tonal difference?
Yes, definitely. For one thing, short-scale bass guitars sometimes use a slightly heavier string gauge than their long-scale brothers, which imparts a thicker and more bass-heavy tone than lighter-gauge strings with more brightness and snap. Further, shorter strings require lower string tension for proper intonation, which imparts not only a looser, more “floppy” feel to the strings, but also results in fatter-sounding low notes.
Further, short-scale bass playing has not been the exclusive province of kids and beginners. Plenty of bass greats have used short-scale basses, including Paul McCartney, Jack Bruce (Cream), Bill Wyman (Rolling Stones), Andy Fraser (Free), Glenn Cornick (Jethro Tull), Trevor Bolder (Spiders From Mars, Uriah Heep), Tina Weymouth (Talking Heads), Garry Tallent (E Street Band), Bruce Thomas (the Attractions), Gary Mounfield (Stone Roses, Primal Scream), Mike Watt (Minuteman, Firehose, Stooges) and many others.