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Understanding Fanned Fret Guitars And Scale Length
6 years, 2 months ago Posted in: Blog, Fanned Fret Guitar, The Art Of Lutherie 12
Understanding Fanned Fret Guitars And Scale Length

To read a new updated and expanded version of this article click here: Fanned Fret Guitars

The concept of the multi-scale musical instrument (one in which each string has its own scale length) is not new by any means. It is commonly employed in many instruments such as the piano, harp, and others. This multi-scale arrangement applied to a fretted instrument has become known today as “Fanned Frets” or simply “Fan Frets”. It first appeared on the 16th century Orpharion, a variant of the cittern, as well as the Bandora which is a late 16th century instrument with a longer string length for its bass strings than for its trebles.

The Importance of Scale Length

The scale length (or distance measured from the nut to the saddle; the vibrating length of the string) of any musical instrument is probably the most commonly overlooked element of design when engineering the “voice” or “tone” of a guitar. The scale length is responsible for regulating the initial input of vibration energy that is injected into the guitar’s top setting the entire system in motion. Everything after that point can only be filtered or somehow modified, but not added to in any large way. While the myriad of components and other variables of the individual guitar will play a large roll in determining its voice, the scale length will still set the main parameters that the rest of the system will have to work within.

The Effect of Scale Length On Guitar Tone

One of the best illustrations I have heard regarding the critical influence that the scale length has on guitar tone is from Ralph Novax, the father of the modern fan fret resurgence.  He described this in his Fan Fret Technical Lecture as follows:

“The familiar example might be the “Strat vs. Les Paul” comparison: as stock instruments they have distinctly different voices. We could put the Les Paul pickups in the Strat and vice-versa, then take the screws out of the Strat neck and glue it in, and break out the Les Paul neck and screw it back in. Voila! The Strat still maintains much of its clear, cutting quality, although a bit “fatter,” and the Les Paul still has a round attack and mushy bass, although “thinner.” We’ve discovered that the pickups and construction can’t override the tonal effects of scale length. The upper partials present in the harmonic structure of the longer scale Strat string tone give it a cutting clarity that distinguish it from the sweet, round, lower partials that dominate the shorter scale Les Paul string tone.”

Other Factors To Consider

So now that we know the importance of scale length, there are still other factors that we have to think about, which are at play in tandem with the scale length to give the guitar its basic tonal or harmonic envelope. Those factors are: string tension and mass.

Without getting into the mathematics of it (see this link for further reading) the basic premise is that each time we increase the diameter of the string, thus increasing its mass, we also increase the amount of tension required to bring it to pitch. This is why players most often use larger gauge strings for the lower notes of the guitar.  If we used the same high E string for the low E, I’m sure you could imagine, it would not sound too good.  It wouldn’t have enough tension to sound in the overtone series and it also wouldn’t have enough mass to give it any volume. So having more mass (larger diameter) is better for a string tuned to a lower pitch, but we also have to keep in mind that this added mass and tension brings with it two side effects. The first is that the extra mass helps the string get more volume and clarity, but the second side effect is increased stiffness. As the stiffness is increased, the strings ability to divide into complex high frequency nodes decreases.

Understanding The Effects Of String Stiffness

My good friend and mentor luthier Gila Eban, explained something like this to me years ago by using the analogy of a dish cloth. If you start with a regular dish cloth and fold it in half, it’s very easy and folds nicely. Fold it again and it is still OK, continue folding in half again and again and each time it becomes in effect thicker. With that extra thickness its ability to fold gets diminished and requires more energy or simply isn’t possible to fold again. This type of folding is akin to a string as it “folds”, or divides, into smaller and smaller sections that make up the overtone series of the strings fundamental note and give the note its tonal and harmonic character.

So if you are still with me, we said that we have to consider the tone we want, then choose the scale length that best fits it, keeping in mind the effects of string gauge, tension, and mass. Pretty simple.

The Single Scale Problem

The problem is that we usually have six strings each with a different set of the above mentioned criteria. Using only one scale length causes us to compromise overall. Lets say I decide that for my new customer the best scale length to get the sound he wants for a steel string high E might be 25″, but he also wants to tune down to a dropped D on the low E string. That D will sound floppy and muddy at 25″ (with a standard gauge string). OK, no  problem, lets use a 26″ scale then and the dropped D will be great; but now at 26″ the high E sounds like a banjo and could possibly shatter a wine glass or something with its shrill piercing voice. This is where the fanned fret (multi-scale) type of guitar comes to the rescue.

The Fanned Fret Guitar Solution

If we use a fanned fret system, we can specifically choose a different scale for each string that perfectly suits our needs and allows us to incorporate all of the necessary criteria we have without compromising on any of the strings. We can get that great mellow treble at 25″ AND that clear powerful bass note at 26″.

“But what about playing the thing…, is it really comfortable to play those fanned fret guitars?”  Yes, it is actually more ergonomic than playing a standard single scale instrument! Look down at your hand and spread your fingers as wide as you can. Do you notice how your fingers are actually fanned out, emanating from a common point? This resembles the angles on a well thought out and implemented fanned fret guitar fingerboard and in most cases requires less of that awkward wrist tweaking we guitar players all hate as we strain to make our “fanned fingers” go in parallel lines perpendicular to the strings like a traditional single scale fingerboard.

OK, don’t get me wrong, I still love my traditional single scale guitars, they are wonderful instruments in their own right and for most people they are the way to go, but for you adventurous thrill seekers who just want to push the limits in harmonic complexity and power on your guitar even further than on your standard guitars, then the fanned fret system is definitely something to consider on your next handmade guitar.

Fanned Fret Guitars Fanned Fret Nylon String Fanned Fret Guitar Gallery

If you have any other questions, comments, or other thoughts, leave a comment below or send me an email, I would love to hear from you!

12 Responses

  1. Bob Dill says:

    I’m a retired cabinetmaker that’s been building guitars for about two years. I would like to build a fan fret guitar on one of my next builds, any information I could get on how to build a fan fingerboard would be greatly appreciated.

    • Tom says:

      Hi Bob,

      It does seem intimidating at first, but really it is not that bad. The first thing you need is a good ruler like this one, Starrett C316R-24 Full Flexible Steel Rule With Inch Graduations, 16R Style Graduations, 24″ Length, 3/4″ Width, 1/50″ Thickness. It is important to have a 16r rule because you need the decimal side for the fan fret layout. Choose your two scales (get the fret placement from a fret calculator like the one at http://www.stewmac.com/FretCalculator, or you can calculate it yourself too.), and decide which fret will be your perpendicular fret. I like fret seven most of the time but it depends on the scales you use.

      Then lay out your frets from your perpendicular fret, but be sure to lay them out along the string center lines for the high and low E (not the edges of the fingerboard). Remember to factor in your bridge offset too when placing it and you are done. Then it’s a matter of very patiently and accurately sawing each fret by hand.

      It’s like I always say, Nothing is harder than anything else, some things just require more patience. :)

  2. Thomas Williamson says:

    Hi, I’ve dreamed of becoming a successful & professional custom guitar designer/builder & attend a professional full on school of luthiers, but come from a poverty stricken up bringing & money is an issue for me to fulfill my destiny/dream & I know I got what it takes, & a luv/passion for instruments of all types & an imagination for designing one of a kind guitars & 18yrs of instruments in my hands & study all types & got a large vocabulary for guitars & well i’m just wanting to do a job I luv, & that is music & instruments. aka THE THINKER

  3. […] hvis man virkelig har lyst på en snekkerutfordring, kan man prøve å kombinere den ideen ("fanned frets", gjerne med 7-8 strenger) med denne: Torzal Natural Twist Det er tydeligvis en "truss […]

  4. Ramses says:

    Hi Thanks for this info realy useful for me an a new guitar builder

    • Tom says:

      Hi Ramses, I’m so glad you found the info useful and I appreciate you taking time to comment.

      I wish you all the best in your guitar building endeavors!

  5. […] View the full gallery here: Fan Fret Guitar Gallery Learn more about fan fret guitars and why they are one of my favorite guitars to build here: Fan Fret Guitars […]

  6. […] View the full gallery here: Fan Fret Guitar Gallery Learn more about fan fret guitars and why they are one of my favorite guitars to build here: Fan Fret Guitars […]

  7. […] View the full gallery here: Fan Fret Guitar Gallery Learn more about fan fret guitars and why they are one of my favorite guitars to build here: Fanned Fret Guitars […]

  8. […] shape and smooth each piece of wood, carefully crafting my next work of art; in this case a new fanned fret guitar. Each time the experience is different, as different and unique as the clients for whom I am […]

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