In the vast world of guitar design, few innovations have generated as much discussion and intrigue as the multiscale guitar, also known as the fanned-fret guitar.
Combining tradition with innovation, this unique design has introduced a new perspective on how we approach the construction and playability of guitars.
What is a multi-scale guitar?
A multi-scale guitar, also known as a fanned-fret guitar, uses varying scale lengths for different strings to optimize tension and tone across all strings. The design is characterized by slanted frets that “fan out” from the nut to the bridge, providing longer scale lengths for lower-pitched strings and shorter for higher-pitched strings.
This article dives into the fascinating world of multiscale guitars, offering insights into their design, benefits, and challenges.
We’ll explore the history of the multiscale guitar, its invention by Ralph Novak, and the reasons why this innovative design has become a favorite among many musicians, particularly those using extended-range guitars.
Whether you’re a seasoned guitarist looking to venture into new territories or a curious enthusiast eager to understand the latest trends in guitar design, this article will shed light on the intriguing world of multiscale guitars.
Join us as we unravel the story behind the fanned frets, the ergonomic benefits, and the unique sound qualities that set these instruments impart in the realm of stringed instruments.
What Is A Multi-Scale Guitar?
A multiscale guitar, also known as a fanned-fret guitar, is a type of guitar design that incorporates varying scale lengths for different strings.
This means that the distance from the nut to the bridge (the scale length) is not the same for all strings, as it is in a traditional guitar.
The aim of a multiscale design is to optimize the tension and tone across all strings.
The lower strings, which are longer, can maintain a lower pitch without becoming too loose, while the higher strings, which are shorter, can produce a higher pitch without becoming too tight.
This design can also improve intonation and playability, particularly for extended-range instruments like 7 or 8-string guitars.
Some players find the fanned frets more ergonomic and comfortable for the fretting hand, as it can more naturally follow the angle of the frets.
Visually, multiscale guitars are recognizable by their slanted frets, which “fan out” from the nut to the bridge. The degree of this slant can vary depending on the specific design of the guitar.
What Are Multi-Scale Frets?
Multi-scale frets are a feature of multi-scale guitars, which are also known as fanned-fret guitars. The term “multi-scale” refers to the fact that the guitar uses different scale lengths for different strings.
The scale length of a string is the distance from the nut (where the string meets the headstock) to the saddle (where the string meets the bridge).
In a multi-scale guitar, the frets are not parallel to each other, as they are in a traditional guitar. Instead, they are “fanned” or slanted, with the angle of the slant varying along the neck of the guitar. This is where the term “fanned-fret” comes from.
This design allows each string to have its own scale length, with longer scale lengths for the lower-pitched strings and shorter scale lengths for the higher-pitched strings.
The advantage of multi-scale frets is that they allow for more optimal tension and tone across all strings. The lower strings can maintain a lower pitch without becoming too loose, while the higher strings can produce a higher pitch without becoming too tight.
This can also improve intonation and playability, especially on extended-range instruments like 7 or 8-string guitars. Some players also find the angled frets more comfortable for the left hand.
Comfort and Playability
Most guitarists naturally align with the 9th fret when in a relaxed position, often referred to as the ‘neutral fret’. Shifting this neutral position to, for instance, the 12th fret, can create challenges towards the nut.
Alternatively, moving it to the 8th, 7th, or even 6th fret can enhance the bridge angle, impacting the pickup — neither of these adjustments is particularly beneficial.
In the case of multiscale guitars, the angle of the nut is in harmony with the natural arc of your forearm and your straight wrist.
Experiment by playing an F bar chord on your regular guitar; you’ll find your wrist bending almost to its maximum, straining the tendons.
This doesn’t happen with a multiscale guitar. Your wrist remains straight, although some guitarists may stick to their old habits, thereby reducing the strain on your tendons and muscles. This can make playing fatigue a thing of the past!
The same principle applies to the bridge. When lightly palm muting your strings at the bridge, you’ll notice that you have to awkwardly bend your wrist back to mute more than a few strings.
Multiscale guitars address this issue with a bridge designed to match the natural resting angle of your forearm.
The bridges, pickups, locking nuts, and tuning pegs used are often custom-made to fit the unique nature of the multiscale guitar.
One aspect that stands out immediately when playing a multiscale guitar is the distinct tone, a result of the enhanced string tension.
If you’ve ever used a larger string set on your guitar, you might have noticed a thicker tone. This is more due to the increased string tension than the actual size of the string.
On a standard guitar, if the strings are too thick, it can adversely affect sustain. For example, putting a bass string on a guitar increases the string size and tension, but the string can’t vibrate for as long. Longer scale lengths on a multiscale guitar can resolve this issue.
Treat a multiscale guitar like any regular guitar when it comes to tuning. A multiscale guitar is normally tuned EADGBe at 440 Hz frequency. Bending and other techniques are the same.
However, the intonation tends to be more precise. The lower register strings don’t stretch as much when you strike them, which means there’s less of a pitch increase in the initial attack of the note.
Who Invented Multiscale Guitars?
Multiscale guitars, also known as fanned-fret guitars, were invented by Ralph Novak. Novak patented his fanned-fret design in the United States in 1989, although he had been working on the concept since the 1970s. More history on the multiscale can be found on the wiki page.
His brand, Novax Guitars, is still active and continues to produce multiscale guitars and basses.
The design aims to optimize string tension across the fretboard, resulting in improved playability and tone. It involves different scale lengths for each string, with the frets fanned out at an angle rather than running parallel to each other as on a traditional guitar.
This design has been adopted by a number of other guitar manufacturers and has gained particular popularity among players of extended-range guitars.
Multiscale Guitar Pros And Cons
Multiscale guitars, also known as fanned-fret guitars, have their own unique set of advantages and disadvantages that can affect the playing experience.
Here are some of the pros and cons associated with these instruments:
Pros of Multiscale Guitars:
- Improved String Tension: The different scale lengths for each string help to optimize string tension. This can improve the guitar’s tone and playability, particularly for the lower-pitched strings.
- Better Intonation: Multiscale guitars can provide better intonation across the fretboard. This is because each string’s scale length is more closely matched to its pitch and tension.
- Extended Range Capability: Multiscale guitars are often preferred for extended-range guitars (7, 8, or more strings). The design helps to keep lower strings at a higher tension, preventing them from becoming overly loose, which can be an issue on extended-range instruments.
- Ergonomics: Some players find that the fanned fret layout more closely matches the natural movement of the hand and fingers, reducing strain and improving playability.
Cons of Multiscale Guitars:
- Adjustment Period: If you’re used to playing a traditional guitar, it might take some time to adjust to the fanned frets of a multiscale guitar. This can be particularly noticeable when playing chords.
- Availability and Price: Multiscale guitars are less common than traditional guitars, and not all manufacturers offer them. They can also be more expensive, particularly for high-quality models.
- Limited Repair Options: Not all luthiers are familiar with the unique design of multiscale guitars, which might limit your options for repairs and adjustments.
- Complexity in Construction: Building a multiscale guitar is more complex than building a traditional guitar. This is something to consider if you’re interested in building your own guitar or having one custom-built.
- Visual Appearance: The slanted frets of a multiscale guitar can be off-putting to some players. This is more of a subjective point, but it’s worth considering if aesthetics are important to you.
Like any instrument, the best way to decide if a multiscale guitar is right for you is to try playing one for yourself and see how it feels and sounds.
Are Multiscale Guitars Hard To Play?
The playability of multiscale guitars, also known as fanned-fret guitars, largely depends on the individual player and their familiarity with the instrument.
Some guitarists find them very comfortable and easy to play, while others may need some time to adjust to the different layout of the frets.
Here are a few points to consider:
- Adjustment Period: If you’re used to playing a traditional guitar, it might take some time to get used to the fanned frets of a multiscale guitar. The frets are slanted, which means that the fingering positions for chords and scales can be slightly different than on a traditional guitar. This can feel unusual at first, but most players adapt with practice.
- Ergonomics: Some players find that multiscale guitars are actually more comfortable to play than traditional guitars. The fanned fret layout can more closely match the natural movement of the hand and fingers, potentially reducing strain and improving playability.
- Extended Range Instruments: Multiscale guitars are often preferred for extended-range guitars (7, 8, or more strings). The design helps to keep the lower strings at a higher tension, preventing them from becoming overly loose, which can be an issue on extended-range instruments. If you’re playing such an instrument, a multiscale design might actually make it easier to play.
- Chord Shapes and Scales: Some chord shapes and scales might feel a bit different on a multiscale guitar, especially near the nut and the higher frets where the fan of the frets is more pronounced. But again, with some practice, most players can adjust to this.
So, while there might be an initial learning curve when switching to a multiscale guitar, they are not inherently harder to play. Many guitarists find them very comfortable once they get used to the different layout.
It’s also worth noting that the degree of the “fan” in the frets can vary from one multiscale guitar to another, which can also affect how different it feels to play. As with any instrument, the best way to know if it’s right for you is to try one out for yourself.
Navigating the world of guitar design reveals a landscape rich with innovation, and within this landscape, the multiscale guitar stands as a testament to the boundless possibilities of musical creativity.
By fusing tradition with innovation, the fanned-fret design has opened up new horizons in terms of tone, playability, and ergonomic comfort.
Whether they are embraced for their optimized string tension, their enhanced intonation, or their adaptability to extended-range instruments, multiscale guitars are increasingly finding their place in the hands of musicians across genres.
They may demand a period of adjustment and familiarity, but many players find that the benefits they offer are worth the initial learning curve.
Yet, as we’ve explored, these guitars are not without their challenges. Their availability, cost, and the need for specialized maintenance are all factors to consider.
But for those who venture into the realm of multiscale guitars, the reward is often a unique instrument that pushes the boundaries of what a guitar can be.
In the end, the choice of an instrument is a deeply personal decision, influenced by factors from play style to musical genre.
But as we continue to seek out new ways to express our creativity and push the boundaries of music, the multiscale guitar serves as a compelling example of how innovation can transform tradition, offering new avenues for exploration in the ever-evolving world of guitar playing.