How To Choose The Best Scale Length For Your Next Dulcimer
We're often asked how to choose the right scale length, and like all questions, the answer is complicated. But this is doable, so here goes:
Choose the scale length that fits your hand the best. We're talking about your fretting/chording hand, so for most of us, it is our left hand.
The difference in tone between one scale length and another is negligible, so we're only going to address size, specifically the distance from one fret to another. On a 25" scale length (also known as VSL - Vibrating String Length), the frets are closer together than they are on a 29" VSL instrument.
On a 25" VSL instrument, the distance from the nut (next to the tuners) to fret 7 is 12 1/2". On a 29" VSL instrument, the distance from the nut (next to the tuners) to fret 7 is 14 1/2". Exactly half, in both cases, regardless of the VSL. Each fret is a certain percentage of the distance from the nut to the bridge, regardless of the scale length.
What this means is that on a shorter scale fretboard, the frets are closer together than they are on a longer scale length instrument. And it is easier to play chords on a shorter scale length instrument, since the frets are a little closer together.
Now for a few real-world examples: A 6'1" tall male, with typical hands for a guy his size, is comfortable playing a 27" scale length instrument. A 5'6" female, with typical hands for a woman her size, is comfortable playing a 25" scale length instrument. For the examples here, I'm one, and I am married to the other, so these are "real world" examples for sure! This doesn't mean that tall men should play 27" VSL instruments. My next dulcimer will be a shorter scale length, probably 25", because it is easier to play.
The only drawback for a shorter VSL would be that the higher frets, past fret 7 into the second octave, do start getting pretty close to each other. My hands can play a 25" VSL fretboard, but I have pretty good finger accuracy and don't find that to be a big problem. Someone with really large hands, or really broad fingers, might prefer a longer scale length just so they have room to move around on the fretboard.
Approximately 75 percent of the dulcimers we sell have 25" VSL fretboards, and most of the rest have 26" and 27" VSLs. But a person with really large hands might be most comfortable with a 29 1/4" scale length, and a person with very, very petite hands, might be most comfortable on a 23" or 24" VSL instrument.
I hope this helps - thanks for reading!
PS - I keep getting this "one more question", so I'll address tone quality here. The difference in sound between a shorter-scale-length dulcimer and a longer-scale-length dulcimer is insignificant. In theory it matters, in practice, not so much. Select the scale length for your comfort, and don't worry too much about sound when making this choice.
PPS - One more question that people keep asking: do we use a smaller body for the dulcimer when a shorter scale length is chosen? No. We move the bridge farther from the end of the dulcimer, but keep the same body size? Why? Because the body size doesn't affect playability, but has a dramatic effect on tone. A larger body generally sounds better than a smaller body, so even with our shortest 23" scale length, we will always use our 30" body (not counting the head), so that the quality of the sound is maximized.