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Thread: Scale length for Octave Mandolin

  1. #1
    🎼 Play Pretty 🎶 Greg Connor's Avatar
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    Default Scale length for Octave Mandolin

    I’m thinking of having a “tear drop” Octave Mandolin made for me. The builder has made octaves from 18 - 22” scale length. My inclination is longer. What is the consensus here?

    I’m also thinking of asking for an extra 1/2” in the body. What do you think?
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  2. #2
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    Default Re: Scale length for Octave Mandolin

    You might not get much consensus on scale length-- some like them long, some like 'em short.

    I like my old Octofone, which has a 21" scale. I would not want anything any longer. It's a very lightly built instrument that is 2 5/8" deep at the neck joint and 3" deep at the tail which does very well with light strings.
    I also have an old cheap tenor banjo with a 19" scale that is very comfortable to me.

  3. #3

    Default Re: Scale length for Octave Mandolin

    I have an Eastman, which is 21-inch and works fine. My Tenor is 20 inches, and also works fine. The longer scale results in slightly higher tension, and should have a slightly crisper sound, all else being equal, and probably a bit more sustain (though it might not be noticeable).

  4. #4
    Registered User Aaron Bohnen's Avatar
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    Default Re: Scale length for Octave Mandolin

    Generally speaking more tension from a longer scale length yields a larger, more "profound" tone. But the longer scale length gets tougher to play. For instance my fingers are average in length so a 19" scale and a 23" scale feel really different to me. I find the longer scale length best approached as a totally different instrument to a mandolin, with different intention, fingering, etc.

    I treat the longer-scale OM more like a mandocello in the sense that I try to do "less" on both of them. So maybe one way to approach the question would be to ask what role you see for the OM in question? If faster more intricate lines are the intent then maybe a shorter scale is best. But if you're thinking of tonal context and support, and you're willing to approach the OM as a different animal with its own temperament there's much to recommend a longer scale.

    Too bad it's so hard to play a variety of OMs with different scale lengths - that's probably the best way to see how you hear and feel the OM in your music, and what style and length make the best combination for you.

    Best luck and enjoy the journey!
    Gavin Baird F4 & F5, Weber Octar, Gibson K-1, Guild D50, Martin D35, Yairi DY-84, etc...

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  6. #5
    🎼 Play Pretty 🎶 Greg Connor's Avatar
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    Default Re: Scale length for Octave Mandolin

    Thanks guys! I think it’s becoming a clearer picture for me. Somewhere near the middle of the 18 - 22” range sounds like the option. I can imagine that every 1/4” makes a difference. My Gibson guitars have a 24 3/4” length while my Martins are 25 1/2”. Big difference in the feel of the instrument.
    All Fingers At Once

  7. #6

    Default Re: Scale length for Octave Mandolin

    I play an Ashbury octave style 32, a bit more than 20 inches. If I could get the same or similar tone at 18 inches or less then that would be great.
    The issue I find is that it’s much harder to play the longer scale lengths cleanly at speed.

    If I put the capo at 5th or 7th fret (mandolin length) then I’m jumping all over the place.

    I guess I could do finger stretching exercises and have those finger tips hovering exactly over the right frets, gain speed that way but it’s easier just to play a different key/octave and use the capo...

    With body depth, I’m looking for a tear drop where if you play a low G then that’s what you get.
    I like the boom/guitar sound sometimes but I’m not sure about hearing what sounds like a (beautiful) full orchestra of tones every time I play a single note.

    So I guess I like what sounds like a big mandolin.
    Last edited by Simon DS; Aug-23-2020 at 10:52am.

  8. #7

    Default Re: Scale length for Octave Mandolin

    The idea that a longer scale means higher tension is correct only if the string gauges are kept the same. By shifting to slightly lighter gauge strings, you can keep the tensions on a longer-scale instrument the same as those on a shorter-scale instrument. Graham MacDonald has a nice string tension calculator on his website that's a great help in working out these questions.

    Of course, what the "right" or "best" string gauges are for a particular instrument is really a function of both the instrument and the player. A limiting factor is the question of how much tension the instrument can handle, which you'd want to talk with the builder about. Within that limit, it takes some experimentation to work out the subjective questions of what gauges give the best tone and volume on the instrument, and what gauges feel good on the fingers as you're playing it.

  9. #8
    but that's just me Bertram Henze's Avatar
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    Default Re: Scale length for Octave Mandolin

    First you determine the scale, depending on what style you want to play and how you want to deal with stretches. These issues are often overrated and can mostly be overcome by workarounds if neccessary. The sound is important.

    Then you determine what strings to use, thereby arriving at tension values.

    My 21" OM has seen slowly decreasing gauges (and decreasing tension) over the years until I reached the sound I liked. Today, I am at 49, 34, 24, 15 (GDAE) and happy with it.
    the world is better off without bad ideas, good ideas are better off without the world

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    Default Re: Scale length for Octave Mandolin

    Quote Originally Posted by Aaron Bohnen View Post
    So maybe one way to approach the question would be to ask what role you see for the OM in question? If faster more intricate lines are the intent then maybe a shorter scale is best. But if you're thinking of tonal context and support, and you're willing to approach the OM as a different animal with its own temperament there's much to recommend a longer scale.
    That is the key question. The richness of that different animal lies in the open strings and the first five frets. However, that’s also where you’ll notice any increase in scale length.

    That said, since mandolas generally have a scale length in the 16-17” range, an 18”-inch scale length on OM gives you an instrument seven frets lower, but not much longer than a mandola. So, I see it as somewhat of a mismatch between the size and the range of the instrument, but I’m sure that the short-scale fans can explain why that works, though. For me, the 20-21” range works best. I love the tone, and I can play fast enough, although not as fast as on mandolin. Robin Bullock and Tim O’Brien might be able to, but I sure can’t. I’ve accepted that.

    As for the extra 1/2” in the body, do you mean in length or in depth? Since it sounds like you’re working with a builder who has lots of experience building OM’s, I’d discuss that with him/her, explaining what tonal characteristics you’re hoping to gain from that.
    still trying to turn dreams into memories

  11. #10

    Default Re: Scale length for Octave Mandolin

    Quote Originally Posted by Greg Connor View Post
    I’m also thinking of asking for an extra 1/2” in the body. What do you think?
    You might find this clip interesting: while the body depth (I am assuming you mean 1/2" in depth), is not the only difference between these OMs, the comparison between them is very interesting: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JiM8zoq9f20

  12. #11
    Registered User spufman's Avatar
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    Default Re: Scale length for Octave Mandolin

    I have a 19" Manne electric and a 23.5" Weber Sage I. For electric, the short scale is very cool, though the G above the 7th fret requires a keen ear to play it close to in tune. Even disregarding body resonance, the long scale is clearly much better at letting the strings speak. If I could only have one, I'd go on the longer side. The meaty Weber neck is shaped really well for working shifts and pivots around the board. I do however, wish the body was larger.
    Blow on, man.

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    Default Re: Scale length for Octave Mandolin

    From searching through tons of threads on here before buying my first OM (no local options with various lengths to try), I decided that 22.5 was a sweet spot between playability and tone. Turns out, for me, that’s great for rhythm playing, but too long for melody/lead work. This difference was really driven home when I got to try a 22.5 inch Northfield and a 20 (or maybe 20.5, it’s been a while) inch Girouard at TME in Boston. I made the discovery that whatever I thought I might be losing in tone with the shorter scale was more than offset by the improvement in cleanliness and speed of my playing. I should have bought the Girouard, but it’d been there a while so I waited until I was home to order it online, and, of course,it was gone. I now own a Weber 20 inch OM that’s a joy to play. The G string feels a little floppy with OM gauges, but with the D’Addairio mandola set it feels and sounds great.

    I wear large sized gloves, but my fingers are, sadly, very average in length...would love to Mike Marshall’s reach, lol!
    Chuck

  14. #13
    🎼 Play Pretty 🎶 Greg Connor's Avatar
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    Default Re: Scale length for Octave Mandolin

    Thank you everyone, I’m gradually honing in on the answer. It’s starting to look like a 20” scale is what I’m looking for. More than likely this will go the same way as guitars and mandolins . . . . You can never have only one!
    All Fingers At Once

  15. #14

    Default Re: Scale length for Octave Mandolin

    I find the 20" scale to be just about perfect myself. Long enough to sustain but short enough that I can still play melody & 3 finger chords.

  16. #15
    Registered User Aaron Bohnen's Avatar
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    Default Re: Scale length for Octave Mandolin

    A 20" scale OM can be incredible and doesn't have to represent a tonal sacrifice. Many great builders are making equally great examples. Girouard was mentioned above and there are others too. Here's a 20" scale Weber Red River demo'd by Scott Nygaard and Sharon Gilchrist. The reaches aren't too long for clean playing and it sounds good with nice tone. (Sharon's beautiful technique doesn't hurt either)

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O09tq3k9H24

    I'd love to have that instrument to play. There's clearly plenty to be said for a good short-scale OM!

    This scale consideration is found in mandolins too. There are short-scale mandolins such as the lovely old Martins and many others. They're really nice to get around on, and despite the fact they may not be used too much for big chop chords those chord shapes are easier to play on the shorter scale. Nevertheless most modern mandolins are built with the longer scale which along with their construction produces a volume, projection, and tone that many find more desirable despite the reaches.

    Same considerations apply to the OMs. This next recording isn't as clean and it's not the same player or selection as above, nor the same studio or equipment, etc. But similarly to the case with mandolins, the longer scale does help produce a power and energy that's noticeable. It's a longer scale Weber Octar.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3tIhuApEnPk

    So despite the fact that they can be more challenging there's plenty to be said for a long-scale OM too.

    My ideal OM would have all the power and profound energy that the longer scale OMs seem to be naturally infused with, squeezed into a nimble short scale. I'd like one of those.

    Or longer fingers. I'd go for either. (or both!)

    Enjoy!
    Gavin Baird F4 & F5, Weber Octar, Gibson K-1, Guild D50, Martin D35, Yairi DY-84, etc...

  17. #16

    Default Re: Scale length for Octave Mandolin

    I think it depends on how you are going to use it. I think it also depends on your reach.

    I have a 20" Weber Yellowstone F-hole A-shape OM and love it. I tune it using standard tuning. I played it in in an ensemble and found that even at 20" I find it is much easier to play chords up the neck than in first position. I've played all types of music on this instrument.

    I also play s a Sobel oval hole Cittern (sort of a 5 course OM) and it has a longer scale. I was taught to tune it with a high D (instead of E) and to sometimes capo at 5. I prefer to play open chords with this tuning. For both melody and chords, it has a very different sound and feel than the Weber. The Weber is much more versatile, but there are many things I would recommend the Cittern for. As an example, I think it would be much better for accompanying singing and perfect for many Irish tunes.

  18. #17

    Default Re: Scale length for Octave Mandolin

    I should also mention that for a 20" scale length OM Bill Weber recommend John Pearse® Mandola Phosphor Bronze 36" Length, .014 - .048, 2265M. EJ72's and Curt Manga Mandola strings are similar.

    EJ80's felt and sounded terrible on 20" scale.

  19. #18
    🎼 Play Pretty 🎶 Greg Connor's Avatar
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    Default Re: Scale length for Octave Mandolin

    Thanks everyone for your input. I feel like I have a much clearer idea of what I’m looking for now.

    This thread has shown me the level of knowledge among the group as well as a sincere effort to help a fellow musician. I was even invited to a member’s home to play his Octave Mandolin with a 21” scale.

    Thank You, Greg
    All Fingers At Once

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