Guitar and ukulele sizes: all the numbers that matter

As part of the ukutar project, I looked for small guitars that I could turn into ukuleles, and found there is a bewildering array of names that often don’t describe very well the size of the instrument or how it sounds. Pictures are pretty much useless. In this article I present a table with most of the guitar and ukulele sizes I’ve found, and try to make some sense of the numbers.

First I’m going to give you a table containing the approximate overall length and scale length, both in inches, and the way the instrument is typically tuned, which has a lot to do with those numbers.

Name overall length (in) scale length (in) common tuning *
sopranino ukulele 17 11 d5-G4-B4-E5
soprano ukulele 21 13 g4-C4-E4-A4
concert (alto) ukulele 23 15 g4-C4-E4-A4
tenor ukulele 26 17 g4-C4-E4-A4
baritone ukulele 30 20 D3-G3-B3-E4
Venezuelan cuatro 30 20 A3-D4-F#4-b3
baritone nui (Pono) 35 23 D3-G3-B3-E4
1/4 guitar (guitalele) 26 17 A2-D3-G3-C4-E4-A4
1/2 guitar (mini) 30 20 A2-D3-G3-C4-E4-A4
tenor guitar 32 21.5 C3-G3-D4-A4
3/4 guitar 36 23 E2-A2-D3-G3-B3-E4
7/8 guitar 38 25 E2-A2-D3-G3-B3-E4
full size guitar 40 26 E2-A2-D3-G3-B3-E4

Note *: Tunings from bass to treble strings; a lowercase letter means that the string is tuned one octave higher or lower than in linear, increasing pitch sequence.

And now some observations:

  1. A 1/4 guitar or “guitalele” is essentially a tenor ukulele with two extra bass strings. If you remove those, you get a tenor ukulele (with reduced space between strings).
  2. A 1/2 guitar (like the Cordoba mini) is essentially a baritone ukulele with two extra bass strings. If standard guitar tuning is retained for the strings, however, the bass strings end up sounding rather poorly (although string sets are available for standard tuning) because of the small size of the instrument. Because of this, 1/2 size guitars meant for adults  are most often found tune one fourth higher. Guitars meant for children usually retain standard tuning, but with a very low string tension and, consequently, low volume.
  3. The 3/4 guitar is the same size and scale as a “baritone nui” ukulele, except it adds two extra bass strings. Remove those and you get a baritone nui for a fraction of the cost. This is what I did in the ukutar project, reported in this article.
  4. There are a couple instruments that don’t quite fit the pattern. The Venezuelan cuatro has the body of a baritone ukulele but is tuned higher. This is because it uses thinner, lighter strings. It is quite easy to make a cuatro from a baritone ukulele, by just swapping strings as explained in this article. The tenor guitar uses an odd (for a guitar) tuning in fifths rather than fourths. This is because it is meant for banjo players who may want to play something different.
  5. Once you get past the 3/4 size for a guitar, the same tuning is used. A larger instrument sounds the same, with only an increase in output volume as size increases, due to the necessary increase in string tension to maintain the same pitch as the scale length increases.
  6. The designation of “child” guitar or ukulele is often misleading, since ukuleles are smaller than guitars and adults can play them quite well, except for a couple of things. When the scale length goes past 20 inches, fret separation near the nut gets close to two inches, which makes it challenging for people with short fingers. Conversely, most small guitars (not so ukuleles) use a smaller distance between strings, which makes it hard for adult fingers to fret strings cleanly.

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