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.

Nameoverall length (in)scale length (in)common tuning *
sopranino ukulele1711d5-G4-B4-E5
soprano ukulele2113g4-C4-E4-A4
concert (alto) ukulele2315g4-C4-E4-A4
tenor ukulele2617g4-C4-E4-A4
baritone ukulele3020D3-G3-B3-E4
Venezuelan cuatro3020A3-D4-F#4-b3
baritone nui (Pono)3523D3-G3-B3-E4
1/4 guitar (guitalele)2617A2-D3-G3-C4-E4-A4
1/2 guitar (mini)3020A2-D3-G3-C4-E4-A4
tenor guitar3221.5C3-G3-D4-A4
3/4 guitar3623E2-A2-D3-G3-B3-E4
7/8 guitar3825E2-A2-D3-G3-B3-E4
full size guitar4026E2-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.

3 thoughts to “Guitar and ukulele sizes: all the numbers that matter”

  1. I have a prototype 6 string bass uke looking for better options. Currently it is a cheap 1/4 size Firts Act Discovery guitar ($6 used) that I just put thicker gauge nylon strings on and tuned one octave down tunes standard EADGBE, It is a whole other instrument I think from the ubass as you can play as a mixture of bass lines, chords on the 3-4 highest strings. I play it in a rhythmic and percussive style. The string being close together is no problem for me in fact I take advantage of it doing fast runs with a back and forth stroke of thumb and fingers and other methods I just created using all fingers and thumb.

    I’ve looked at other options for a better 6 string ubass,

    I did notice the Guitalele is slightly smaller than a 1/4 size guitar but I like it for the standard width fretboard that would accomadate much thicker ubass strings and using nylon strings for the 2 hiighest strings. I may have to drill holes behind the bridge I think it’s called to anchor strings inside the guitalele to ofset tension. I’m still thinking on this option.

    The other option is a 1/4 size guitar with an adjustable truss rod. I easily found a 1/2 size one with an adjustable truss rod. I’m thinking this may help with the extra tension and adjust for tonality form the very little I know.

    Wish I could have the fretboard width of the guitalele with an adjustable truss rod but concerned if space between strings is to far that may make my back and forth stroke harder although may not be an issue if using the thicker strings.

    I noticed my 1/4 size guitar has more bass when hit percussively than another cheap 3/4 size guitar I have that is bigger and twice as thick. It seems like it would be the opposite.

    Would appreciate any ideas or insights. Thanks.

    1. I’m not sure what you are talking about here. The purpose of this article was not to list fret positions, but rather overall dimensions. In any case, fret positions are easily found from a formula: the distance between each fret and the bridge shrinks from one fret to the next by the same factor: the twelfth root of 1/2, which is approximately 0.9438743. This is the same factor by which the the spaces between consecutive frets shrink as you go up the board.

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