The metal bits on the neck of our guitars. What are they, why should you care, and everything you need to know about guitar frets.
Although frets don’t always have to be made out of metal, for the purpose of this post we’ll be focusing exclusively on the strips we’re all familiar with that are a semi permanent fixture of a modern guitar.
What Are Frets For?
Frets allow the guitar player to push down on a string, affectively shortening the distance the string vibrate. Changing this distance causes the string to vibrate faster or slower resulting in different pitches, or notes. Seems obvious, but I just wanted to get that out of the way.
Why Are Frets Placed In That Pattern?
Frets are laid out based on an equal temperament of an octave. The definition is best pulled from Wikipedia:
the frequency interval between every pair of adjacent notes has the same ratio. In other words, the ratios of the frequencies of any adjacent pair of notes is the same, and, as pitch is perceived roughly as the logarithm of frequency, equal perceived “distance” from every note to its nearest neighbor.[source]
So the octave isn’t divided such that it is in mathematically equal parts, but it is divided based on a log function, which gives us similar ratios between notes that are next to each other. This way, A @ 440 Hz and B @ 493.88 Hz is 53.88 Hz difference while F and G of the same octave are 85.53 Hz apart. [source] Our ears actually hear the difference between those two notes as the same distance.
Logarithmic functions provide us with the math necessary to create the modern fretboard that conforms to the Western system of 12 notes equally distributed within an octave. For more info on this equation, check it out here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Logarithm#Music
Why Are Some Frets on Different Angles?
You’ll notice on some guitars that the frets are not set in the fingerboard at 90 degree angles. The reason for this is a more even response across the bass and treble strings of the guitar. Intonation is also said to be more accurate, resulting in a guitar that is in better tune across the entirety of the fretboard.
You’ll see this most prominently in Novax guitars who hold a patent on the design. However there are other manufacturers who employ this design to some extent. Greenfield guitars, famously played by Andy Mckee, use this design on some of their models.
Parts of a Fret
There are 3 main parts to a fret. The crown or bead, tang, and barb or stud. These are illustrated below.
You’ve probably encountered different sizes of frets when looking at guitars, most likely with names like “Medium Jumbo” or “Vintage.” Depending on the different manufacturers, these can actually refer to different sizes. The important thing to know is that larger frets allow for easy bending while lower, smaller frets are generally easier for chording and rhythm playing. That said, fret size is completely up to personal preference and I don’t mind the different sizes across my guitars. My Gibson semi-hollow feels great with its smaller frets, and my strat feels awesome with its tall chunky frets.
The most common fret sizes come from manufacturers like Dunlop. These sizes are in numbers as referenced in the table below.
|Dunlop Part Number||Width||Height||Application|
|6105||.095”||.047”||Great for Acoustic or Electric|
|6150||.104”||.047”||Modern Fender Frets|
|6100||.118”||.058”||This is the typical “jumbo” fretwire. |
Common on Ibanez, Kramer,
Jackson, ESP, etc.
What’s the weirdest guitar frets I’ve ever played? I was fortunate enough to setup and play a vintage 1969 Gibson Crest that was owned by Jerry Reed. This guitar had the lowest frets I’ve ever felt. It was as if they were metal sheets of paper crossing the guitar neck, and amazingly there was no fret buzz whatsoever. While the guitar was nearly impossible to bend strings on, it was incredibly fast and the low frets also allowed for very low action. It didn’t match my style, but certainly added an interesting element to an equally unique guitar. These vintage Gibson frets most commonly found on their custom guitars were often called “fretless wonders.”
The GIbson Fretless Wonder
This nickname was given to Gibson guitars produced in the late 60’s through the 70s that used a particularly low and flat style of fret. During this time, guitarists often used a more “violinists” style of vibrato, achieving the effect by moving the hand parallel with the string.
While the notably fast action of the low profile frets offered easy chording and quick runs, it was not conducive to other techniques becoming popular. As blues and rock musicians began using bends and vibrato that moved the string parallel along the frets (instead of varying pressure parallel to the string), a larger fret was needed to allow the fingers to “get under” the string.
While the “Fretless Wonder” was a nickname applied to Gibson custom guitars from this era, they did utilize it in their marketing and would even print it on their guitar hang tags.
Why is it Called Fret Wire?
Frets do not come pre-cut to the correct size for the guitar maker to insert right on the neck. Most often, frets come in long sections of wire that are then cut down to a rough size, bent to the neck curvature, then inserted into the pre-cut fret slots.
What are Frets Made Of?
Metal right? Well yeah, but what kind of metal? There have been advancements in fret technology that create longer lasting frets that extend the amount of time between re-frets, sometimes dramatically.
The standard nickel alloy fretwire is 18% nickel-silver. As noted on the Warmoth website, this is a misnomer and this fretwire doesn’t contain any silver, but has an actual composition of nickel and brass. See the wikipedia article for more info. Interestingly, it’s oxide is conductive which makes it preferred for some electrical applications, like model train track, where physical contact is necessary for electrical function.
Another popular option is stainless steel. These frets are tough and stand up to considerable abuse, allowing decades of use before a refret is necessary. Some claim that stainless steel frets offer a brighter tone. However, when plugged into an amp, there is very little difference in the actual tone of the guitar. The materials used in the guitar strings are going to have a much larger impact on tone than fret material will.
Warmoth sells a gold fret wire that comes in two sizes, and is a nickel-free copper alloy. It is almost as hard as stainless steel is, and has the interesting characteristic of being hypo-allergenic for those players who react negatively to the nickel in normal frets. Plus it can add a flashy look to your guitar if that’s what you’re going for.
StewMac has an interesting product called Cryowire. This is standard nickel-silver fretwire that is put through a cryogenic thermal processes which cools the wire and then brings it back to normal temperature. (Actually it warms it, cools it, warms it agains, then brings it to room temp) It doesn’t make the material harder necessarily, but it helps to eliminate microvoids and inconsistencies in the fretwire. This helps your frets last much longer while retaining the traditional look and feel of nickel frets. Interested in more info on cryogenic processes? Check this article out.
ZerO glide zero fret
StewMac also sells a stainless steel zero fret setup. While this isn’t a separate type of fret, the zero fret system has been around for awhile and deserves a special callout. A zero fret allows for a smooth bend into the tuners and eliminates binding that comes from an improperly cut nut. Weird sounds caused by nuts are a common problem, and putting a zero fret on your guitar will help take care of those problems. It is a major change though, so make sure you’ve got a competent guitar tech to handle it.
Strings Vs Frets
The type of material is not only important for your frets, but also for your strings. A popular alternative to the standard nickel or nickel plated steel string, is stainless steel. Stainless steel strings offer a very bright and chimey tone with a long lifespan. The oils in our hands are one of the biggest killers of tone, simply because those oils increase corrosion. Stainless steel is naturally anti-corrosive.
Stainless steel is also a harder metal than most nickel-silver frets. This means that using stainless strings on nickel-silver frets can drastically increase fret wear and mean more frequent fret work for your beloved guitar.
If you like the chimey tone of stainless but don’t have the frets to match, first make sure that you’re using nickel plated steel strings and not pure nickel strings (for electric). Pure nickel strings will specifically call that out, while most strings that just say nickel are nickel plated steel. Read more about choosing the right guitar strings.
Basically you want the string you’re using to be softer than your frets so that your strings wear first. Strings are easy and cheap to replace. Frets, not so much.
And let’s be honest, you should probably be changing your strings more often than you currently are.
Regardless what kind of string you’re using, one big fret killer is the capo. The steady pressure of a capo puts much more stress on the frets than just your fingers pushing the strings down.
- Always remove a capo when you’re not using it. Never leave a capo on the guitar when it’s not being played!
- Buy a quality capo that allows you to adjust the tension, and only use enough tension to make the note clear while not pulling the string sharp. Learn more about my favorite capos.
Many fret related problems like buzzing and notes choking out can be taken care of with a little spot work. However, after awhile it will get to the point where your guitar is going to need an entire re-fret. A competent guitar tech or luthier will be able to tell you how much work is needed on your frets pretty quickly, so take your guitar in as soon as you suspect a problem.
Often a re-leveling of the frets will run in the ballpark of $100. And a full re-fret will cost $300-$400.
Re-leveling is possible if there is still enough fret material after the leveling to crown the fret, or give it that nice domed shape. If the frets are too low, then no amount of tinkering with the frets will help your buzzing woes.
Re-fretting a guitar takes some serious attention to detail and some specific tools to do the job correctly. Make sure you’re taking your guitar to a reputable shop for this type of work.
Guitar frets normally last quite a long time (think years and years), and if yours seem to be wearing out faster than normal, take a look at your technique, capo use, and string choice. You may be able to make a small change and really get the most out of the remaining life of your frets.
Hey, have you picked up your guitar today? Well have you!? Are you just online reading about guitars? Knock it off, put your computer (phone?) down right now and go play. And we’ll see you next time!