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Don’t Fret It! 10 Things You Should Know About Frets

Ted Drozdowski
|
08.04.2013
Les Paul Custom Black Beauty

It’s easy to take frets for granted. They’re standard equipment on every guitar and don’t have the potential “wow” factor of inlays or wood patterns. No wonder many players pay them little mind – until something goes wrong.

These banal bands of metal wire are incredibly important when it comes to playability, attack, tone and other factors. Here are 10 things you need to know about frets:

• How frets work: Actually considering what each part of your guitar does, rather than just accepting its presence, can lead to valuable insights.

Pressing a string against a fret reduces the vibrating length of that string to the distance between the pressure point and the bridge, thereby controlling pitch. On nearly every Western fretted instrument, the distance between frets is a semi-tone of equal temperament, assuring the easy achievement of strong sounding chords and single notes that fit our hemisphere’s usual expectations for rhythm sounds and melodies. Understanding the virtues and limitations created by the order of frets opens up the door to ways to escape their constricts, like bending strings, playing slide, using whammy bars, delving into extended technique or trying fretless instruments.

• What they’re made of: Frets are typically made of nickel-silver or nickel-steel alloys, or – less often – brass, copper alloy or stainless steel. The harder and more dense the material, with stainless at the top of the scale and soft nickel at the bottom, the brighter and more cutting the notes played on a guitar should sound. Most manufacturers use nickel alloys because the metal is soft and easy to work with. At this point, most guitarists’ ears have been developed to the sound of nickel as well, and most guitar buyers have a tendency to balk at the unfamiliar when shopping for instruments.

• How to check frets: The easiest and quickest way to make sure a guitar’s frets are in good shape is to look straight down the neck of a guitar, from body to headstock. If the frets are at different heights (improper installation is the culprit here with new guitars) or askew, there are problems. They should look uniform and exhibit as little denting or wear as tolerable. 

• Why size matters: Fret width and height affect playability considerably. Fret wire measures at .078 to .110 at the crown, or top, and runs between .035 and .055 high. Taller frets, at .45 and up, tend to make for easier string bending and produce clear notes without much pressure. The latter makes them ideal for high speed playing. The furthest point of that concept is the scalloped fretboard, employed most notably by Yngwie Malmsteen and John McLaughlin, who played a specially designed Gibson J-200 with scalloped frets and drone strings with the group Shakti.

Some fast pickers prefer short frets for quick fingerboard work. It’s all a matter of taste and style, although low-fret guitars will also produce a softer-edged tone. The Gibson Les Paul Custom is a classic example.

There’s also a school of players who prefer wide frets, typically .100 to .110, for improved intonation. Wide frets wear slower than skinny frets, so they retain all their properties – including the ability to sound notes accurately – longer.

• How wear alters playability: Fret wear – grooves worn in the frets from pressing down on the strings, depressions created by bending, lowered overall fret height from usage – can all cause buzzing noises to occur at points where frets are located along the neck. Luckily, these problems can typically be addressed by having the frets leveled and dressed several times before a fret replacement job is necessary, since fret replacements are costly.

• Why fret ends get sharp: Sometimes the end of the fret wire can become sharp or, more accurately, protrusive at the sides of a guitar’s neck. Besides being rough on the hands, this is an indicator of a trickier problem: that the fingerboard has become dry and shrunk. This means that the guitar has been kept in an environment that lacks the proper humidity. More careful storage is the ultimate answer, but using lemon oil on the fretboard also helps prevent this from happening by moisturizing the wood.

• How frets influence action: This is generally a matter of taste, technique and wear. Some players who find they are encountering resistance when they bend strings may need larger frets. If notes sound buzzy or imprecise, the culprit may be too-low frets. On the other hand, frets that are too high can prevent proper intonation. But raising a guitar’s action may be a cheaper solution to correcting the latter problem than a fret replacement.

• Why frets come loose: Wear from string contact, fretboard drying and jarring mid-gig or during transportation can cause frets to pop loose. And if binding loses moisture, that can cause the ends of frets to rise or be exposed. These all create troubles that can wrongly be blamed on the more typical problem of fretwear, but in these cases dressing or replacement isn’t necessarily the answer. If there’s enough fret wire left, a loose fret can be reseated in its slot along the fingerboard, and a skilled luthier can often fill the gaps between the binding and the fret ends.

• How fanned frets work: You’ve likely seen players like the jazz virtuoso Charlie Hunter picking instruments that have frets fanned out at an angle along the fingerboard. The aim of fanned fret placement is to give the lower strings more length and the higher strings less length, thereby providing more accurate tuning and deep bass sounds. Fanned frets may seem like an innovation, but they first appeared in the 16th century.

• Don’t always blame the frets: Buzzing doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a fret problem. Some guitar players set their bridges for super-low action in their quest for speed, and that can makes frets buzz. For beginners unfamiliar with how accurately tuned strings sound or more experienced players exploring dropped and open tunings for the first time, buzzing can also be a buzz kill. Low tunings like dropped D and open D and open C may prompt guitars with normal action to buzz due to the slack in the strings unless a guitar is set up properly to accommodate such tunings.


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