In olden days, fretwire came in only three sizes: small, smaller, and mandolin, which is not visible to the naked eye. Once electric instruments appeared, frets became taller and wider. Tall frets and light gauge strings mean you can now bend a high E string until either it breaks or slices open your fingertip. But I digress. Frets are the single most important element in the playability of a fretted instrument. They need to be exactly uniform in height and follow a gentle parabolic curve along the neck. The tops of the frets need to be rounded, not flat, so the string bears upon the smallest possible area. It is a perverse thing that the first frets to wear out are the ones that make your favorite notes. If only frets could be rotated, like tires. Oh well. So that brings us to:
Fret leveling and crowning.
Say your frets have some wear are not too low. You can get them leveled and crowned. This means that the frets are ground down to the lowest point and the tops of the frets are rounded (crowned). I use a slick method for leveling the frets while the neck is under string tension to get the best possible results. After milling the frets down to the point that they are all even, I lovingly crown each one to make it rounded on top. A note played on a crowned fret rings clear and true. A flat topped fret makes a buzzy, fuzzy, weak sound and the intonation is always off. I’ll glue down any loose frets so they don’t go wandering up and down in their slots. I charge $120 for this treatment and it can transform a mediocre playing instrument into one that inspires you. The downside to just doing a level and crown is that you lose fret height. Many road warriors come into my shop with frets that look like strips of tinfoil or have deep grooves in all of the favorite play areas. What then?
The reasons to refret a guitar are endless. The frets are too worn, too small, too big, popping out of their slots or they just plain suck. At any rate they need to be replaced. This is a delicate procedure, which must be done with care. It requires the proper tools and a great deal of experience. I call refretting “rebuilding the engine of the guitar.” The nice thing is you don’t have to keep it the same; you can pull out that wheezing four-banger and drop in a hemi!
Refrets start at $250 and that includes a new nut.
Fret wire sizes.
There are two basic dimensions to consider when picking out fretwire, width and height. I’ll address them separately
Low frets – under .040” tall.
Low frets are not for most people. They are the often the product of lots of guitar playing, which is a good thing, but sadly can lead to worn out frets. Low frets require a lot of effort and make string bending difficult. The only good thing that can be said about them is if you have a tendency to mash your strings into the fingerboard when you’re playing they’ll keep you from making the guitar go out of tune. The harder you press on a string the sharper the pitch. If the fret is low the fingerboard will stop you from going any further. It’s better to relax your left hand technique and stop squeezing coal into diamonds, Superman.
Medium height frets – .040 to .047 tall
Medium height frets are what you find on most acoustic guitars and some electric guitars, particularly vintage style guitars. If you recall in the beginning of the article, old guitars had small frets because that was pretty much all that was available. Some players like the feel and the sound. Smaller frets have less of an effect on tone, giving a more woody sound to the instrument. Medium height frets are also forgiving if you press too hard, but the drawback is that they make string bending more difficult.
Tall frets – .050 to .055 tall
Now we’re talking. If you’re playing electric guitar and you bend strings this is what you want. Tall frets are like power steering. Most bass players prefer frets that are tall or tallish because, like Texas, everything is bigger on the bass. Larger frets have a little bit more of a metallic sound, but the difference isn’t huge. If you are a string masher every fretted note will be sharp until you get used to them.
Really tall frets and scalloped fretboards.
These aren’t for everybody. It takes a lot of discipline or heavy gauge strings to keep from yanking every note sharp on these things. A scalloped fretboard has wood scooped out between each fret, which means your fingers don’t contact the board at all unless you’re doing a bend. Which you can do by pressing down on the strings! You can bend whole chords or do pedal steel tricks, bending one note in a chord while keeping the other ones the same. Why doesn’t everybody do this? Well, it’s a steep learning curve, difficult from a manufacturing standpoint, and many people find scalloped necks unplayable. But in the right hands…
Still with me? Like I said, it’s more than you want to know.
Narrow frets – .080” wide and less.
Narrow frets give you more space to put your fingers and change the intonation of your instrument less when they get worn. The wider the fret, the further from center the string contacts it when it starts to wear. If you have tall and narrow frets you can get what is known as the “railroad tie” effect. This means that sliding your hands up and down the neck is like driving your car on railroad tracks.
Medium width frets – .080 to .100 wide.
Medium width frets are a good compromise- enough space for your fingers but not too bumpy feeling when you slide up and down the neck. When they wear they mess up the intonation a bit, but you’re going to get them leveled and crowned again, right?
Wide frets – .100 and wider.
Wide frets are for those that like that low, wide “fretless wonder” feel and are the only choice when you get into the ginormous fret wire sizes. If you have a short scale instrument and big fingers they can make playing in the upper registers a bit cramped.
So what sizes do I like personally? For electric guitars and basses I like frets in the neighborhood of .050 tall and .100 wide; for acoustic guitars, .045 to .050 tall and .080 wide. For ukes, banjos, and mandolins I’ll go with something a bit smaller.
This is the standard fretwire material for 95% of instruments you’ll see. But hold on, not all nickel silver is the same. Industry standard is 18% nickel, which is fairly hard. The problem is that the tooling used to make fretwire is really expensive. The harder the wire, the faster the tooling wears out. So it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that you can make softer wire more cheaply. So it’s my sad duty to report that many inexpensive guitars suffer from soft fretwire that wears out quickly.
Not too long ago stainless steel fretwire came onto the market. Stainless is much harder than the hardest nickel silver and lasts a lot longer. The downside is that it’s more difficult (and expensive) to install and has a brighter, harder sound. It does offer really slick bending and polishes out beautifully.
EVO gold wire
This is a copper alloy wire that came out recently. It is harder than nickel silver but softer than stainless steel. It’s not difficult to work with and wears well. EVO wire is hypoallergenic, which is good for people that have a nickel allergy. It polishes out to a pretty gold color that some people like and others can’t get used to.
Fretboard radius and edges.
Technically this isn’t info about frets but it something that can be altered during a refret.
The fretboard radius is the curvature of the board viewed along a fret. A more curved fingerboard (smaller radius) is more comfortable for chording, but a flatter fingerboard (larger radius) allows for smoother string bending and better shredding.
Here’s a list of radii and which manufacturers use them,
9.5” Fender and most Fender copies
12” Gibson, Gretsch, Ibanez, Schecter, Epiphone, and too many others to mention
16” Martin, Jackson
20” Martin, Jackson
The slick setup is to create a compound radius, which means that the fretboard is more curved at the nut and flatter at the last fret. A typical compound radius is 10” at the nut and 16” at the last fret. This gives you the best of both worlds–comfortable chording and bending without choking out up the neck. I recommend it for any guitar player that like to bend strings.
Since the fingerboard is wood, I can change the radius to the player’s preference. A couple of caveats: Maple fingerboards have to be refinished, and drastic radius changes sometimes require replacing inlays. Replacing dots is no big deal, but if your fingerboard has an inlay of a wizard fighting a fire-breathing dragon that spells your name in script writing you might want to think twice about it.
Another option is to have the fingerboard edges rolled. Rolled edges means the wood or the binding at the edge of the board is rounded over to make a smoother edge. It happens naturally on instruments that have many hours of playing time and it feels like a well broken in pair of jeans.
A note on refretting guitars with binding: Guitars with bound necks are a little more difficult to refret so there is an upcharge ($50). There is a persistent myth that bound guitars need to have the binding removed for refretting. This is simply not true. Removing and replacing binding is a zillion times harder than simply notching the fret tangs to fit within the binding.
So are you thoroughly overloaded on information? Good! Shoot me an email or gimme a call and we’ll talk frets.
Thanks for reading!