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Tone Tip: Frets

Dave Hunter | 09.10.2008

When guitarists give any thought at all to their frets, it’s usually in the context of playability. Most often, we tend to only notice them when they’re getting too low to provide an adequate “grip,” or developing divots and ridges and are in need of a stoning and crown job at the very least. Poor frets will certainly affect your tone in the broad sense, in that the better you play—with all critical components in good condition—the better you sound. Frets, however, are also a tonal component purely in terms of their contribution to the makeup of any guitar, and frets of different types, and in different states of wear, will affect the sound that a guitar produces.

When a guitar string is held down against the fingerboard, the fret takes over from the nut as the anchor point that determines the speaking length of that string, and therefore in transmitting the vibrational energy into the neck and body wood of the guitar. Contemporary fret wire is commonly made from only two different materials. The more traditional is a steel alloy that contains approximately 18 percent nickel-silver (also called “German silver”), itself a silver-free alloy of nickel and copper. The less traditional is stainless steel. The former is in far wider usage, and although stainless steel seems to be growing in popularity it is still by far in the minority.

Traditional nickel-silver frets are actually made from quite a soft steel, and can’t be relied upon to last the entire lifetime of a played guitar. They have evolved as a compromise between tone and durability, and as they are far and away the standard they really do hold a tonal monopoly, as far as classic recorded guitar sounds are concerned. It is a little pointless trying to describe “the nickel-silver fret sound” in light of all of the other variables at play on any given guitar. That said, frets obviously need to be sound and well seated to do their best vibration-transference work, and they need to retain an adequate depth of divot-free crown surface to be playable as well. Beyond matters of age, stability, and condition, the size of fret wire (its width and height, or—taken together—its profile) will contribute a slight tonal variable. The three broad categories of fret profile are narrow, medium, and wide (or jumbo). Gibson moved from narrow gauge frets on its Les Pauls of 1952-’58 to wide frets in 1959 (as the full range of Custom Shop VOS models exemplifies), and the change delineates  a preference for earlier or later examples with some players.

Many players are convinced that fatter wire equates with fatter tone, and there could be some logic here, considering that more metal in any fixed component usually means a greater vibrational coupling between string and guitar. Players such as Stevie Ray Vaughan, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Rory Gallagher, and plenty of others are known for preferring wide frets on guitars that were originally manufactured with narrow “vintage” gauge fret wire. In many cases, of course, this is a feel thing as much as a sound thing, and wider frets are indeed easier to bend without choking out. Wider frets also present somewhat blurrier, less distinct noting than narrow frets (all this under a powerful microscope, if you will, in tonal terms, but that’s what we’re here for). Narrow frets are more precise and can yield more shimmering harmonics. So determining which frets are right for you is a triangulation of sorts: you have to weigh the way the fret allows the string to determine pitch and to vibrate, against the way it might or might not transfer additional energy into the neck wood, against the way it bends and feels to the finger when played. In the end, the feel thing probably matters most to more players (followed closely by the “that’s the way SRV had his guitar…” factor).

In addition to a fret’s width, its height will also affect playability. Even wide frets become difficult to bend when they are worn down considerably from their original height, and low frets are far more difficult to achieve satisfactory finger vibrato with as well. Of course, you can get too high: frets that are too tall will lead some players to slip out of pitch, because any extra finger pressure actually bends the string into the back of the fret and raises the note slightly.

Stainless steel frets, although extremely rare until recently, are in wide enough circulation now to be considered a second standard of sorts. The same considerations of profile and feel apply here of course, but stainless steel fret wire certainly does wear a lot better than nickel-silver fret wire, and it can be expected to last a lot longer under comparable playing conditions. They also feel a little harder and slicker under the fingertip, which some players like and others don’t. Some makers and players claim stainless steel frets give a guitar a harder, harsher sound than nickel-silver frets, but many other respected luthiers will tell you that’s anything from “nonsense” to “negligible.” In the end, the feel thing will once again probably sway players to or away from stainless steel more than any other single factor, coupled by their willingness to pay the extra cash required to install and/or service these much harder frets.

Gauge preferences and any personal conclusions regarding the gauge/tone ration aside, condition remains a prime consideration with the frets on any guitar. It’s probably best to consider them a consumable: you might get ten or even 20 years of life out of your frets, but when they are worn down too much for a good milling, you just have to have them replaced. And beware the 40-year-old vintage guitar advertised with “original frets;” if the guitar has been played, it’s going to need a professional fret job sooner or later, and there’s no shame in that.