Fretted instruments are by far the most common of all musical instruments, with the guitar topping the bill, especially the electric guitar. Familiar fretted instruments include mandolins, bouzoukis, bass guitars, banjos, dulcimers and numerous derivatives. There is a myriad of less familiar ones, some of them produced long ago, such as the Viola da Gamba, diverse ethnic instruments from all over the world, and a host of Chinese instruments. The thing they share in common is that they all have fingerboards and frets. What is it about fretted instrument that makes them so popular nowadays?
In a nutshell they are fairly easy to play at a basic level, very affordable, and very available. They are also portable, sociable, and maybe most important to the young, electric guitars can be very loud!
Now to the specifics of this article.
Frets on instruments are similar to tyres on cars. For great performance they have to be accurately fitted, properly maintained, or replaced when damaged or worn down too far. Since the majority of notes played use the frets, they are essential to the sound.
Fret wire comes in a variety of sizes and hardness. The main dimensions concerning most players, are the height and width, which have a bearing on the feel. But essentially all frets do the same job.
To start with they have to be accurately positioned to enable the instrument to play in tune. Most modern, mass produced fingerboards, are cut by carefully set machines, so the fret slots are accurate. Repositioning one or more frets on a finished instrument is not an easy or cheap job.
Secondly, they should be firmly seated into the fingerboard. Any looseness will result in loss of tone, particularly high frequencies, and also possible fret buzz, or even wrong notes.
Frets precisely limit the vibrating length of the string. They need to be high enough for the player to apply sufficient pressure on the string. The centre of the fret should be the highest part to achieve the best intonation. It should come to a rounded peak to be comfortable and work well.
As frets wear down, the surface becomes flat, effectively shortening the string slightly, affecting intonation as well as the tone, which tends to become ‘zingy’. Heavily worn frets have little valleys under the strings resulting in the problems mentioned above, as well as others such as fret buzz or choking.
Mild wear can usually be overcome by stoning and re-crowning. For heavy wear, refretting is necessary.
As with the most Luthiers and guitar makers the majority of guitars and other instruments coming into the workshop benefit from some degree or other of work to the frets. The first port of call is usually the frets, whether polishing, stoning, dressing or even replacing. The shaping and finishing of frets make a huge difference to the comfort and feel of the instrument. Frets in good condition enhance the performance of the instrument ,and the pleasure of the player. So do yourself a favour, don’t fret about your frets, get them checked out by your Luthiers or guitar techs!