It seems to make sense that we round out our discussions on all things fret-related with a round-up of some important properties of frets.
Now, this could get pretty in depth but I’m going to keep it at a higher level to avoid dragging you too far into the weeds. What I’m going to try do is give an overview of what you need to consider when you’re thinking about frets.
For instance, I’m not going to discuss bar frets at all. Most of you won’t come across them very often. If that’s your thing, you can read more about bar frets). So, with those out of the way, here’s what the frets you’ll encounter will look like:
Parts of a guitar fret
The tang is the bit that inserts in the fingerboard fret slots. Think of the barbs like little ‘hooks’ that help to hold the fret in place in the wood. That’s tangs and barbs.
Now, don’t worry about them any more. For our purposes here, we’re just interested in the crown.
The crown is the business part of the fret. That’s what sits on top of the fingerboard and that’s what your string contacts when you play.
The main things to consider on a fret crown are the dimensions. Height and width play a big part in how your guitar or bass feels to play.
Fret Size Considerations
Again, I’m not going to get too far into listing the height and width of various manufacturers’ fret wire. There’s far too much to cover in that.
Some fret wire makers have codes (like Dunlop’s 6105 for instance) or a table of dimensions, but I like the way StewMac breaks things down things. It’s easy to think about and visualise.
Consider just a few ‘categories’ for height and width…
When it comes to width, you can have narrow, medium, and wide frets. Height can be categorised as low, medium, and high (actually, StewMac also has a ‘highest’ section for some fret wires).
Within these categories, there is some variation here and there but you can easily get a feel for what’s being described. For example, a ‘wide/highest’ fret would be a pretty big fret, equivalent to what’s often called a jumbo fret.
We’re totally skipping narrow wire. It’s most often used on mandolins, ukes, and banjos these days. Some older guitars also use narrow wire but you won’t come across it much.
Other more common frets will fall into these categories:
Medium Width, Medium Height
Medium wire has been the workhorse fret wire. Most instruments come with a medium width wire and, while what’s considered ‘standard’ seems to have been getting slightly wider in recent years, a medium width and height wire is still very common.
Medium Width, High or Highest
This is my go-to wire. It’s on the wider end of the medium width wires and has more height. It’s not into the wide or jumbo territory but has a bit more ‘meat’ to it.
Wide Width, Medium Height
This is probably equivalent to an older jumbo fret. Back in the day, this would have been considered pretty huge but, modern sizes have pushed it to the lower end of the ‘big’ wires.
Wide Width, Highest
This is the modern-day jumbo, and jumbo it is. These are beefy frets and not for everyone. You’ll most often find these on something shredtastic.
The pros and cons
Tall frets are great for a fast feel but don’t play them if you tend to grip hard — it’s like a scalloped fingerboard and you’ll press the notes sharp really easily unless you’ve a light touch.
Tall frets will last longer before having to be removed and refretted and they can take more fret levels along the way.
As frets wear, wide ones will probably do weird things to your intonation.
Other than that (and the claims that some players hear a difference in different sized frets) much of this is down to personal preference. See you you can find some different guitars to play and get a feel for what you like.
Fret Material Considerations
Again, we’ll disregard some of the less common things like brass and concentrate of the two (no, three) materials you’ll come across most often.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. You probably know, but you have to begin every discussion of nickel silver with the disclaimer that there’s no actual silver in it — it’s just a name. Right. Let’s move on.
Nickel silver is an alloy of copper, zinc, and nickel. Most of the time, it has about 18% nickel. Lower nickel-content wires aren’t as hard.
Pretty much every fret on pretty much every guitar out there is nickel silver. You’d think that’d be good enough for anyone but, no…
In the same way that greedy billionaires crave more money and evil geniuses crave more power, guitarists craved more hardness.
Stainless steel was the answer. Damn, it’s hard. Frets made of stainless will definitely last longer. Beware of claims that it’ll never wear out but, for most players, it’s going to last a very long time between refrets.
If you wear through frets quickly (and some of you do), stainless might be the answer for you. If you can find someone to do it, of course. Not all repairers and luthiers like working with stainless because it makes life much more difficult than it needs to be and these people are human too; just like you they want as little pain and stress in their lives as possible.
If you want to go down the stainless route, it’ll almost certainly cost you more but, if you have to refret or level often, it might be worth it. Do the sums.
The forgotten and neglected stepchild: EVO
This is the ‘no, three’ material I mentioned above. It’s not super common but it really should be. I really like EVO wire.
EVO is an alloy of copper, like nickel silver, but it’s got some different craziness built in: CuSnFe1Ti which is copper, tin, iron and titanium.
EVO is harder than nickel silver but not quite as hard as stainless. This makes it last longer than regular frets without being so hard to work as stainless. I suspect it’d be more popular if:
A. More people knew about it
B. People were ok with the colour — it’s got a gold tinge to it.
Some people don’t like the gold thing. That said, I’ve installed EVO wire into some pretty standard guitars and the colour isn’t actually that noticeable when it’s installed.
Still, if you’re not into it, you’re not into it.
And what about the tone of these materials?
Meh. Personally, I don’t think the tonal claims hold too much water but, if you hear it, great. You should definitely tell people in a forum. Nah — sorry for being flippant but my advice is that the tone of these things is not a major factor in why you would or wouldn't change so, don't worry about it.
I know some stainless aficionados who claim it keeps a slinkier, more slippy feel when playing and bending and I’d probably concede that. Same applies to EVO.
That was a super fast, down and dirty, whistle stop tour of fret properties. Not sure if I’ve succeeded in clarifying anything or just muddying the waters. Hopefully the former.