Brian May and the Zero Fret Controversy

Since I published the last article on fret wear being an inevitable part of the guitar or bass experience, I’ve been surprised to have received quite a few replies that have all zoned in on one point — a point that I had felt was (a) relatively minor and (b) relatively controversy-free.

Apparently not.

Correcting some misinformation on Brian Bay's Red Special zero fret replacement.

Does a zero fret really wear more quickly?

Turns out the opinion that, all things being equal, a zero fret will tend to wear more quickly than other frets has caused some level of disagreement.

Some people believe I’m wrong to claim zero frets wear faster.

The Brian May Controversy

Pretty much all of the responses I’ve received about this can be boiled down to the following claim:

Brian May’s zero fret lasted forty years before it needed to be replaced, therefore zero frets don’t wear more quickly.

A number of the responses even cited a Premier Guitar article titled String Nut or Zero Fret (Heiko Hoepfinger). In that article, while refuting the view that the zero fret will wear more quickly than others, Heiko writes the following:

“Tell that to Brian May, who finally had the zero fret on his “Red Special” swapped after 40 years, while the rest of the frets had been replaced way more often. And you can’t say he didn’t use it.”

Well, you absolutely can’t say that Brian May didn’t use that famous Red Special guitar so what’s going on? This information didn’t jibe with my experience and I hate when things don’t jibe with my experience.

So, rather than ignoring it and moving on, or responding with ‘well, you’re all wrong because My Opinion’, I figured I’d do some more digging.

I got my detective hat on…

I spoke with Greg Fryer from Fryer Guitars (the luthier who first worked on the Red Special around 1998) and Andy Guyton from Guyton Guitars (who worked on the guitar in the mid 2000s and was the one that actually replaced that zero fret). Greg and Andy were both incredibly helpful and generous with their time and I’m very grateful to them.

Here’s what I’ve found.

Fryer Guitars

Greg Fryer did some extensive restoration work on the Red Special in the late nineties. He didn’t work on the instrument’s frets back then but he said the following:

“Brian's zero fret would have started to wear quickly like any zero fret, he is a very light player and managed to make his guitar sound great despite the wear on his frets and on the zero fret for a long time. [All the frets] were very worn!”

There are some great images of Greg’s meticulous work on his site. I really recommend checking them out if you’re a Red Special fan.

Guyton Guitars

Andy Guyton first worked on Brian’s guitar in 2005. He told me the following:

”Zero frets inevitably wear quicker than the others due to the constant contact and pressure of the strings. Always a good idea to substitute stainless on the zero, with nickel silver for the rest….or stainless for the lot.”

”I replaced BM’s zero fret around 2005 . . . and it was shagged beyond belief!! It was so badly worn it was virtually worn right through, and his open g sounded awful. . . . All the other frets are original, it has never been dressed or re fretted, and it’s pretty tough to play past the 12th. I don’t know how he does what he does. He’s not a mere mortal!”

The emphasis above is mine but I felt it was worth calling out. Incidentally I’m not sure if ‘shagged beyond belief’ translates well for all readers but, suffice it to say, the phrase indicates a fret in pretty poor condition. 😉

Andy installed a new zero fret because it had become pretty much unplayable, even for Brian. As a slight aside, because the rest of the frets were not replaced, the new — now-perfect — zero fret was actually causing intonation problems. It’s shape was a normal fret ‘crown’ shape whereas the other frets had been worn flat so their ‘take-off’ points for a fretted note had shifted towards the bridge (for a better illustration check out my article: Intonation Problems? Look To Your Frets).

Andy’s very clever solution involved making a zero fret that was shaped with an offset crown, bringing the contact point closer to the bridge. Nicely done, Andy.

Some Further Reading/Viewing

There is a book all about the guitar in question. Brian May’s Red Special is available from Amazon (UK|US — Affiliate links). You can find out a little more about the book at its website.

Also at the website, you’ll find some photos like the one below. Clicking on it will load a pretty big image (about 7MB — maybe don’t do it on mobile) of the Red Special. Zooming in gives you an idea of the fret wear (flattening and ‘mushrooming’ under the strings).

Brian May's Red Special - Book and blog by Simon Bradley

Brian May's Red Special - Book and blog by Simon Bradley

Interestingly, you can make out some wear on Andy’s (relatively) new zero fret too. I don’t have a date for this photo but it is post restoration and zero-fret replacement.

Lastly, an article on that site, by Simon Bradley (who wrote The Red Special book with Brian May), confirms that the guitar has never been refretted.

That Premier Guitar article

I mentioned that many of the responses I received on this topic quoted a Premier Guitar article written by Heiko Hoepfinger.

Heiko and I have had some contact in the past so I dropped him a line to see if I could get a primary source for his information that the Red Special had been refretted at least once without the zero fret needing to be replaced.

Unfortunately, it’s an older article and Heiko told me that the links he used to research the piece are no longer active.

Heiko has said he does not take fact checking lightly and his point was “more about the general wear on zero frets and those saying these have to be higher than the rest of the frets, etc. Sorry, if that was misleading for someone looking for the details of a certian [sic] instrument.”

I shared Andy and Greg’s information with Heiko and he conceded that I should go with their story.

So where does that leave us?

There are a few points here:

On the Red Special zero fret

It seems that the Premier Guitar claim that Brian May’s Red Special had been refretted “way more often” than its zero fret doesn’t hold water.

The Red Special has never been refretted and has the wear to back this up.

Its zero fret was replaced, leaving all other frets untouched because it was most in need of replacement.

On zero fret wear in general

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say Heiko’s article has an implied claim that zero frets don’t wear so quickly as the other frets on an instrument. That the article was cited as evidence against zero fret wear, in responses to me, indicates that others read it that way too.

I respectfully disagree with Heiko on this one. To prevent my being a sample size of one, I’ve purposely left Greg Fryer’s and Andy Guyton’s broader mentions of zero fret wear in their quotations above. I’ve casually asked a couple of other repairers about this and they’ve come down on the side of faster zero fret wear too.

On widely-accepted information

Not for the first time in guitar-lore, I find it incredibly interesting how a particular belief or opinion can become ‘canon’.

Whether it be word-of-mouth from local player to local player, or a magazine/blog article, information spreads quickly and can easily become embedded in our minds as accepted truth.

The guitar and bass world is full of accepted wisdoms and we can all benefit from thinking critically about anything we hear someone speaking as gospel.

On fret wear in general

I’ve written often about fret buzz (just one example). Much of the time I do so, an underlying theme is not to sweat a little buzz. If it’s not audible in a mix, you don’t really need to worry about it.

Now, Brian May is a very talented guitarist. It may be that his skill and light touch minimises the buzz that heavy fret wear can bring. I’d really love to sit in a room with him as he played the Red Special unplugged though. I suspect there might just be a bit of fret buzz there.

You might not hear buzz when it’s pumped through a bank of AC30s, in a mix with the rest of the band but… Well, that’s my point.

The bottom line

This was a long one. Sorry. I got the bit between my teeth and, to be honest, I enjoyed the detective work on this one.

To sum up, in my opinion zero frets will wear more quickly (all things being equal). That’s certainly been my experience over the years. I can’t claim to speak for all luthiers/repairers but I’m fairly certain this is a relatively controversy-free belief among those who work with instruments.

If you have a different opinion, I'd encourage you to think critically about why that might be. I'm all for examining my own beliefs but I've spent a lot of time on this already. If your opinion is based on a sample size of one, for instance, I don't feel there's much to be gained from further discussion on the subject.

Thanks and acknowledgements

Massive thank you to both Andy Guyton (Guyton Guitars) and Greg Fryer (Fryer Guitars) for their time and invaluable help with this one. It’s hugely appreciated.

Huge thanks also to Heiko Hoepfinger (BassLab) for his time, his understanding, and his good grace.