I’ve always wanted to find a way to use ‘redux’. I blame Coppola. 😉
So, we’ve accepted that frets are consumables. Let’s start to look at some of the options available to deal with that fact of life.
By the way, I’ve touched on these topics before but I want to expand things out a bit and so it’s worth visiting this bit again.
If it’s the case that you’ve got some fret wear, and if that wear is sufficient to make itself intrusive — most probably with fret buzz or choking notes — our first, and most likely, option is a fret level.
You’ll sometimes hear a fret level referred to as a fret ‘dress’ or, occasionally a fret ‘stoning’ (probably because, historically, whetstones were a good way to level frets).
When is a fret level appropriate?
If the wear isn’t too deep and/or there is sufficient height left in the worn frets (more below), a level will probably be possible.
What is a fret level?
A fret level refers to the process of abrading the tops of the frets in order to ensure that each is on the same plane* as all the others.
In the case of newly installed frets (or a fretboard with uneven frets), this means removing more metal from the tops of any high frets in order to bring them to the level of their neighbours.
In the case of older frets with wear spots, the levelling process will remove some metal from the tops of the unworn frets — to bring them to the height of the worn ones — and will ‘even out’ the worn frets so they’re consistent across their length.
After all the frets are ‘level’ they’re usually left with a flattened top. This is actually a similar situation to what you’d see in a worn fret but at least each fret is consistent along its length and with its neighbours.
Now the frets are re-crowned. Crowning shapes each fret so that the harder shoulders are removed so leave a nice rounded shape with a positive fretting point along the exact centre of the fret.
There's one manufacturer that often seems to skip this crowning stage leaving frets that can feel a little more uncomfortable for some players — the frets still have that hard-shouldered, square feel. Personally, I reckon crowning is a vital part of a good fret job.
*I say the same plane rather than the same height as it’s a more accurate description. The frets could gradually increase or decrease in height along the neck but, as long as the plane (or the line across their tops) is consistent, it’ll play cleanly.
If the fret wear is so deep that a fret level would leave frets that are then too low for comfortable and clean playing, a refret is probably called for.
When is a refret appropriate?
Someone emailed me recently to ask what was the ‘cut-off’ height (where a fret level was no longer feasible and a refret was required). I had to confess, I didn’t have a figure to give. There are two reasons for this.
Firstly, it’s something I’ve always run on some weird combination of instinct and experience. I can generally make a pretty good call based on assessing things.
And, secondly, it’s not necessarily the same for all players. This point is important. Some players will happily play ‘Fretless Wonder’ type guitars with the barest sliver of metal left on the frets and some will struggle with low frets. Each job should be assessed with the player in mind…
Out of embarrassment at not having a figure, I had to take a look at some of the instruments in the workshop and try to extrapolate something.
So, my advice in most circumstances is that a fret height of less than 0.025” (about 0.65mm) is probably the lower limit for the majority of players. Less than this and you’re probably into refret territory.
What’s involved in a refret?
The existing frets are removed from the neck before new ones are installed. Then the new frets are levelled.
Obviously, things are a little more involved than this and care should be taken in performing the work or in selecting a tech to do so for you. A botched refret can cost more to correct than to do it right first time.
I’ll go into more detail of the how-to at some point in the future but, for now, know that a good refret isn’t just a matter of pulling old frets and hammering in new ones. That’s certainly part of it but, done properly a refret is a chance to assess and address any problems with the condition of the neck and fingerboard themselves. Relief problems, unevenness, radius issues, inlay, fret slots, binding, and more can be handled before new frets are installed.
After the frets have been replaced, their ends are bevelled and smoothed. Then, they’re levelled (same process as outlined above).
Often, after a refret, it’s necessary to replace the nut too. What frequently occurs is that the nut slots in the existing nut are now too low in comparison to the new frets. Of course, the option of shimming the nut exists too, if preferred.
What about a brand new neck?
Another, less common option exists (if you’ve got the right sort of guitar or bass).
Just replace the neck.
Leo built his guitars to be modular — if it needs a new neck, just bolt on a new neck.
From a cost point of view, it’s certainly a contender. But there are reasons this usually isn’t the chosen path.
Most players don’t like the idea of changing, especially if what’s already installed is a ‘proper’ branded neck from that guitar’s manufacturer. It’s sometimes more difficult to replace that with a neck that has the right logo, for instance.
Licensed necks are perfectly fine structurally but they won’t have a logo.
Worth considering also that an instrument’s serial number is often on the neck only. That might cause issues validating a guitar’s provenance if you’re selling on (or even if your guitar is recovered after being lost or stolen).
And, some instruments, even if they have a bolt-on neck, don’t have an easy, or legitimate, channel to source a replacement neck.
Lastly, and possibly the most important: The Feel. Players get comfortable with a neck. Even one that’s ostensibly the same may not feel as comfortable. And it certainly won’t have the hard-earned wear of their original.
Nah… Despite Leo’s best intentions it’s rare that a player choses to swap necks when they can swap frets instead.
For most players, the way to deal with fret wear is by fret level or refret. Hopefully this has given you an idea of what's involved in each. Next time we’ll continue our fret odyssey and expand this out at little with some more fretty info.