I thought we could have a chat about fret work. It’s not a bad idea to understand why we might work on the frets on your guitar or bass and what we’d actually do with them.
At a basic level, we want each of our frets to be exactly the same height as its neighbour. If one is higher or lower a vibrating string can contact it and cause buzz (and we’re probably talking ‘bad buzz’ here). In the worst cases, the note can even choke out and die.
In an ideal world, your new guitar’s frets will have been perfectly levelled in the factory and will play beautifully. In the real world, some guitars might benefit from some fret work immediately to address any high or low spots that might be present.
And, even if they start off perfect, your frets will wear over time. Playing will gradually rub away some of the fret where it contacts with the string. As you’d suppose, the worst of the wear tends to be in the places you play most regularly.
Fret wear can eat into your frets and can easily cause a more regularly played fret to become lower than those surrounding it. This gives us a low spot/fret and introduces buzz.
It can also cause intonation issues. Really. Think of the profile or side view of a perfect fret. It’ll have a nice, rounded, shape. The string contacts a very small point on the top of the fret. All is well.
As the fret wears, the top of the fret flattens off. Now, when a string is fretted here, the point it ‘bears’ off is a little closer to the bridge. If you’re finding odd intonation issues creeping in to your guitar or bass, it’s a good idea to check fret condition and look for flattened tops.
Let’s get it sorted out.
Sometimes called a fret dress, a level does exactly that: level. When levelling, we remove some metal from all of the frets so that each is the same height as its neighbours.
When levelling to address fret wear, every fret will be ground down to the height of the lowest wear spot. The height of fret under the worst wear becomes the new height of all the frets.
Here’s the process:
- Adjust the neck to ensure I’m not levelling against a bow or back-bow. Depending on the job, there's a good chance I'll have the guitar jigged in the Neck Jig which allows me to replicate the tension of the strings as I level (bigger topic for another post, I think).
- Mask between the frets with a low-tack masking tape, cut to size, to protect the fingerboard.
- Run along each fret with a felt-tip pen. This makes it obvious where I’ve levelled and where remains.
- Use a long straight-edge with an abrasive (like sandpaper) and—working with the radius—begin abrading the tops of any higher frets.
- If addressing wear, keep going until I’ve taken all frets to the lowest wear spot i.e. there’s no more wear spots left. In the image below, you can see the dark ‘spots’ that remain as I level this neck.
- Levelling leaves a flattened top on the frets and this must be rounded over again (to that perfect profile we mentioned above). This is called crowning or re-crowning. A little metal is filed off the sides of each fret (along its length) so that it takes on a rounded profile again.
- A lot of polishing. After a level, you should be left with nice smooth, shiny frets that are a pleasure to bend on so I need to polish and remove any scratches I’ve introduced during the level.
After a fret level, your guitar will benefit from a setup. Fret height will have changed and the impact on nut slot depth, action and intonation should be assessed and addressed.
A fret level isn’t always possible or desired. It may be that the fret wear is too deep to leave enough height to level or it may be that a player doesn’t want the frets lowered due to her playing preferences.
Well then, we’re probably looking at a refret.
To refret, I have to remove the existing frets and install new ones. The new frets are cut to length and have their ends bevelled and rounded. Then, I go through all of the fret level steps listed above.
There are other reasons than wear that might make us consider a refret. Humps and S-shaped necks might push us to refret so that we can do some levelling on the wood of the fingerboard itself. Relief issues might prompt corrective refretting (where we use different shaped tangs to force the neck into a straighter position). And, some repairs can mean we have to refret afterwards.
Most of the time, though, we’re refretting to address well worn frets—the result of putting the guitar to good use.
If you’re planning some fret work—especially a refret—get someone you can trust. Ask around and get some recommendations as a poorly executed refret can do nasty things to a neck. Find a repair person you feel confident with and you should end up with a beautifully playing guitar with some shiny, shiny frets.