I'll just say that again: Frets are consumables.
They wear and they may have to be replaced.
This is the way of things.
I’ve yet to track down what indicates how quickly frets will be ‘consumed’ by any one player. While the amount of time you play is an obvious measure, some people seem to go through frets far more quickly than others. Not sure if it’s playing style, or chemistry, or both, or none.
But, if you play guitar or bass long enough, you’ll need to get some work done on your frets. Fretwork is one of the prices of playing guitar.
Frets are consumables.
Recognising the signs
You know how something familiar to you can change very gradually over a long period? So gradually that you don’t even notice it?
Fret wear does that.
I think this is why many players are surprised when I point out the deep divots, or worn, flat, tops on their frets. The wear sneaks in slowly and it’s easy to ‘acclimatise’ to it as it happens.
So, if you want to keep your guitar or bass at the top of its game, it pays to keep an eye on things from time to time.
The best time to do this is when you change strings. Just take a look at the frets. You’re looking for some flattening on top, or even some divots or ‘dents’ in the areas under the strings.
Or, just push your strings to the side right now and take a look.
Other signs might be fret buzz, choking, or a ‘zing’ on certain notes. Wear will happen unevenly and this will leave some frets lower or higher than others. That’s a recipe for fret buzz.
It’s worth mentioning that these aren’t always caused by fret issues but it’s a good indication that you need to consider assessing your setup or fret condition.
Some players notice intonation issues before they notice buzz issues. If you’ve read my Solving Intonation Problems guide, you’ll remember that flattening fret tops can cause an instrument’s intonation to drift in places.
If you play a lot with a capo — especially if it’s just in one or two positions — you’ll probably wear those frets more quickly.
A capo pretty much ensures a heavy, even pressure from all the strings against one fret.
There is a school of thought that says adjustable-tension capos will reduce the fret impact. I think there may be something to this but the clamping pressure still needs to be sufficient for a clean playing note so, my feeling is that the difference to fret wear is probably minimal.
That said, I haven’t experimented on this and the tuning benefits of an adjustable tension capo are enough to make it a worthwhile investment anyway. The possibility of a reduction in fret wear is a nice bonus.
The capo warning goes double, triple, quadruple for a zero fret. These will tend to wear more quickly than other frets because the strings are in contact with the zero fret all the time.
Some manufacturers have tried different ways to work around this problem. The most common ‘solution’ is to make the zero fret bigger (taller and, sometimes wider too) than the others.
Personally, I think a larger zero fret is a daft idea for a number of reasons. While it may extend the time before the fret has to be replaced (or before it obviously buzzes), a bigger fret will still wear and will be prone to the intonation issues noted above.
In addition, a well setup zero fret should be the same height as all the other frets. Making the zero fret taller makes for bad playing feel and intonation problems of its own (sharpened notes in the first few positions).
Other solutions involve ‘barbless’ zero frets that can be easily removed and replaced, and even individual ‘segments’ of fret that sit under each string (six on a regular guitar, for instance) that can be replaced one at a time as they wear.
If I were being completely nit-picky, I’d say that any new fret installation should be levelled to the rest of the board but, in real-world terms, replacement zero-frets are a good way of extending the time before you absolutely have to work on the rest of the fretboard.
I’m imagining the stainless steel fret guys siting around all cocky. 😉
Well, stainless wears too, buddy.
Yes, it’s certainly harder than nickel silver. That hardness comes at a cost though and, if you tend to wear frets quickly, you need to do some heavy-duty sums to figure out if the additional cost of stainless offsets how quickly you go through frets. Odds are it does, but do consider the sums.
The bottom line
Frets are consumables. They’re like printer ink, or pencils, or glue, or an arc-welding electrode. They’re there to do a job and get worn or used as they do it.
Sometimes that happens quickly and sometimes more slowly. Sometimes you won’t notice for ages.
But, if you stick with an instrument for long enough, you’ll need some fretwork.
Over the next couple of articles, I’ll talk some more about the different options for that fretwork and some of the pros and cons.