level

Fret Work - Levels and Refrets

Move your strings aside and take a look underneath for evidence of fret wear. The worst spot's highlighted but you can see the flattening all over.

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

Fret wear

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.

Fret Level

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.

During a fret level to address wear. The lower, wear spots can be seen as the darker areas on the frets

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.

Refret

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.

Ask Around

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. 

Nice shiny frets

Nice shiny frets


Fret Buzz: Is it REALLY a Bad Thing?

I need to talk about fret buzz. This is a bit difficult for a repair guy to do because, as I get into this, it can sound like I’m trying to dodge responsibility for shoddy work. That’s not the case—I actually feel pretty strongly about not doing that. The thing is though, it’s important for a player to be realistic about his or her needs and expectations when it comes to setup. Nowhere is this more of an issue than with fret buzz.

Here's a bold, but true, statement: The guitar is an imperfect instrument.

In order to generate noise it’s necessary to make a string vibrate up and down. Unless you’re fingering at the very end of the neck, under that vibrating string is a length of fingerboard, usually with a number of frets installed in it. It’s not like a harp, where you pluck a string and it rings beautifully and unimpeded—your guitar or bass has a bunch of wood and metal just dying to interfere with that vibrating sting.

Careful fret levelling and good setup can get an instrument playing cleanly. However, bear in mind that your playing style and technique, and the choices you make around action and strings, will have a major bearing on how cleanly that guitar plays.

Fret buzz MIGHT be a problem. Or it might not. Think critically and be consider the compromises either way.

Fret buzz MIGHT be a problem. Or it might not. Think critically and be consider the compromises either way.

Is buzz bad?

Yes.

Most of the time.

However, if you’ve got a low action on your electric guitar or bass and you tell me you can hear a buzz when you play it unamplified, I’m going to ask you if that buzz can be heard when you play it through the amp, in a normal setting.

Buzzes on electric instruments that can’t be heard through the amp are often the price of that low action you like. In an ideal world, it wouldn’t be there but it’s not an ideal world (see note above on harps). If you want to play your electric guitar unamplified, it might need to be set up differently. Remember that there’s a reason most acoustic instruments are not set up with actions as low as their electric cousins.

Consider action

Is your action appropriate for your style of playing? We’ve talked about this before—if you’re a hard player, you can’t expect to play with the same action as a really light picker. Bigger string vibrations need more room to move and a higher action is the answer.

Consider string gauge

Super light stings wobble about more on a particular instrument. A heavier gauge might give you a cleaner result. Playing the heaviest strings you’re comfortable with is always good advice.

The elephant in the room: technique

Ooooh. This is the difficult bit.

I’m (very, very) far from being the best player in the world. However, I’ve worked on these things enough that, at least, I’m pretty good when it comes to fingering/fretting notes cleanly. There have been times when I’ll play a guitar that someone’s brought in for buzzing problems and it’ll play just fine.

That’s tricky. Nobody likes to think something might be their fault (I certainly don’t) and nobody wants to be the guy to tell someone that it’s their fault (I certainly don’t). But sometimes it is.

Fingering position and pressure are likely culprits. You want to be right behind the fret with a firm enough pressure to ensure good string-contact with the fret. If chords are buzzing, play the same notes individually—is the buzz still there? Sorry that I’m teaching grandmas to suck eggs here. However, if someone else can cleanly play your buzzing guitar, you might need to consider adjusting your technique or your expectations for your setup.

On to Hardware…

Of course, there are hardware problems that can cause fret buzz. A couple of the more common:

Hardware issues: High/Low Frets

For a guitar to play cleanly, each fret should be neither higher or lower than its neighbours. If a fret is high, playing notes behind it may cause the string to vibrate off that fret. If you’ve a low fret, then the fret directly in front of it is (relatively speaking) a high fret.

High or low frets can be caused by poor fret installation and levelling. It’s also possible for frets to loosen and to sneak up out of the fretboard over time.

If your guitar buzzes in one or a few small areas but plays cleanly elsewhere, high or low frets may be the reason. For instance, if you’re playing each note up the board and all play cleanly until, say, 9th fret. The 10th has a little buzz and the 11th sounds awful but the 12th plays cleanly again. You might have a high 12th fret.

It’s not always so cut and dry as this, of course, and it can be useful to use a short ruler to try ‘rock’ across a few frets. You can buy a ‘fret rocker’ (which has a number of different-length sides to fit across differently spaced frets) from Stew Mac or eBay, or you can cut a 6" steel rule into different lengths. If you span three frets and your tool ‘rocks’, one of those frets is higher or lower than its pals.

Hardware issues: Nut Slots

If you get a buzz when you play an open string, there’s a good chance the string slot in the nut is too low. It’s also possible the you need a little more relief or your first fret is too high. Odds are good it’s the nut, though.

Hardware Issues: Relief

Incorrectly set relief (the bow your neck pulls into under string tension) can lead to fret buzz.

At a high level, too much relief can be a cause of some buzz higher up the neck. Too little relief might cause some buzz all over if you don't play lightly. A back-bowed neck will generally buzz in the lower positions and play more cleanly higher up.

This is all very general. If you haven’t downloaded your copy of Truss Rods Made Easy, pop off and do so. You’ll find more information on relief issues in there.

Hardware Issues: Humps and Bumps

The neck itself can sometimes be less than level. Humps and warps can happen. The result is that some sections are higher than their neighbours and that has to be addressed. A fret level or fingerboard level/refret is often the answer.

The bottom line

Potential hardware issues aside, a good setup for you may well be the result of some compromises. You might have to play with a lighter touch if you want a low action. Or, you might need to play a higher action to accommodate your style. You might need to live with some unamplified buzz.

Before you ask your repair person to lower your action, really, really think about it.

The most perfect, flawless, fret-job in the world will buzz if the setup isn’t right for the player’s style and technique. Be realistic about what’s right for you and don’t worry too much about unamplified buzz.

Or buy a harp.

Pearl Inlay Problems and S-Shaped Necks

This is almost another before and after post like the last one. Although, probably, the photo below is more of a 'during' and after. 

This pearl inlay dot needs to be replaced (obviously)

The photo shows what's left of a pearl inlay position marker in a fingerboard. I was pretty sure I'd encounter this as I performed this particular job (although, I'd been hoping it wouldn't).

A little background is called for. 

You'll probably know that, ideally, you'll want your guitar's neck to be straight, or with just a smidge of relief (the slight bow that string tension pulls into the neck). That's all good. Sometimes, however, necks (and I'm really talking about the fingerboard/frets here) can take on funny—more annoying, really—shapes. 

A rise or hump at the end of the fingerboard, around the last few frets, isn't unusual and it's a relatively common fix. Slightly more rare is the S-shaped neck. This ailment leaves us with an extra hump/dip along the length of the fingerboard. 

On an S-shaped board, we'll often have a hump at the end and a hump around the third or forth fret. The first couple of frets dip back. This scribbly sketch from my crumpled, pocket notebook gives you a pretty exaggerated idea of what I mean.

S-Shaped neck

S-Shaped neck

Depending on a few things, it's sometimes possible to improve matters by removing the frets and levelling the fingerboard so that it's back to a proper straight plane. When one of your humps or dips is large, however, this can cause the problem you see in the first photo above.

In this case, the first couple of frets dipped so much that I had to take off quite a bit of fingerboard wood to try get things straight again. Along with the wood I was removing from the high bits, I was also removing inlay. I hoped I'd get away with it while knowing, deep down, I wouldn't.

I didn't.

Oh, well. Add inlay replacement to the job list.

Nice new pearl dots. 

In the most ideal of ideal worlds, I'd remove the whole fingerboard from an instrument with as much S-ing as this one, and replace it with a new, good one. That tends to be a pretty involved and expensive job, though and it can be difficult to justify in this, less ideal, real world.

It's worth my mentioning that—I think—there was at least some of this S-shape thing going on from the factory. It's not a particularly old guitar and the frets themselves have a level that's different to the fingerboard. This leads me to think that there was some S-ing happening already when these frets were levelled. If that's the case (and this fact, and others, leads me to think it is), that's pretty poor form.