Dun dun duuuuuuuun…
Gibson binding fret ‘nibs’
Agh, the binding nibs. Those little bits of neck binding on a Gibson guitar that stick up at the end of each fret.
These nibs can cause some players a lot of concern when it eventually comes time for a refret. Before we get to that bit, though, let’s actually consider the nibs themselves.
What are Gibson binding fret nibs for?
To look snazzy. That’s it. They serve no functional purpose at all. They’re triumph of form over function (not that there’s always a problem with form over function — not always).
How are they made?
Fret nibs are actually really easy to do when you’re making a guitar.
Before it’s glued to the neck, the fingerboard is fretted. The fret ends are filed off flush with the edge of the fingerboard. Once that’s done, the binding is glued to each side of the fingerboard.
This binding will, initially, stand proud of the frets and board ,and will be cut and scraped down to the appropriate height and shaped around the fret ends. If you look closely at the binding on a Gibson chances are good you’ll find some small amounts of roughness, some inconsistencies, and some ‘chatter’ marks from the scraping process.
Once the binding follows the profile of board and frets, the entire fingerboard/binding ‘assembly’ can be glued to the neck.
So, the frets are fitted to the fingerboard before the binding is attached. It’s easy that way.
What’s definitely NOT easy is retaining these binding nibs during a refret.
Refretting with Gibson binding nibs
So, you need a refret but you really want to save your binding nibs. I love those things, man. Those nibs really pull the vibe together.
Well, you’d better brace yourself because keeping those nibs is a giant pile of meticulous pain. To do so, you have to precisely cut and radius every single fret to a massive degree of accuracy. You don’t want gaps from a fret that’s too short and a fret that’s too long will push out the binding and damage it and the finish.
When I say this is a lot of work, I mean a LOT. Imagine a ‘LOT’… Yeah, it’s more than that. In fact it’s a WHOLE LOT!!! With three exclamations. Maybe four. And when you’ve got that many exclamations, you know it’s gonna cost you.
Welllll… maybe we could remove the binding first. Nope. As we discussed, that’s typically a terrible idea. And, on newer Gibsons, it’s actually harder to do because the binding is shaped sort of like a fret — it’s got a T-section with a ‘tang’ that fits into a slot in the edge of the fingerboard.
Anyway, I don’t recommend it.
I’ve heard stories that some people ‘replace’ the nibs by melting binding in acetone and using it to rebuild the higher binding portions. While I’ve repaired some damaged binding in this way, to me it doesn’t feel like a scalable solution for replacing forty four nibs in an aesthetically acceptable way. And, you’ve still got to cut your frets to pretty close tolerances (albeit that you can be a little less precise).
Nah, I’ve never done this nib-replacement but I don’t feel comfortable recommending it.
So what’s the answer for refretting with binding nibs?
If you’re getting a refret, you need to make peace with losing your nibs.
Many (most) repairers won’t even entertain the option of keeping the nibs. If you find one that does, expect an invoice that’s appropriate to the time, effort, and expertise necessary to fret to these painstaking tolerances.
And, similarly to the limitations of a partial refret, keeping the nibs means that no work can be done to the fingerboard itself. This can stymie some corrective work and can completely preclude more.
If you’re really worried about the ‘vibe’, you may take solace in the fact that Gibson are releasing more instruments without binding nibs. And, certainly, the fact that you’ll probably end up with a more playable instrument should help ease your mind.
The ‘vibe’ of fret nibs wasn’t conceived with refrets in mind.
My opinion: You’re better off without fret nibs
So, you can’t easily refret over them. That’s point number one settled.
Point number two, they can get in the way. You could certainly argue that they reduce the ‘working’ length of the fret, although — to be fair — some counter that that space would have been taken up by the normal bevel/angle that’s filed into the ends of regular frets.
However, if you’re getting close to the fret ends while playing, I’d prefer actual fret under my string than plastic.
And, point number three, they are unforgiving of poor fitting (and occasionally wear). Any slight gap between the end of the fret and the binding is a nightmare for a player. The first string can easily slip in there when playing and, worse still, it can sometimes snag in there. I've seen this sort of thing far too often on Gibsons of the last decade or so. I have a suspicion (utterly unfounded) that this is a big part of why more Gibsons are coming without binding nibs in the last while.
Summing up, and I’m about to stray into the realms of opinion now but I say you’re better off without them
They are purely aesthetic, they don’t allow for future refrets, they can impede playability, and they sometimes (often) cause problems.
Also, they sometimes lead to sad faces on players who learn they’ll be gone after a refret.
The bottom line
I’m all for not interfering with originality. I’m all for finding the most sympathetic method of repair so it, ideally, looks like I’ve never been there.
However, I don’t lose any sleep over the loss of Gibson binding nibs. Personally, I hate any design decision that precludes repairability — especially when, as we’ve discussed, frets are essentially consumables.
I’m also not against crazy aesthetic choices that serve no purpose other than looking nice/cool/just-plain-nuts. With the same stipulation on repairability, though.
Fingerboard binding nibs are easy to do during initial assembly but are really difficult to justify keeping during subsequent work.
Maybe, just maybe, if you’ve a super-vintage and super-original instrument, you might be willing to seek out someone to take on this job but, realistically, if you’re that far on the collector side over the player side, you’re probably not keen on refretting anyway.
Refret, I say, refret. And mourn not the loss of the nibs. Your guitar will feel better for it.