What is a Fretboard and Why Is It Important?

Published Categorized as Guitar Information

Welcome to the fascinating world of music! Today, we dive into the heart of stringed instruments: the fretboard. More than just a piece of wood, the fretboard is a pivotal element that defines an instrument’s tone and playability. Join us as we explore what is a fretboard and why this component is so crucial.

Introduction to Guitar Fretboards

Before we jump into the different types of tonewoods, first we must understand what a fretboard is.

A fretboard (also known as a fingerboard) is a flat, plank-like piece of wood that lays parallel to the guitar neck, both of which, it is important to note, are two separate components!

The fretboard is where you place your left hand (if using a right-handed guitar) and it is the mechanism where notes and chords are produced.

Each note is separated by frets. These frets are thin metal bars that run at right angles to the strings. The frets distinguish the different notes that are being played down you run down the fretboard enabling you to various different, though clearly delineated pitches.

Types of Guitar Fretboards

Let’s take a look at three of the most common materials from which fretboards are made:

  • Rosewood: Rosewood is popular because it is plentiful, easy to work with, and cheap. It is easily identified by its reddish-brown color and grainy texture. In addition, rosewood has a natural oily texture to it, so luthiers will avoid applying a thicker finish to it during manufacture.
  • Maple: Maple fretboards are distinctly different in their appearance which makes them easier to identify (if not stained). This is because they are the only fretboard wood that is cream/white in color. Maple fretboards are manufactured in two different ways. The most common way (which is seen on Telecasters) is that the fretboard and the neck of the guitar are one whole piece of wood and the truss rod is inserted in the back of the neck that channels down the neck.
  • Ebony: a common choice for styles such as metal and it is popular on a wide range of acoustic guitars for fingerstyle playing. Ebony is harvested in West Africa and, like most tonewoods, it naturally grows with varying degrees of color, though the Ebony found on guitar fretboards is jet black.

The Function of Guitar Fretboards

The guitar fretboard or “fingerboard” is the part of the guitar where all of the metal frets are placed. The fretboard is used by holding down the strings against each fret and then either picking or strumming some, or all of the strings. The vibrating motion of the string against the metal frets creates the sounds of different musical notes.

The fretboard of a modern guitar is made up of a number of pieces and it’s important for guitar players to know which piece is which, as well as learn ways to develop memorization of the fretboard notes.

Guitar Fretboard Maintenance

The most common kind of maintenance you are likely to perform on a fretboard is that of cleaning and polishing, something that, if foregone, can drastically alter the tone and quality of the guitar:

  1. Remove the Strings from the Guitar: This step can be elided if you are in a rush or otherwise unable to remove the strings, perhaps for financial reasons.
  2. Do an Initial Clean of the Fretboard: This will merely be a surface clean, to remove any of the more obvious pieces of dirt and dust so as not to clog the later stages with any unnecessary contaminants.
  3. Use Steel Wool to Deal with Tougher Dirt: The more stubborn dirt will typically consist of dried skin fused together with sweat, and thus will be a little more difficult to rid the fretboard of.
  4. Polish with Lemon Oil: Now that the fretboard is free of dirt and other contaminants, you will want to use lemon oil to condition the neck and set it up for further use.

Replacing and Refinishing Guitar Fretboards

Removing and replacing a fretboard sounds terrifying, doesn’t it? Indeed, it can be complicated, and it needs to be done with extreme precision, but it isn’t as scary of a project as it sounds.

  1. Take the Neck Off
  2. Clean up the Glue Residue on the Neck to Prepare it for a New Fretboard
  3. Make the Fretboard
  4. Slot the Board with Fret Markings
  5. Measure out the Center Line to Ensure the Frets are Not Wonky
  6. Glue the Neck to the Fretboard with Strong Glue and Wrap it All Together with Surgical Tubing
  7. Shape and Sand the Fretboard so that it is Perfectly Flush with the Neck
  8. Reset the Neck back onto the Body
  9. Glue it into Place
  10. Restring the Guitar
Titebond III Ultimate Wood Glue, 16-Ounces #1414

Common Issues with Guitar Fretboards

Guitar fretboards are privy to all sorts of technical issues – here are two of the most common:

  • Fret Buzz: the annoying sound caused by a guitar string rattling/buzzing against a fret wire when the guitar string is being plucked or played. There are three common causes of fret buzz:
    • Frets are not level with each other (some are taller, some are shorter)
    • String Action is too low
    • The neck does not have enough “relief” (the neck is too straight, or bowing backward)
  • Warping: a phenomenon where the fretboard warps against your will. Follow the instructions below to see whether yours is warping too:
    • Look under the low E string across the top of the frets. Comparing the line of the neck to the line of the E string, try to see if the neck is as straight as the string or if the neck looks bowed away from or towards the string.

Customizing Guitar Fretboards

The most common way to customize a guitar fretboard is through the use of custom inlays – designs that take the place of the usual fret markets on the face of the fretboard.

Once the pieces are cut – they can be as small as .050 inches – they are cleaned and laid out on paper towels. The headstock veneer or fretboard has pockets cut out to fit the final inlay in its entirety, but each small piece needs to fit together, be sanded, and adjusted to fit like a snug puzzle into the pocket.

This job is very tedious and can take a magnifying glass to adjust each one into place. They are glued, sanded flush into the material, and then sent onto the finish process.

Impact of Fretboards on Guitar Tone

The question of tonewoods in fretboards is debated by many, but here’s our take:

  • Rosewood: it is said that the oily texture of rosewood is directly responsible for the tone because this texture is said to absorb the overtones (these are pitches that deviate from the true note). The harmonics are somewhat compressed/the volume of the pitches outside the true note is slightly reduced which results in a warmer tone overall.
  • Maple: is a dense hardwood that is known to produce a bright tone with a more prominent high end. It has a higher attack than the other woods which makes it sound snappy and precise with a tight low-end.
  • Ebony: tonally, it is said that Ebony sits somewhere in between Rosewood and Maple. This is because it looks similar to Rosewood aesthetics but shares a similar hardness and density to that of Maple.

Fretboards and Frets: The Synergy

A fingerboard will be fretted, having raised strips of hard material perpendicular to the strings, which the player presses the strings against to stop the strings.

On modern guitars, frets are typically made of metal. Frets let the player stop the string consistently in the same place, which enables the musician to play notes with the correct intonation. As well, frets do not dampen string vibrations as much as fingers alone on an unfretted fingerboard.

Frets may be fixed, as on a guitar or mandolin, or movable, as on a lute. Fingerboards may also be unfretted, as they usually are on bowed instruments, where damping by the finger is of little consequence because of the sustained stimulation of the strings by the bow. Unfretted fingerboards allow a musician more control over subtle changes in pitch than fretted boards, but are generally considered harder to master.

Fingerboards may also be, though uncommon, a hybrid of these two. Such a construction is seen on the sitar, where arched frets attach at the edges of a smooth fingerboard; unfrettable strings run inside the frets, while frettable ones run outside. The fret arches are sufficiently high that the exterior strings can be fretted without making the finger making contact with the interior strings.

Conclusion: Understanding the Essence of Guitar Fretboards

Hopefully, you have now found something interesting but also insightful about the very nature of guitar fretboards and what makes them tick.

Overall, Rosewood and Ebony are quite similar in both aesthetics but different in playability and tone. Ebony is more suited to lead playing whilst Rosewood is good for rhythm. Make your choice as you may and let us know how you get along in the comments.

FAQs What is a Fretboard?

What is a fretboard?

The fingerboard is an important component of most stringed instruments. It is a thin, long strip of material, usually wood, that is laminated to the front of the neck of an instrument. The strings run over the fingerboard, between the nut and bridge.

What’s the difference between a fretboard and a fingerboard?

It’s called a fingerboard regardless of whether or not it has frets, whereas with a fretboard the implication is that the instrument has frets to speak of.

What is the hardest wood for a fretboard?

Ebony is the hardest and heaviest of common fingerboard woods, adding snap and clarity to the sound. Crisp attack and fast decay contribute to ebony’s open (as opposed to warm) tone.

What is the purpose of a fretboard?

The guitar fretboard or “fingerboard” is the part of the guitar where all of the metal frets are placed. The fretboard is used by holding down the strings against each fret and then either picking or strumming some, or all of the strings.

Can a fretboard be replaced?

It takes a competent luthier to replace the fretboard. If you have the necessary tools to do this you can try. But there is the risk of damage.

How far should guitar strings be from the fretboard?

For electric guitar action, in our opinion, a good default string height at the 12th fret is typically about 6/64th of an inch (2.38mm) on the bass side and 4/64th of an inch (1.59mm) on the treble side.

What is also known as the fretboard?

The fretboard, otherwise known as the fingerboard is where you will shape notes. It is a thin, long strip of material, usually wood, laminated to the front of the neck with the strings running over it between the nut and the bridge.

By Nate Pallesen

Nate is just your average (above average) guitar player. He's no Joe Satriani, Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page - wait this site is about acoustic guitars (sorry) He's no Django Reinhardt, Chet Atkins, or Michael Hedges, wait? who!? He's no Robert Johnson, Eric Clapton or Ben Harper - more familiar? Anyway you get the point :-)

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *