What are Guitar Frets and Why are they Important?

Published Categorized as Guitar Information

Want to get the lowdown on what guitar frets are? What about why they are so important?

Then come on down as we explore these queries in great detail for your viewing please.

Introduction to Guitar Frets

Frets are strips of metal – generally, an alloy of nickel and brass – embedded along a guitar’s fretboard, which makes up most of the guitar’s neck. By depressing a string against the fretboard below a fret, meaning away from the guitar body, the vibrating length of that string changes, and a specific note results.

Although strictly speaking, the fret is the metal strip itself, the location on the fretboard below a fret is referred to as being that fret. For instance, the position between the nut at the bottom of the fretboard – the end farthest from the guitar body – and the first fret is referred to as the “first fret,” the position between the first and second frets is called the “second fret,” and so on.

Moving up the fretboard and toward the guitar body, one fret raises the pitch of the resulting note by a “half-step” or semitone. The note at the 12th fret of a guitar represents one full octave above the pitch of the open string. The 12th fret divides the “scale length” (the distance between the nut and the bridge, above which the strings are attached) exactly in half.

Types of Guitar Frets

Frets can be delineated by the material from which they are constructed:

  • Nickel Silver: a copper alloy with nickel added for the harness. Despite its name, it has no silver in it, the most common type features 18% nickel. Some classical guitar makers also use a softer version with only 12% nickel. This is typically the most common fret material.
  • EVO Gold: the newest addition to the world of fret material options, made from copper, tin, iron, and titanium (CuSn15Fe1Ti0.1). It features no nickel, perfect for people who have allergies or other concerns with nickel frets. The tone and feel are best described as in between the 18% nickel silver and the stainless steel fret materials (not surprising since the hardness of the EVO gold is right in the middle as well).
  • Stainless Steel: the hardest fret wire on the list. The pros are that they last virtually forever and they stay looking good too. The worst part of stainless steel frets is the way they totally destroy your tools.

Frets can, however, also be divided into various shapes:

  • Fan frets: while frets are generally perpendicular to the instrument’s neck centerline and parallel to each other, on a “fanned” fretboard, the frets are angled (spread like a fan) with only one center fret perpendicular to the neck’s centerline. This gives the lower-pitched strings more length and the higher strings shorter length (comparable to a piano or a harp where heavier strings have different lengths).
  • Scalloped fretboard: Scalloping involves removing some of the wood between some or all of the fret. This is intended to allow a lighter touch for more precise fingering while easing bends or vibratos (since there’s no contact between the fingertips and the wooden surface of the fingerboard). It has some popularity with musicians playing heavy metal music, although the concept can also be seen in ancient instruments such as the sitar.
  • Fat frets: on older guitars (especially the Fender Stratocaster), frets were typically made out of thin wire, and some electric guitar players replaced that with thicker wire, for “fat frets” or “jumbo frets“. Fat frets make bending easier, and they change the feel of the guitar.

The Function of Guitar Frets

Pressing the string against the fret reduces the vibrating length of the string to that between the bridge and the next fret between the fretting finger and the bridge. This is damped if the string were stopped with the soft fingertip on a fretless fingerboard.

Frets make it much easier for a player to achieve an acceptable standard of intonation since the frets determine the positions for the correct notes. Furthermore, a fretted fingerboard makes it easier to play chords accurately.

Guitar Fret Maintenance

While the guitar bracing or tone-woods might have a greater influence on the guitar’s voice, the frets are uniquely important because they are the point of interaction for the player’s fingers and hands.

They are an intimate and critical component that must feel comfortable and natural for the rest of the guitar and its woods, finishes, and voice to be fully appreciated.

The wrong fret material or size, or simply poor fretwork in general, can result in an otherwise wonderful guitar never becoming the true favorite instrument it could have been.

Cleaning your frets isn’t rocket science. Pop your fret guard down, fold your polishing sheet to provide a little cushioning (which will help it conform to the fret contour), and rub. Start with the lower grit number and repeat with a higher grade.

Installing and Replacing New Guitar Frets

Most people start out the guitar-building journey with just a simple hammer for fretting their guitars. It does require some experience to get the technique right, but in a short while it can be mastered if an analytical approach is taken.

The big problem with this method is that the force of the hammer blow can cause the fret ends to spring up and keep them from sitting properly. A specialized dead-blow fret hammer can really help.

Holmer Guitar Fret Hammer Guitar Anatomy Luthier Tools Fretting Hammer with Double Head for Electric Acoustic Bass Guitar or Mandolin, Banjo and Ukulele

Others prefer to use a fret press which can take on several forms: a more elaborate jigged system, or just a simple device that can be used with a drill press.

While this can require a little more setup, in its simplest form it’s still not very expensive and can be very helpful, especially to someone who hasn’t had a lot of experience perfecting their hammer technique. The great thing about using a fret press is that it holds the fret at the proper radius while being forced into place stabilizing the fret ends among other benefits.

Alnicov Electric Guitar Repair Tool Alloy Fretboard Press Caul With Press Caul Inserts Musical Instrument Accessory - Black

Common Issues with Guitar Frets

Guitar frets are far from perfect and are privy to a number of common issues, such as:

  • Fret buzz: one of the many undesirable phenomena that can occur on a guitar or similar stringed instrument, occurring when the vibrating part of one or more strings physically strikes the frets that are higher than the fretted note (or open note). This causes a “buzzing” sound on the guitar that can range from a small annoyance, to severe enough to dampen the note and greatly reduce sustain.
  • Fret wear: frets are eventually bound to wear down as the strings cut grooves into them. When this happens, the instrument may need refretting (the frets are removed and replaced) or, in less severe cases, “fret dressing” (the frets are leveled, polished, and possibly recrowned). Often, a few fret dressings can be performed on a guitar before it requires complete refretting.
  • Fret intonation: instruments with straight frets like guitars require special compensation on the saddle and nut. Every time a string is fretted it is also stretched, and as it stretches the string rises in pitch, making all fretted tones sound sharp. When the saddle is positioned properly, however, the fretted tones all sound sharp to the same degree as long as the distances between the frets are correct.

Impact of Frets on Guitar Tone

Nickel silver fret wire has the warmest tone, and the string seems to grip onto it just a bit (compared to other fret materials).

Stainless steel frets are smooth and slippery, prompting anyone to bend the strings. They also add a subtle yet noticeable brightness – something that could be noted as a little colder than the other materials from which frets are made.

The rest is really up to the discerning ear to decipher.

The Relationship Between the Fretboard and the Frets

Frets divide a fretboard into easy-to-see semitone intervals that tell us where the notes are. The violin family of instruments has fretless fingerboards, so skill and accuracy are essential to play in tune. The flip side of this is that they only usually hit one note at a time.

Given that chord work is an essential component of guitar playing, that makes frets equally essential for us. There is a drawback to this – if you want to explore microtones or exotic eastern scales, you can’t really do it with a conventionally fretted guitar unless you play with a slide, but it’s not a pressing problem for the majority.

The earliest guitar-like instruments didn’t have frets, but as the oud evolved into the lute, luthiers began tying string or gut ligatures around the neck. Presumably, these were put on wet and would shrink and tighten as they dried. Players would feel the ligatures front and back, and with knots along the bass edge of the fingerboard, thumb wrapping would have been best avoided.

When luthiers began inlaying frets into the fretboard, bone strips became commonplace. Bone may have been tough enough for gut strings, but as wire-wrapped strings were introduced, metal became the material of choice for frets and has remained so ever since.

Conclusion: The Significance of Guitar Frets

It’s incredibly important to get to know the fretboard because doing so will help you understand the relationship between finger positions, strings, and notes when you come to playing chords and lead guitar. As with a lot of guitar theory, you only realize how important it is once you’ve learned it.

Thus, it is our hope that you have learned something valuable today and that you are willing to take your frets a little more seriously next time around.

FAQs Guitar Frets

What are frets on a guitar?

A fret is any of the thin strips of material, usually metal wire, inserted laterally at specific positions along the neck or fretboard of a stringed instrument. Frets usually extend across the full width of the neck.

Do you put your fingers on the frets?

The closer your finger is to a fret, the less effort you will need to apply to get a clean note. However, you do not want to place your finger directly on the fret as it will also cause a muted note. Always have your finger slightly behind the fret.

What is the most commonly used fret on a guitar?

Compared with vintage instruments, most modern guitars have frets that are both wider and taller. They are often constructed using 6105 fret wire, which is . 090″ wide and . 055″ high.

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 :-)

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