Fig. 1. Fretwire is measured
by the crown’s width (A) and
height (B), as well as the size
of the barb (C) and depth of
the tang (D).
Fig. 2. A dented and pitted fret causes
intonation problems, creates string rattle,
and impedes smooth string bends.
A flat fret also creates rattle and intonation
Fig. 4. Re-crowning a fret with a
Fig. 5. A complete re-fret
gives a guitar a new lease on life.
The condition of your frets will determine
how well your guitar plays.
Every time you press your strings against
the frets, the friction between them subtly
changes the shape of the frets, causing
them to wear out. Over time, this metal-against-metal contact can lead to string
rattle and intonation issues. The greatest
fret damage is caused by capos—especially
under the plain strings.
Fret wear is a normal by-product of
playing your instrument. As a guitarist, it’s
important to know how to evaluate fret
damage and understand what options you
have to correct it. The big question is, can
I refurbish my frets or is it time to replace
them? Let’s explore the subject starting with
the fretwire itself.
What are frets made of? Though fretwire
is frequently called “nickel silver,” it doesn’t
actually contain silver. Rather, it’s typically
composed of 18 percent nickel, 80 percent
copper, and small amounts of such other
materials as zinc, lead, and cadmium. Really
good fret wire has more zinc and less copper.
One of my favorite brands is Jescar, and their
NS formula is 62 percent copper, 18 percent
nickel, and 20 percent zinc. Because it’s harder
than traditional fretwire, it lasts longer.
Another option is stainless steel. Stainless
steel is very difficult to work with, but it
lasts dramatically longer than traditional
fretwire. However, stainless steel frets come
with a hefty price tag. Most luthiers will
charge more than double to re-fret a guitar
with stainless steel because it nearly destroys
their tools and the job takes much longer
to do. In the long run, it could be the perfect
solution for your guitar since you may
never have to replace the frets again!
How are frets sized? Fretwire comes in a
variety of sizes and shapes. Fig. 1 illustrates
the four elements that determine a particular
style of fretwire. They are the width and
height of the crown, the size of the barb,
and the depth of the tang.
The crown is the exposed part of the
fret. When you fret a note, you’re pressing
the string to the very top of the crown. Like
a row of hooks, barbs secure the fret to the
fretboard. Barb width determines the width
of the fret slot and the tang determines
the depth of the fret slot—i.e., how far the
fretwire penetrates into the fretboard.
The size and shape of each of these
four elements are specifically designed for different playing preferences and types of
guitars. The crown width can vary from
ultra narrow (.053") to super jumbo
(.118"). The fret height can be anywhere
from a short .032" to a tall .060". The
width of the barbs and depth of the tang
also vary from .019" to .040".
All these dimensions have a specific purpose
and are important considerations when
choosing fretwire. For example, wider frets
can produce a stronger tone, but as they
wear, the guitar’s intonation “drifts” farther
than with narrow frets. But narrow wire has
its drawbacks, too: Narrow frets won’t cause
your intonation to drift as much, but they
wear down faster than wide frets.
Tall frets will last longer before they need
to be replaced. However, I don’t recommend
them for someone who plays with
a strong grip. If you grip the neck tightly
while playing or use a capo, the strings will
pull sharp as you play. On the other hand,
shorter frets wear out faster (especially if
you use a capo) and need to be replaced
The size of the barbs and tang have a
profound effect on a guitar neck, and if
you decide to install new frets, it’s very
important to use the correct size. If the
barbs and tang are too narrow or shallow
for the slots, the frets won’t seat securely
in the fretboard. This causes them to lift
out when the weather changes and yields uneven frets and a lot of buzzy or dead
notes. When the barbs and tang are too
wide, they can crack and chip the fretboard,
or even cause the neck to back-bow.
In the case of a back-bow, you have to re-fret
To summarize: A neck must have the
correctly sized frets to match the fretboard
and player. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a
very expensive mess!
Can the dents in my frets be repaired?
Dents always create problems with frets. But
does discovering dents mean you need to
replace your frets or is re-crowning an option?
It can go either way, and the answer
depends on the depth of the dents. When
the dents are deep, your tech would have to
remove too much material from all the frets
to correctly repair the problem ones. When
the height of the fret is below .038" and it
has deep pits and dents, chances are a re-fret
is in order.
Look at Fig. 2 and notice the deep pits
in these frets. These dents are too deep to
repair, so the frets must be replaced.
Dents and pits are not the only reason
to replace frets. Flat spots in the frets are
another culprit. For a fret to function properly,
it must have a domed crown. If the
crown is flat, as in Fig. 3, it will cause string
rattle and intonation issues. Much like dents
and pits, if the fret has a flat crown and is
too short, it will need to be replaced.
If the frets are tall enough to repair,
they are first leveled and then re-crowned.
To level a fret, your tech grinds and sands
the frets to an equal height. This leaves
the frets with a flat crown. The next step
is to re-crown the fret by removing material
from its sides until the crown offers a
narrow point of contact for the string Fig.
4. This is a very painstaking process and it
takes years of practice to develop the proper
skills—definitely a job for a pro.
What’s involved with a re-fret? In a re-fret,
all the frets in the neck are replaced.
The process is very precise and requires
expensive tools and great skill. The basic
steps include disassembling the guitar,
removing all the old frets, planing the fretboard,
radiusing the fretboard, cleaning out
the fret slots, installing the new frets and
then leveling and re-crowning them, cleaning
the fretboard and polishing the frets,
and finally reassembling the guitar Fig. 5.
And this is just a basic overview of
the process. There are many, many more
steps—enough to fill an entire book.
Re-fretting is expensive and time consuming,
but generally worth the cost.
Over the years, I’ve had clients who
choose to replace an old bolt-on neck with
a new one, rather than opt for a re-fret.
This can be a great choice, but beware—almost every new neck needs a fret level
and re-crowning. Most guitar parts factories
don’t take the time that a luthier would to
ensure that the frets are level. So keep in
mind that by the time you pay for a new
neck and the additional fretwork, you could
have re-fretted the original neck and had
some leftover change!
What about a partial re-fret?
Sometimes simply replacing several frets,
rather than all of them, gets the job done.
This is usually preferable for a neck that
only has wear on the first six or seven frets
and has a level fretboard. If the fretboard is
in good condition and the rest of the frets
are tall enough, a partial re-fret is a great
way to save money. Not all guitars can qualify
for this operation. If the fretboard has a
twist or wave in it, a total re-fret is required.
Capo is a four-letter word. The capo
is a fret’s worst enemy. Of course, I love
capos because I love to do fretwork! If no
one used capos, my income from fretwork
would drop at least 60 percent. The more
you use a capo, the more damage it does to
the frets. As the capo clamps down on the
strings, it smashes the strings into the frets
and much harder than if you were to play
a chord. As a result, frets begin to flatten
and develop pits and dents. This is great
news for a guitar tech, but not so good for
To avoid unnecessary “capo-inflicted”
fret damage, I suggest you use a capo with
a tension adjustment. Many capos simply
press the strings down to the fretboard
without offering a way to adjust the tension.
If you use a capo with a tension
adjustment, you can clamp the device with
just enough force to prevent string rattle,
yet reduce additional fret wear.
Another great benefit to using a capo
with adjustable clamping tension: It will
help avoid tuning issues versus a nonadjustable
capo. There are several great
capos on the market that will diminish fret
damage and tuning problems, including
Planet Waves Dual Action capo and all
the various Shubb models. If your capo
doesn’t offer a tension adjustment, buy
one that does. This will save you a ton of
money in fretwork.
Nashville guitar tech,
has written five guitar repair books, all
published by Mel Bay. His bestseller, Guitar
Care, Setup & Maintenance
, is a detailed
guide with a forward by Bob Taylor. LeVan
welcomes questions about his PG
or books. Drop an email to email@example.com
or visit guitarservices.com
info on his guitar repair workshops.