Recently, one of my clients brought in a mid-’60s Teisco Del Rey EP9T electric for some fretwork. Overall, it was in good condition but the first six frets were badly worn, so we agreed I’d do a partial re-fret. On a guitar with a standard string nut, I’d simply replace the old frets with new ones, set up the guitar, and turn my attention to the next job. However, this Teisco model had a zero fret (Photo 1), which potentially complicates the task.
If you tinker with guitars, sooner or later you’ll come across one of these, so let’s take a look at the zero fret to understand how it functions, what role it plays in the setup process, and why it sometimes needs to be replaced.
Scoping out the project. As you may already know, the zero fret determines the height of the open strings above the 1st fret—just like the string nut on a typical guitar. Guitars equipped with a zero fret also have a nut, but in this case the nut simply holds the strings in alignment, it doesn’t set string height.
On this Teisco, the action at the zero fret was already very low. I knew once I replaced the first six frets with fresh fretwire, they’d be taller than the old, worn frets and the zero fret wouldn’t provide enough height for the open strings to ring clearly. Instead, they’d buzz against the 1st fret, and obviously that won’t fly. The solution? Install a new zero fret using the same fretwire as the other new frets.
Size matters. Measuring .078" wide by .040" tall, the frets on this Teisco were slightly narrower than on a typical modern guitar. Fortunately, I had some Jescar fretwire in the shop that measured .078" wide by .050" tall. In terms of width, this was a perfect match. The Jescar wire was much taller, but as you’ll see as we go through this project, starting with a little extra height can be an advantage when installing a zero fret.
Initial measurements. The first step is to tune the guitar to pitch and measure both the action at the 12th fret and neck relief. Check out “Time for a Neck Adjustment?” for a detailed description of how to measure neck relief.
If the action and relief are comfortable, you can begin removing the zero fret. If not, make sure the relief is properly adjusted before removing the zero fret. This is very important! If the neck has too much relief when you set the height of the new zero fret, it will be too low once you adjust the truss rod to reduce excessive relief.
Removing the original zero fret. To extract a fret, first heat it up with a soldering iron. But there’s a trick to it: Use a specially prepared tip with a concave, rounded notch filed into it. This will keep the tip centered on the fret and prevent the hot iron from sliding off and damaging the fretboard or binding.
While you’re heating up the soldering iron, remove the strings from your guitar. Now apply some lemon oil or fretboard conditioner all around the zero fret with a Q-tip. Place the modified tip of the soldering iron onto one end of the zero fret. When the oil begins to bubble, use a small pair of flush-cut dykes to carefully work the zero fret out of the fretboard as you continue to apply heat (Photo 2). After removing the zero fret, clean out any debris from the fret slot.
Important: Do not pull on the zero fret! Instead, gently pry it out. If you yank on a fret, its barbs will take pieces of the fretboard with it.
Installing the new zero fret. Most fretwire comes in either 2" straight sticks or in a coiled roll (see “Choosing Fretwire” for more details). I prefer the latter, and even though its radius is not as round as most fretboards, you can give the wire a precise radius using a special tool like the FretBender (Photo 3), which I ordered from stewmac.com. It’s easy to operate: Simply feed the fretwire into the bending tool tang side up and turn the handle. The tool is adjustable, so you can bend the fretwire to almost any radius.
The new zero fret should have a radius that’s slightly rounder than the fretboard. If it’s not round enough, the fret won’t seat securely in the fretboard and one or both ends will lift out of the slot. This creates what I call “dead zones” that greatly reduce sustain.
Cut the fret with a pair of large flush-cut dykes (Photo 4). You want the fret length about 1/4" longer than the width of the fretboard. This will give you a little wiggle room if the zero fret slips to one side when you’re tapping it into the fretboard.
Now gently tap the ends of the fret into the slot using a fretting hammer. Slowly work from the fret ends toward the center, and keep checking to confirm the fret is flush with the fretboard. If it isn’t, tap it down a little harder. Once it’s flush with the fretboard, seal the fret with a bead of thin Super Glue and clean up any excess with a Q-tip.
Next, cut the ends flush with the edge of the fretboard using a pair of large flush-cut dykes. Cut the fret ends as close to the edge of the fretboard as you can, but avoid gouging the neck. File the edge smooth with a miniature flat file (Photo 5).