Guitar Fret Work
The frets on a guitar work as hard as the strings and undergo a lot of wear and tear, causing them to have issues that if not resolved, can compromise the performance, tuning and sound quality of the instrument. The frets will gradually develop wear spots or grooves from the constant string pressing, they can also become sharp at the edges causing discomfort to the players hands, sometimes they become slightly loose and become a high fret which causes string buzz, or they can come all the way loose causing even worse performance damage. As the neck ages, and twists and kinks form in the woods, the frets will have corresponding high and low spots, which will need to be leveled to restore full playability and tuning performance of the instrument. Having your frets looked at by a professional shop and serviced in order to restore their original shape and smoothness, can make a huge contribution to your instrument sounding, tuning and playing the way it was designed to when it was new.
Guitar Fret Work Explained
Some of the most common issues with frets, and the corresponding solutions:
Uneven or high frets:
When there are uneven or high frets, the guitar will choke or buzz, play out of intonation, and can also ruin new strings pretty quickly. To solve this situation, the fretboard is leveled so all the frets raise from the fingerboard the same amount, and are made to be even or level with one another. Sometimes it happens that only a few frets need to be leveled, other times the entire fretboard needs to be leveled or evened out. Due to age, climate, and wood condition, twists, kinks, bows etc. can occur in the neck woods and this causes similar distortions to the frets as they are fastened into the fingerboard wood and follow its curvatures and angles. After the leveling is done, each fret must be re-crowned so it has a rounded shape and thus allows proper contact with the string. Crowning also insures uniform intonation from string to string and fret to fret, so the beauty of the sound is enhanced. The final step is to hand buff and polish each fret to remove file scratches and restore a silky smooth surface for the strings and the player’s fingers to come into contact with.
Worn and grooved frets:
Frets can become worn and develop deep grooves from the continuous pressing of the string against the fret. These grooves appear more deeply at the places that you play more frequently. As these grooves deepen, your tone and trueness of tuning are affected, and some annoying buzzing or choking sounds may also appear. If the grooves become too deep, the frets may need replacement which is an expensive job and can be avoided or delayed by having the grooves leveled and re-crowned. This will restore the fret to its original shape but will not be as tall as the original. After the grooves start to wear in again from continuous playing, it may become necessary to have the guitar re-fretted, or partially re-fretted; if some of the frets have not been played as much as others and have not developed grooves.
Sharp Fret Edges:
It is common with the aging of the woods, and especially so in dry air climates, that the neck and fingerboard woods will shrink, but the frets being metal do not shrink, and the result is that the frets stick out on the edges of the fingerboard, causing a sharp uncomfortable feeling. When this becomes too uncomfortable for playing the instrument, an experienced Luthier can level the frets back flush to the surface of the fingerboard, as is done at the factory when the guitar is first manufactured. After this process, the guitar is once again smooth and easy to play without feeling that one’s hand is being cut and scraped by the sharp fret edges.
When woods dry out, another possibility is that a fret may work its way loose from the slot in the fingerboard where it is attached. This fret will choke the frets ahead of it, and needs to be re-seated back into the fret slot. A skilled Luthier who has the right tools can re-seat the loose frets and level the fret area so all the adjoining and nearby frets are once again leveled to the same plane of straightness, thus restoring the good playing condition, feel and tonality of the instrument. Sometimes slightly loose frets may seem higher than adjoining frets and the first idea is to level these frets, however, before leveling loose frets that seem as high frets, , it should be seen as to what extent the loose fret can be re-set into the fret slot, then the leveling with neighboring frets will give the proper results. If a loose fret is leveled from the top, without first resetting it into the fingerboard wood, it will continue to malfunction as every time the player presses the string against that fret, the loose fret will move downwards into the fret slot and the adjoining frets will be higher thus causing choking and buzz.