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  • Writer's pictureBarış Şahin

Electric Guitar Hardware: Frets

Electric Guitar Hardware: Frets

1. Introduction

Guitar Frets

Frets are key components referred to as the "Heart of the Guitar" by luthier Melvyn Hiscock, directly influencing aspects such as playability, intonation, tonality, and sustain. when depicting guitars, serving as crucial evaluation criteria (se. They are one of the most significant aspects of a “guitar evaluation”. Craftmanship on the frets are particularly important because a guitar might be good, tone may be good, so the woods, balance or the pickups… But the frets and fretjob is too bad, it sucks at all, right? Metallurgically, those expressed as Nickel-Silver or German Silver are the most common for electric guitars. They contain varying proportions of nickel, copper, and zinc as primary components. In essence, they are a derivative of brass, with the presence of nickel imparting a silvery color.

When categorizing, we can make the following groupings:

2.1 Frets Based on Hardness

Frets exhibit different hardness values depending on their metallurgical composition, thermal and/or mechanical treatment underwent. The primary determinant in this regard is the composition. However, frets with the same primary components can also exhibit very different properties. Hardness, compressive stress, surface quality, grain size, and other factors are also important and can vary from brand to brand. Therefore, we will categorize based on the more general factor of metallurgical hardness. An increase in hardness positively affects sustain and wear resistance. However, the increase in brightness and brittleness in tonality is not preferred by some guitarists and may sound somewhat metallic. Yet, it is preferred by another group of players. Generally, it's possible to discuss three types of hardness:

2.1.1 Softer Frets

These are frets containing 12% nickel in their composition (with copper and zinc as other primary components). They are particularly preferred for nylon-string guitars. They are easy to apply to the guitar. These frets have a hardness of less than 200 VH according to the Vickers scale. Their use in electric guitars is not highly recommended as they wear out too quickly. However, they provide great convenience for luthiers as they are much easier to work with. They are easier to install, remove, and apply processes such as leveling and crowning. Especially in relatively cheaper guitars, they are sometimes encountered.

2.1.2 Hard Frets (Standard Nickel Silver Frets)

These are the most commonly used, widespread, and optimal frets. Their composition includes 65% copper, 18% nickel, and 17% zinc. They correspond to ~200 VH according to Vickers hardness. Measurements on genuine vintage guitars have yielded results in the range of 184 to 205 VH. They provide optimal characteristics in terms of tone and sustain for electric guitars. They offer greater wear resistance compared to their counterpart containing 12% nickel. Products from companies like Jim Dunlop, Stew Mac, Jescar, and Fender fall into this category.

2.1.3 Very Hard Frets

These are frets typically made of stainless steel. Their hardness is around 300 VH. They are extremely durable and exhibit much longer resistance against the abrasive effect of strings. However, they have disadvantages in terms of being more difficult to put on the guitar and causing tools such as files and sandpapers used in the entire fretting process to wear out much faster, which are expensive tools. For this reason, many luthiers either charge extra for installing these frets. They are also not generally preferred by guitarists with vintage accuracy preference. In the initial stages, stainless steel frets, which were initially only applied by boutique companies or luthiers, are now almost becoming an industry standard. This is because guitarists prefer to deal with a properly installed stainless steel fret at the beginning, avoiding the hassle of fret leveling and/or replacement every X years that happens with traditional frets.

In the mid 2000s and early 2010s I can say that I didn't have any (negative) prejudices, but I was somewhat distant. However, it has now definitely become a priority for me. It's one of the essential features that a guitar must have, without a doubt.

Materials for guitar frets

Stainless steel frets are known for many by their slick feel along with very smooth bending and playability ease.

2.2 Frets Based on Size

The sizes of frets have an impact on factors such as playability, application of guitar techniques, sustain, intonation, and the longevity of fret life. Dimensional differentiation is typically made based on width. Fret sizing is examined in two main sections for players.


1 - Width of the Fret Crown

2 - Height of the Fret Crown

Two dimensions considered in sizing a fret are the height of the fret crown (2) and the width of the fret (1). Of course, the tangs of the fret, the portions that enter the fretboard, barbs etc are also important. However, these sections concern luthiers, not performers. Therefore, I won't delve into them.

You'll come across some code numbers used in dimensional descriptions; 6105 (These are my favorite frets. Narrow but tall frets), 6100, 6150, 6130, 6000, and so on… Many companies use these numbers. As far as I know, the primary user of these codes is Dunlop company's productions. Some other manufacturers may also use these measurement codes when producing frets (see Warmoth, Jescar etc). However, this doesn't necessarily mean that the frets are all the same size. Therefore, it's important not to overlook this when evaluating.

Here are the links of some significant fret producers

2.2.1 Wide Frets (Jumbo Frets)

These are frets with a width ranging from 0.100" to 0.110". Due to their large size, their durability is higher compared to smaller frets as they can undergo more leveling between fret changes. They have a relative advantage in sustain due to their greater mass, which is their biggest plus. Since the contact between the finger and the fretboard decreases with wider frets, bending the strings is relatively easier. Additionally, techniques such as hammer-ons, tapping, and pull-offs (although subjective) can be relatively easier to execute, especially if they are high enough.

The biggest disadvantage is that when they wear out, they can create noticeable intonation problems. Figure below illustrates the shift in intonation center and the difficulty it causes after wear. The difference between the intonation point before wear and the point after significant wear is the disadvantage of wide frets compared to narrow frets. They are generally referred to as "Jumbo Frets."

They are often preferred in modern popular mass-produced guitars. They can be found in many models of brands such as Ibanez, Cort, Tom Anderson, Suhr, Caparison, Fujigen, ESP, Ernie Ball Music Man, and others.

2.2.2 Medium Size Frets (Medium Frets)

These are frets with a width ranging from 0.080" to 0.095". They have a significant advantage in terms of intonation. Even after wearing, error factors are smaller compared to Jumbo frets. The tonality is more appreciated by those dealing with vintage oriented players. Additionally, slide techniques can be relatively easier to execute. They do not have disadvantages in sustain, but it can't be said that they bring additional advantages either. Theoretical advantages in terms of wear life, fret replacement period, and string bending techniques are relatively harder to Jumbos. Of course, this is a relative generalization and also a somewhat personal matter. There is no rule that says a guitar's frets are narrow, so sustain must be bad, or you can't bend strings with them. Additionally, according to the Master Dan Erlewine, who is considered a real authority on these matters, these frets offer a more specific tonal structure and sustain due to the cleaner and smaller area of contact between the strings and the frets. According to Erlewine, their only possible real disadvantage is that they may sound somewhat brittle (like glass breaking) due to the very precise contact between the string and the fret, and this sound is often misinterpreted as "buzzing". Additionally, some types are used in partial re-fretting processes. They can also be found in many models of Gibson, PRS, Heritage, Fujigen, and Fender.

2.2.3 Narrow Frets

These are frets with a width ranging from 0.053" to 0.080". They are not commonly found on electric guitars and basses. Instead, they are more commonly used on instruments such as mandolins, banjos, and small-scale guitars. Additionally, they can be used in partial fret replacements for guitars with medium-sized frets.

3. Other Factors

3.1 Fret Wear and Fret Life

We have discussed some factors that affect the lifespan of frets; metallurgy and fret size were two of them. Another important factor is playing time. The fret wear on a guitar played actively for 5 hours every day by a guitarist is not the same as the wear on a guitar played sporadically, a little bit every other day. Additionally, the impact of the player's technique should not be underestimated. Some people press harder on the frets than others, applying more pressure to the strings. Not changing strings frequently is also a factor that shortens the period between fret changes or leveling. Generally, frets and strings are similar in terms of hardness. However, the hardness of the oxide layer formed on worn-out strings, even if this oxide layer is thin, is greater than the hardness of the frets. Therefore, using worn-out strings with hard playing for a long time is a sign that the paths of luthier ways will be sought soon. Additionally, some guitars often experience localized dents. You can see an example below.

Worn Frets on Maple
Worn Frets on Rosewood

 I've seen worse cases. But it summarizes the story. Powerful impacts coming towards the fretboard, resulting in the strings hitting the frets, create these kinds of indentations. Therefore, to avoid this incident, especially those who use softcases should protect their guitars from any kind of impact towards the fretboard when carrying them. These incidents can also be seen in heavily used areas of the guitar neck. If the slots of dents are not too deep, leveling may be sufficient as a solution. However, sometimes partial fret or complete fret replacement may be necessary if the cracks are both deep and spread throughout the fretboard.

3.2 Gold Frets

EVO gold frets

I first saw them in some Custom Shop Fenders. For a long while i never encountered them in mass-produced guitars. Now some guitar may have them. They can be very elegant depending on the fretboard wood and the bridge, tuning pegs, and finish. I especially think they show a graceful harmony with fretboard woods like Gabon and Madagascar Ebony. Contrary to its name, they do not contain the element gold. They are summarized as frets that contain only copper and zinc without nickel, with hardness ranging between hard and very hard (Vickers Hardness ~250 VH).

3.3 What about my preference?

Well, when the topic is about my personal preferences, it's possible to categorize the evaluation into two groups in terms of the "materials used" and "dimensions". My material of choice is definitely stainless steel. Period. Its superiority in terms of durability and the feel it provides is indisputable. As for the dimensions, my preference leans towards relatively narrow but tall frets. Frets that aren't as wide as jumbos (like 6100 size) but are at least as tall provide great convenience, especially on bends. It's entirely personal, but I also find these kinds of tall frets to perform techniques like tapping and legato easier. Dunlop 6105 and its Jescar equivalent, JC55090 or 55095, serve as the best examples for frets of my choices.








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