Fretting about Fret Wear

05Got Divots? (click on images for larger view)

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I’ve you’ve studied music or if you (as Lennon and McCartney did-they have confessed to it in several interviews) have had to develop some method/shorthand for communicating musical ideas, you’ve no doubt heard of “Circle of Fifths” or inverted, how about the inverse “Cycle of Fourths”? Well, have you heard of the Level and Spiral of Death? There’s a bunch of reasons why this happens and I will attempt to explain/illustrate the basics of how this all happens (similar but not the SAME concepts apply to bass guitar and any fretted instrument):

For many reasons, some of which are lost on the majority of owners, acoustic guitar companies still use a pretty small fret, narrow and short. Why? Well, this is an OPINION, and like certain parts of the human anatomy, everybody’s got one! IMO, this is part heritage and part is the company thinking that they know how you will use your guitar:

For single note playing, aka soloing, a small fret and low action is MOST desirable. If you “strum” and play mostly chords as an accompaniment to singing, etc., a slightly higher action is indicated, especially if you have a heavy pick hand. A BIG indication for a bigger fret is the types of chords that are played on the acoustic: Open chords (or “primary” chords) are FAR easier to “grab” with a larger fret. A smaller fret will make it imperative to pay attention to exactly how you finger that chord so that all of the notes ring out. I suppose what I am saying is that the larger fret is more forgiving. Gibson made a Les Paul Custom called The Black Beauty (not all that sure whether that was in the catalog or a nickname, or both) which was aka The Fretless Wonder because it had TINY, narrow and short frets that were then filed down to a NUB! This guitar came out before “bending” notes was widely practiced. It was made for rapid fire, single note soloing. The players typically used a WAY heavier string (E1 .012-.013” or so) and they were typically Flatwounds.

I have to inject some more theory here:

• IMO (hey, it’s my website, I’m allowed?) and, well hey, it’s FACT: Heavier strings will allow lower action. Let’s look at it realistically, a bigger string doesn’t have to move as far to make the same quantity of sound. That means that you can get the string height lower without worrying about “buzzing” cause the player isn’t playing as hard.
• Another consideration is that the strings NEVER really touch the fingerboard. They rest on the fret. When frets are low and narrow, your finger IS touching the fingerboard and that is problematic because you are having to mash your fingers down HARD to displace the flesh of the finger AND get the string to the fret.
• For electric players, low narrow frets, make it, literally, a DRAG bending notes Because the string AND finger aren’t floating above the fretboard, you’re having to drag the flesh of the finger across the fingerboard. Theory: that’s why “lead” players dig old, worn out Maple fingerboards on Vintage or Reissue guitars. Shiny, glossy, Maple boards, for bending, is like going down a kiddie slide in a Speedo, your butt sticks to the slide. Similarly, the flesh of your finger “sticks” to the gloss maple. Old, nasty, dirty, funky maple boards allow your fingers to smoothly glide across the board. So unless your maple boarded guitar has a higher, wider fret, you’re better off with ebony or rosewood (well, Pao Ferro or Bubinga and a couple others).

 

On To The Fret Death Spiral:

• Let’s say your Brand New guitar has medium frets (as opposed to “Jumbo” or “bass” frets) that are medium high and medium wide. Let’s say it’s an acoustic. Let’s also say that, like a majority of players, you have switched from the Factory Strings, typically Medium .013-.056”, to Light Gauge, .012-.052” because, let’s face it, most guitars are NOT setup properly from the factory OR from the retailer (this I’ve seen 1,000s of times) and some of them are damned hard to play. It was love at first sight on the rack but after playing it a bit, you start wishing it played “just a little easier”.
• To enjoy the volume of the Mediums that USED to be on the guitar from the factory, you are now strumming harder on the Lights to get the same output Mediums were giving you. The string having to move a whole lot more, causes accelerated fret wear.
• The wood on your guitar starts to age gracefully and the top “bellies” a bit, the neck joint shifts a bit, and the action gets a little higher (but you don’t notice cause you put those Lights on and they still feel “OK”).
• Because the frets are now a bit worn, (you have to think about this to “get it”) the string height (from the new, lower, top of the fret to the height of the string at rest) is increased, you have to push down THAT much harder to get the string to sound, especially cause the fret is now, in addition to divots, is flat, and no longer “Crowned” like it was from the factory. FYI, some factories don’t even bother to Crown the frets. They simply “Level” the frets (some factories use the word “grind”… OUCH!) and use a sanding block to smooth the roughness, leaving you with flat frets. Not a Conspiracy Theory. I’ve seen it hundreds of times.
• And NOW because the frets are worn, the geometry from the Nut to the specific fret you’re playing is now changed, requiring yet MORE force to get the string down to the fret. So… you press harder.
• Because you are pressing harder, the fret wears FASTER…
• On it goes. In many cases the players nails and calloused fingers are pressing so hard on the strings, it causes wear on the actual fingerboard. Remember how I said that strings don’t “rest” on the fingerboard. So imagine how much force it takes for the tips of your fingers and nails to create divots in the fingerboard itself! Rosewood and Ebony are pretty damn hard materials!

Dr. Fret to the rescue! It’s Level and Crown time!

Here is the completed Fret Level and Crown on a Gibson J-200 StarBurst. The owner of this guitar was worried that this was a $300-400 Re-Fret! The fingerboard wear is of no consequence other than cosmetic-when it’s time for a Re-Fret, we plane the fingerboard, maintaining the factory radius, and a side benefit is that the fingerboard is restored to it’s factory splendor.

After L&C 1a