Frets – there is no other part of the guitar that can create more inspiration – a guitar that is properly fretted will play effortlessly, in tune, without buzzing and produce greater resonance. Unfortunately, there is no other part of the guitar that can create more frustration – a guitar with fret problems will be your worst nightmare – high action, buzzing and poor intonation
The purpose of this article is to explain some of the most common fret problems and their solutions. While we can’t cover everything, we hope by explaining some of the mysteries of fretwork, your frustration will be eased when you experience fret issues.
Most fret problems can be attributed to two sources:
1). the actual fret wearing or
2). the neck or fretboard moving
Lets look at fret wear first.
It is important to understand that as a person plays guitar, they are actually pressing metal against metal (the string against the fret). Over time, this causes the fret to
Pits in guitar frets
The Solution: If the grooves are not too deep, the frets can be leveled (sanded down) to the point where the grooves disappear, then re-crowned (reshaped to have the top of the fret rounded) and then dressed and buffed. If the frets are too deeply grooved (usually less than about 50% of the original fret height), the solution is a partial re-fret. That is, the worn frets are removed and replaced with new frets. The new frets are then leveled and recrowned to blend in with the old frets on the guitar.
The Second Problem: The natural peaks or crowns of the frets are worn flat. Looking at the top of the frets, you can see that they are flat – like plateaus instead of peaks. This condition is frequently seen in the middle and upper frets when the guitarist uses a lot of barre chords and string bends. Problems associated with this type of wear include intonation, buzzing and overall poor “feel.”
The Solution: Flat frets can be corrected by recrowning the frets. That is using a specially made diamond file that reshapes the top of the fret. A fine grit sandpaper, micro mesh and a buffing arbor is then used to dress out the fret. This is only a solution if the frets are still level with each other. If there is too much wear, we often time have to level out the frets first before recrowning. If there is too much wear for leveling, the guitar must be re-fretted. In re-fretting, all frets are carefully removed, the fretboard sanded to the proper radius (or curvature) and new frets are then installed, dressed and set up.
NECK or FINGERBOARD MOVEMENT
The second major source of fret problems occurs when the neck or fingerboard “moves” or changes shape. It is important to realize that a neck is a piece of wood and it will move over time and change shape because of such variables as temperature, humidity, string tension and age. When the neck moves “normally”, a set-up and truss rod adjustment will usually take care of any problems. However, when a neck changes shape due to poor maintenance or extremes in temperature or humidity, fretwork is usually required. There are three general fret problems that occur when a neck changes shape in a “non-normal” way.
The First Problem: There is a “hump” where the neck meets the body. This condition is frequently seen in guitars where the neck is set into the body (as opposed to being bolted on). It is usually caused by the guitar drying our – this is very common with acoustic guitars, especially in cold States in the winter months. The hump causes the string to “fret out’ where the neck meets the body around the 12-14th frets. It can also occur in bolt-ons, it’s just not as common.
The Solution: This condition needs what is called “Humidify and Level”. Step one is to re-humidify the guitar. This usually takes 7-10 days of intense humidifying to smooth our some of the hump in the fretboard and to let the top of acoustic guitars raise back up (they shrink and belly down when dried out). Step two is to level the frets in the humped up area and blend them in with the other frets. The result is that the guitar will play through all the frets without buzzing.
The Second Problem: Fret ends protrude from the side of the fingerboard. This also occurs in guitars that have dried out. The neck, because it is wood, will shrink from side to side while the frets, because they are metal, will not shrink and therefore extend beyond the fretboard. We frequently see this condition in necks without binding or necks that have no finish. Exposed fret ends can greatly inhibit a player’s performance and can even cut your hand if they are very sharp.
The Solution: A fret-end-file will remedy this problem. The actual fret ends are filed level to the side of the fretboard with a sharp bastard file and a series of diamond files. Next, the side of the frets are redressed with a specially made file and a series of sand paper grits and micro mesh to remove any file and sanding marks.
The Third Problem: Fret height is uneven throughout the fretboard. That is, the fretboard dips, raises and twists in more that one place (the “rollercoaster” effect). This condition is usually caused by improper maintenance, age and sometime when new necks are “settling in.” The result is fret buzz in random spots up and down the neck.
Fresh re-fret of a Jazzmaster
The Solution: Depending on the severity of the problem, the frets will have to be either leveled or replaced. To level the frets, the guitar is mounted into a special fret bench that helps support the entire length of the neck and duplicate string tension on the neck while leveling the frets. The tech then locates the high and low frets, marks them off and then uses a specially machined straight edge with a special sandpaper to sand the frets level. The frets are then crowned, redressed and buffed out to a high gloss.
If the peaks and valleys are too severe, the guitar must be re-fretted. In a case like this, it is essential that the fretboard is planed level once the frets are removed. By doing this, the new frets will seat correctly and just need a light dressing once they are installed in the guitar.
Fret problems are one of the most common (and frustrating) problems that occur in guitars. The solutions, however are not that common – quality fretwork requires a great deal of skill and experience. When you experience fret problems, we recommend you visit a qualified, certified repair technician.