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Sometimes you pick up an older guitar and it feels almost perfectly worn in — it fits your hands and the action is soft and smooth.
Sometimes, though, when you actually start to play that “perfectly” worn in guitar and you hear an awful squeaking, ringing, pinging and buzzing from the frets. So how much fret wear is too much?
You know you have too much fret wear when you can feel and see gouges and flat spots on the tops of the frets, as well as when you start to hear buzzing and other noises caused by the strings hitting damaged parts of the fret.
Fret wear can make an otherwise amazing guitar nearly unusable. If you do encounter problems, though, don’t “fret” — see what I did there? — because there are a few ways you can fix them.
Let’s examine what causes fret wear, how to keep your frets in the best possible shape, and a few different ways to address fret wear.
How Do You Keep Your Frets In Good Shape?
As with everything from your body to your car, preventing problems with your guitar is always better than fixing them after they get bad. That means proper maintenance is key.
You should be regularly checking the set-up of your guitar, from string height to neck relief and more, as well as changing strings from time to time, depending on how often you play. When doing those regular maintenance tasks, take a second and look over the frets.
If you see a scratch or ding, you can use very fine emery paper to clean up and quickly polish the surface. Be careful not to go too far, though, because you don’t want to change the height of just one fret, or make the height uneven across the fret.
How Can You Fix Fret Wear?
No matter how diligent you are, though, you’re going to have some fret wear. That’s because most frets are made from a nickel-silver alloy, while most guitar strings are steel. Of course, there are some exceptions, especially if you’re doing something out of the box like making your own strings or trying to play a specific style
Because steel strings are much harder than the nickel-silver alloy, they leave microscopic marks every time the strings hit the frets. That damage builds up over time.
Other sources of fret damage and wear include string bending. Again, because the strings are harder than the frets, they scrape away tiny amounts of material when they’re pushed along a fret during a bend.
You’ll almost certainly hear a problem with your frets before you feel a problem with your fingers, but, again, regular inspection and maintenance help here.
When a problem develops, the first line of defense will be leveling the frets, re-crowning them, and then polishing them. This kind of job is a bread-and-butter type affair for your local guitar repair shop.
It shouldn’t take a good repair tech or luthier very long to get your frets level and your guitar feeling like new.
If you want to tackle the job yourself, it isn’t very difficult, though it can be time-consuming and it requires patience along with a careful touch.
Set your guitar on its back with the neck supported and use a straightedge to check whether the frets are level. If you find unevenness, check whether it extends the entire width of the fret.
Using a long sanding block, use gentle pressure along the length of the fretboard to polish the frets. Gentle pressure here is very, very important because you don’t want to change the radius of the fingerboard or change how the frets follow that radius. Changing the radius will impact the height of the strings along with a long list of other aspects.
Once the frets are all the same height, you can use files, sandpaper, and polishing cloths to give each fret the correct shape. This is called re-crowning and is essential after leveling because the sanding will have destroyed the original profile of the fret.
Once the frets are the right shape, use increasing grits of sandpaper and polishing cloth to polish them until they’re the correct size and shape and are uniformly bright.
When Should You Replace Your Frets?
Fret dressing, which is the term for the entire process covered above, also sometimes called fret redressing, is a great solution to fret wear. After a few hours of work you have frets that are just about as good as new.
They aren’t exactly as good as new, though, because you have to remove material to level and polish them. There’s just no way around that — it’s physics.
If you have to remove material each time you dress and re-dress the frets, you can imagine that you’ll eventually run out of metal to remove. But what if there isn’t enough material left to dress the frets again but you’re getting buzz and wear?
Then it’s time for a full refret. This is not a simple or cheap procedure, but if you want to keep playing your guitar, it’s one you’ll be glad you had done.
While someone with basic repair skills could likely handle a refret, it’s a delicate procedure, so think twice before deciding to DIY this.
Let’s walk through the general outline of a refret.
- Lay the guitar on its back and support the neck, then remove the strings.
- Using a thin blade, score a line under the corner of each fret to reduce tear out when pulling the frets.
- Using specialty pliers, start pulling the fret from one end of the fingerboard, moving slowly to the other end, applying gentle pressure
- Repeat this process until all frets are removed.
- Inspect the fingerboard for damage and ensure it has the correct radius.
- If making frets from bulk fret wire, use a bender to put the correct radius on the wire, then cut the correct number of frets
- If using individual wire, choose correct radius.
- Begin by test fitting each fret loosely in the slot
- When you’re satisfied they are all correctly fitted, remove them and mark each fret so you can put it back in the correct position.
- Install the first fret with a small amount of glue, using a hammer to tap the ends in place and a clamp to fully seat the fret
- Repeat until all frets are installed.
- Use a long sanding board to ensure the frets are all level.
- Proceed with the fret dressing procedure described above.
To give you an idea of what we just covered actually looks like, in this video, a luthier walks through and shows the process of replacing the frets on a National resonator guitar.
How Do You Know It’s Time To Replace Your Frets?
You’ll need some experience to know whether there’s enough material left for a fret redressing or if you’ll need a full refret.
Part of that depends on how big the fret wire used on your guitar is. The wider and taller the wire is, the more room there is for subsequent reshaping.
Here are a few of the most common fret wire sizes available from Dunlop, which is one of the largest fret manufacturers.
- 6230: .078″ x .043″ This is very small by modern standards, and what you’d find on a vintage guitar from the 1960s or before.
- 6150: .102″ x .042″ Referred to as “Vintage jumbo,” these are just a bit shorter than 6230 wire but a good deal wider.
- 6105: .090″ x .055″ These are much more modern, and are in between 6230 and 6150 wire for width but much taller than both.
- 6100: .110″ x .055″ Called “Jumbo,” this wire is about as big as it gets, at least from most makers.
- 6130: .106″ x .036″ The classic known as “Medium jumbo” offers a compromise between the lower height of vintage frets and a more modern, wider wire than the 6230.
A good general rule of thumb, or at least a starting place, is that a guitar less than about 10 years old is unlikely to need a full refret, unless it’s been played a lot more than normal.
In fact, most guitars won’t ever need a full refret, and until there is about 20 years of regular play on most frets, you should have plenty of material left to do a fret redressing.
There are also times when you might do a full refret on a guitar even if all or most of the frets on the guitar could go through another redressing.
For example, if you bought a vintage guitar that someone had previously refretted with 6105 fret wire, you might consider replacing it, either with something like 6230 for more of a vintage feel, or to a 6130, with the Medium jumbo size being an excellent compromise for modern playability without being super tall.
When you’re choosing fret wire material, you might be tempted to go with stainless steel frets instead of the more standard nickel silver alloy. You certainly can do that, and plenty of players do, but there are some drawbacks.
First, because stainless steel is harder, it’s more difficult to get the wire to take the proper radius and it can be more difficult to get the frets to stay in their slots because it’s just a tougher material.
Second, because it will then be as hard or harder than your guitar strings, instead of the strings wearing out the frets, the frets will wear out the strings.
You’ll start to notice string breakage and damage more, especially if you have an aggressive playing style.
You need to decide whether the tradeoffs are worth it, between the extra cost of the material to the more difficult installation.
Frets don’t sound like the most glamorous part of a guitar, and maybe they aren’t, but they are absolutely essential for good sound.
Every guitar will have a different pattern and amount of fret wear, based on everything from age to string type to how often it was played. Now you can understand what causes it and how to keep that from creating any problems for your playing.
I’ve been a musician, particularly a guitarist, for more than 25 years. I love writing about guitars, gear, recording, music in general and more.