Every element of a guitar, from the type of wood used in the body to the gauge of the strings, contributes to the instrument’s unique sound and playability.
Among these, frets and various accessories like FretWraps hold a special significance, as they directly influence the precision of the notes we play and the clarity of the sound produced.
What is a fret?
A fret is a metal strip embedded along the neck of a stringed instrument like a guitar or ukulele, used to alter the pitch of the string when it is pressed down against it. Different frets correspond to different musical notes, allowing the player to produce a wide range of pitches from a single string.
In this article, we’ll explore the world of guitar frets, discussing their function, different types, materials used, and the importance of fret leveling for the optimal performance of your instrument.
We’ll also take a look at the role of accessories like FretWraps in controlling unwanted string noise, helping you create the clean, focused sound you desire.
What Is A Fret?
In the context of musical instruments, a fret is a raised element on the neck of a stringed instrument.
Frets usually appear as thin strips (usually made of metal, but sometimes of other materials) that cross the neck of the instrument perpendicularly.
When a string is pushed down onto a fret, it effectively shortens the vibrating length of the string, producing a higher pitch when the string is played.
Different frets correspond to different musical notes, allowing the player to produce a wide range of pitches from a single string.
Instruments like the guitar, mandolin, banjo, and ukulele are commonly fretted instruments.
How Do Frets Work?
Frets work by changing the length of the string that is free to vibrate, and thus changing the pitch that the string produces when it’s played.
The basic principle at work here is that the pitch of a vibrating string depends on the length of the string: the shorter the string, the higher the pitch, and the longer the string, the lower the pitch, given the string is kept at the same tension.
When you press a string down onto a fret on a guitar or other fretted instrument, you’re effectively shortening the string.
The string is anchored at one end at the bridge of the instrument and at the other end by the point where your finger presses it against the fret.
So, when you play the string, only the section of the string between the fret and the bridge vibrates, and the rest of the string is muted.
By moving your finger along the neck of the instrument and pressing the string down at different frets, you can vary the effective length of the string and thus play different notes.
The frets are placed at very specific intervals along the neck in order to produce the correct musical pitches according to the chromatic scale (which is the scale that includes all the white and black notes on a piano).
It’s worth noting that fretless string instruments (like the violin family, the double bass, and some types of guitar) work on the same principle, but the player has to manually control the length of the string by placing their finger at the correct point on the neck, rather than having fixed frets to guide them.
This allows for more expressive possibilities (like sliding seamlessly from one note to another) but also requires more precision and skill.
What Are Jumbo Frets?
Jumbo frets refer to a type of fret wire that is larger (taller and wider) than typical fret wire used on guitars and other stringed instruments. The term “jumbo” doesn’t have a standardized size but usually refers to frets that are around .110″ (2.79mm) wide and .055″ (1.4mm) tall.
The size of the frets can have a significant impact on the playability and tone of the instrument.
Here are some reasons why some players prefer jumbo frets:
- Playability: Jumbo frets can make it easier to bend strings and achieve vibrato, as your finger doesn’t have to press down as hard to make contact with the fret, reducing finger fatigue.
- Sustain: Some players believe that larger frets can increase the sustain of the instrument (the length of time that the note rings out after being played). The theory is that the increased mass of the fret provides a better anchor for the vibrating string.
- Tone: The size of the fret can subtly affect the tone of the instrument. Some players believe that larger frets result in a warmer, fuller tone, although this can be quite subjective.
However, jumbo frets are not for everyone. They can make the guitar feel very different to play, and some players find them less comfortable, especially if they’re used to smaller frets.
They can also make the instrument slightly harder to play in tune, as pressing the string down too hard can cause the note to go sharp.
Finally, jumbo frets can wear out more quickly than smaller frets, as there is more surface area in contact with the strings.
What Are Medium Jumbo Frets?
Medium jumbo frets are a type of fret size that is intermediate between standard or “vintage” size frets and larger “jumbo” frets. The term isn’t completely standardized across manufacturers, but Fender, one of the most well-known guitar manufacturers, describes their medium jumbo frets as being .106″ (2.69 mm) wide and .036″ (0.91 mm) tall.
Medium jumbo frets are often considered a good middle ground between smaller, vintage-style frets and larger jumbo frets.
They provide some of the benefits of jumbo frets, like easier bends and vibrato and some increased sustain, but without as much of a change in the feel of the instrument.
They may also be a bit more forgiving in terms of intonation compared to larger jumbo frets and don’t wear out as quickly.
The ideal fret size is largely a matter of personal preference. Different players may prefer different fret sizes depending on their playing style, the type of music they play, and what feels most comfortable to them.
Fret Size Chart
This information comes from Warmoth, a producer of custom guitar and bass parts.
The fret wire is made from 18% hard nickel/silver, which despite its name, contains no silver but is composed of brass and nickel. It is rated at HV 170 on the Vickers hardness scale and is designed to give long life with steel strings.
|Item Number||Width x Height (in)||Width x Height (mm)||Description||Used By|
|6230||.080″ X .037″||2.03mm X 0.94mm||This is the smallest fret wire||Vintage Fender® necks|
|6105||.095″ X .047″||2.41mm X 1.19mm||Narrow and tall||Most Guitars|
|6130||.106″ X .036″||2.69mm X 0.91mm||Low and wide. Sometimes called “Medium Jumbo”||Many GibsonⓇ necks|
|6150||.104″ X .047″||2.64mm X 1.19mm||Wide and tall. The standard “Jumbo”||Modern Fender AmericanⓇ necks|
|6100||.118″ X .058″||3.00mm X 1.47mm||A very large wire, almost scalloped feel||Common on IbanezⓇ necks|
What Are Guitar Frets Made Of?
Guitar frets are typically made of a metal alloy, often a type of nickel silver (also known as German silver), which despite its name, doesn’t actually contain any silver, but is an alloy of copper, zinc, and nickel. Nickel silver is a popular choice because it’s hard and durable but not too difficult to work with, and it doesn’t corrode easily.
Some guitars, especially high-end or custom models, may use stainless steel frets. Stainless steel is even harder and more durable than nickel silver and is highly resistant to wear, meaning that frets made of this material will last much longer.
Stainless steel frets are also less prone to developing grooves or pits from the strings, which can affect the tone and playability of the instrument.
They are more difficult to install and shape correctly, and some players feel that they give the guitar a brighter, more metallic tone compared to nickel-silver frets.
Other materials you might occasionally see used for frets include brass (often on older or vintage instruments) and even gold (usually gold-plating over another metal, used for aesthetic reasons or to reduce the chance of allergic reactions).
These are far less common compared to nickel silver and stainless steel frets.
What Is Fret Leveling?
Fret leveling is a process used to ensure that all the frets on a guitar or other fretted instrument are at the same height and perfectly aligned with each other.
This is important because uneven frets can cause a variety of problems, such as buzzing sounds when certain notes are played, notes that choke out during bends, or an instrument that’s difficult to play in tune.
The process of fret leveling generally involves the following steps:
- Neck Adjustment: Before the frets can be leveled, the neck of the instrument must be properly adjusted so that the neck itself is perfectly level. This usually involves adjusting the truss rod, which is a metal rod inside the neck that can be tightened or loosened to change the amount of curvature in the neck.
- Fret Leveling: Once the neck is properly adjusted, a long, flat sanding block or a specialized tool called a leveling beam is used to gently sand the tops of the frets. This removes a small amount of material from the tops of the frets to ensure they are all the same height.
- Crowning: After the frets have been leveled, they will have flat tops. The next step is to reshape them so they have a rounded top, or “crown.” This is typically done using a special file called a crowning file.
- Polishing: The final step is to polish the frets using progressively finer grades of sandpaper and then steel wool or a specialized polishing cloth. This gives the frets a smooth, shiny finish and ensures that they feel smooth under the fingers.
Fret leveling is a delicate process that requires some skill and experience to do properly, and it’s typically performed by a professional guitar technician or luthier.
If done incorrectly, it can damage the instrument and may require replacing the frets, so it’s not typically recommended as a DIY project unless you know what you’re doing.
What Do Fretwraps Do?
FretWraps are a product used by guitarists and bassists to mute unwanted string noise and kill overtones by dampening the strings. They are adjustable bands that are placed over the strings, usually at the first fret or above the nut of the instrument.
When playing certain styles of music, such as tapping, slap bass, or soloing, unwanted string noise can occur.
This noise can come from strings that are not being played but may vibrate sympathetically with the strings that are being played or from open strings ringing out when the player’s hands move around the neck.
Noise can also come from overtones where the string is vibrating above the nut.
FretWraps help to suppress these unwanted vibrations, making the sound cleaner and more focused. They can be especially useful in studio recording situations where the aim is to get the cleanest possible signal.
The wrap can be quickly slid on top of the headstock and slid onto the strings as needed. It’s a simple and relatively inexpensive accessory that can be very effective in certain situations.
They are not necessary for all styles of playing, and I’d say, most players never need to use them.
From the tiny frets that line the neck of your guitar to the handy FretWrap that sits atop the headstock, every component we’ve explored in this article has its place.
Understanding how frets work, the differences between jumbo, medium jumbo, and standard frets, and the importance of fret leveling can help you maintain your instrument and improve the fell of your guitar.
Similarly, using accessories like FretWraps can be the key to achieving a cleaner sound, particularly in styles of music that demand a high degree of precision.
As with all aspects of music, personal preference and the style of music you play will largely dictate which fret size and accessories are right for you. So, experiment with different options, find what works best for you, and continue to explore the wonderful world of guitar playing.