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Steve Carmody Guitar








RE-FRETTING YOUR GUITAR?

Should you use larger fretwire?

By Steve Carmody

At first glance, fretwire size seems like it couldn't be a very controversial subject. But if you are planning to get your guitar refretted and have researched the subject, you know that many people have very strong opinions about fretwire size and its impact on how easily a guitar plays, as well as its potential for affecting tone and volume. Indeed, a number of guitar players and luthiers are strongly in favor of using and refretting with "large" versus the more traditional "medium" size fretwire in pursuit of these enhancements.

First a little background. Until around 1960, the fretwire used by most major manufacturers was what we would today call small or medium in size. In a technical sense medium wire is usually no more than .085" in width and about .043" in height. Small fretwire is about .075 in width. Banjos are often fretted with this size wire. Vintage Fender electrics, most Gibson guitars made until the late 1950's, Martin guitars since the 1930's, and most Taylor guitars to this day, are fitted with what would be considered medium size fretwire. .

The first use of larger fretwire on guitars is usually credited to the Gibson company which, in 1959, began using wider fretwire on both its acoustics and electrics. This wire was about 25% wider but not much taller than the standard medium wire. By the 1980's many other companies were producing guitars with wire that was both wider and taller than medium fretwire. Fender's American Standard models are made with fretwire that is .103" wide and .046" tall. This was big in comparison to the traditional medium wire, but other companies started using even larger wire which was previously seen only on electric basses. Currently, Jackson, Ibanez, Kramer and many other makers use frets that which are .110" wide and .053" tall, often referred to as Jumbo size.

PROS AND CONS OF USING LARGE FRETWIRE

There are a couple arguments in favor of using larger than "medium" fretwire on guitars

1. Taller wire makes guitars easier to play since it keeps the player's fingers from touching the fretboard, which in turn means that your fingers don't have to fight with the fretboard surface to get sufficient contact of the strings to the tops of the frets. For the same reason, less contact with the fretboard, taller frets make bending of notes easier.

2. Bigger wire lasts longer.

3. Better tone and more volume is achieved from larger frets.

Let's address each of these points individually.

THE GUITAR IS EASIER TO PLAY

It has to be granted that for players who appreciate the ability to have a lighter fretting hand touch, a taller fret can give that effect since there is usually less contact of the fingers with the fretboard. Players with larger fingers can also be appreciative of this feature. It is also true that string bending is easier when the finger is not impeded by contact with the fretboard.

BIGGER FRETS LAST LONGER

Well, taller frets have more height to lose over time, so at one level yes, they can last longer. But in general most fretwire is composed of the same metal alloy ("nickel-silver") so large frets don't wear any less quickly than smaller fretwire, they just have more fret to wear over time. Additionally, as any frets wear down the potential for buzzing and poor intonation increases. So the condition of the frets must be maintained through leveling and crowning as they wear. And if the goal is to have the strings as high as possible over the fretboard, this height is still going to be lost both as the frets wear down, and when they are releveled and crowned during maintenance.

THERE IS MORE VOLUME AND BETTER TONE WITH LARGER FRETS

It is hard to understand , demonstrate, or gauge, that a volume or tone change might result from taller versus medium frets, so such claims are difficult to address. A proper comparison would have to done by refretting the same guitar with both size frets, and without telling the player, recording the same song being played on both guitars. Comparing a guitar with worn frets with a guitar newly refretted with large frets is not a proper comparison of fret size impact. Until a proper scientific comparison is done I will say this- A guitar which has worn, low frets that is then refretted by a competent luthier will always sounds clearer and louder than before, regardless of fret size.

One other thing which is often affected, in my opinion, by the refretting process, regardless of the size of the frets, which contributes to increased volume and quality of tone is that a refretted neck is often stiffer than it was before. A stiffer neck is going to absorb less string energy and in turn will, in essence, send it to the more flexible sound box of the guitar where volume is actually generated. In sum I suppose I would say that I don't believe the neck or frets can create volume, but if the neck is too flexible or the frets too worn, their condition can certainly detract from its production.

I will say that an individual players finger size and playing style are going to figure into determining which size wire might enable the most volume and tone quality. If you have large hands and big fingers it is very possible that it will be harder to cleanly fret a guitar with smaller frets. But for a player who was getting good volume and tone from medium frets, I find it hard to believe that ( or understand why) using taller frets would change that. But as I said before, I suppose that only a proper scientific study will resolve this question.

CONCERNS ABOUT USING LARGE FRETWIRE

The arguments against, or concerns about using larger fretwire are -

1. Larger/taller fretwire can have a "railroad track" feel on the edge of the fretboard. That is, there can be (depending on how the fret ends are filed) a more pronounced feel of the frets as you slide your fretting hand up and down the fretboard. For some players this can be an immense distraction.

2. As larger wire wears down there can be intonation and buzzing issues which result from the wider footprint of the fret. As larger frets wear down, the string can seat far enough ahead of or behind the center point to noticeably change the pitch. Buzzing can also occur as the fret wears down and the overall platform of the fret widens, making it harder to cleanly fret the string.

3. Players who have a heavier touch with their fretting hand (especially when using relatively light strings) can actually shift the pitch of a given note by depressing the string all the way to the fretboard. While it is not necessary to push the string to the fretboard if the fret crown is in good shape, some players just do this without thinking.

4. Volume and tone are not significantly impacted by taller fretwire.

These concerns about using large frets are also worthy of consideration, and for some players they will be insurmountable. Some of these concerns though, can, to a degree, be mitigated.

Taller frets can often feel more bumpy as your fretting hand slides up and down the neck. This bumpy feel on the edge of the fretboard can be addressed if the fretboard is wide enough and the string spacing at the nut is sufficiently inset such that there is room to taper and round the fret ends so that they rise gradually from the fretboard edge. This does though require slightly more neck width than might otherwise be needed and will not be possible at all on narrower necks. It may also require installation of a new nut on guitars which have a wider string spacing.

The intonation and buzzing problems associated with larger frets as they wear down may be to a degree warded off by refretting with stainless steel v. the standard 'nickel-silver' frets. Since stainless steel frets are much harder they will wear more slowly and require less maintenance over time while still maintaining a taller profile. It should be noted that installing stainless steel frets is a more difficult process and luthiers will likely charge more to refret with them.

An option which can reduce the issues related to the wear over time of wide frets is to use fretwire which is tall in height but narrower than jumbo in width.The Stewart Macdonald company sells fretwire (stewmac.com- part #155)that is a tall/medium hybrid . This wire is .080 in width but .050 in height, as tall as most jumbo wire but as narrow as a medium. It would still need to be tapered quite a bit at the ends to reduce the bumpy feel, but because it is narrower tends not to encounter the buzzing and intonation issues as much as wider wire.

CONCLUSIONS

Ultimately, whether having larger fretwire is going to be a positive or a negative depends partly on playing style, partly on which size you use, and partly on how it is installed. If your guitar has had medium size fretwire and you are considering a refret with larger fretwire, it is important to consider the impact of such a change before undertaking a refret. Ultimately, larger frets will be appropriate, even desirable, for some players, but not all, and if you are used to the feel of medium size frets you are going to notice a difference. At my shop I encourage using tall-medium wire, such the Stewart-Macdonald #155 for those who want the tall fret feel because I feel that it wears in such a way that causes less buzzing and intonation issues than jumbo fretwire.


Steve Carmody is an independant guitar repairman and luthier with a shop in Silver Spring, Md. He has been doing guitar repair and restoration full-time since 1990. Questions about this article or anything else related to guitar repair? Send e-mail to - GuitarRepairShop@aol.com