“My guitar is only 2 years old and already needs a re-fret”.
I have heard this complaint many times. Why do some guitar frets last longer than others? There are many variables. Some fret wire is softer than others, some players are heavy handed. Some cases put excessive pressure on the frets. Some people drop their guitars, and some string materials are harder on fret wire than others.
I remember a customer bringing in a 1961 SG Les Paul for service. I was so impressed by the condition of his guitar. He said that he had always used flat wound strings. That was one of the primary reasons for the lack of fret wear on his guitar. Were frets made with more durable materials in the past?
Let’s examine the different types of fret wire used on guitars. We will start with the standard and then take a look at the newer materials.
Everything affects your guitar tone. The thickness of a pickguard, finish, bracing patterns, wood thickness, and yes even fret wire. Frets are sized by crown (height and width), and tang width. The tang is the portion of the fret that secures it in the fret slot. The most common and most popular fret wire is 18% nickel silver.
There is no silver in this alloy. Nickel Silver is 18% nickel, 80% copper, and traces of scary metals. Dunlop and Jescar are two of the big manufacturer/suppliers of fret wire.
Since we know that luxury guitar builders sacrifice profit for tone and performance, it would make sense that they would be inclined to use the more expensive, less common, more durable, and better sounding fret wire materials. Bottom line, it’s about the sound and feel; the two most important criteria for any high end guitar purchase. Most luthiers won’t sacrifice tone for less maintenance.
One of the benefits of stainless steel guitar frets is that they last years. There is no need for a fret level or re-fret after a year or two of hard playing in most cases. There are always a few exceptions. Some players use a constant death grip when they play. Stainless steel is very hard on tools and bad technique. Many builders believe that the benefits outweigh the cost.
Gold EVO frets wear well too. They are 80 percent copper with no nickel silver content. This material has been used in the optical industry for many years. Gold frets just look cool too. Imagine your favorite eye glass frames on your guitar fretboard. They have a slightly warmer sound and softer feel than stainless. Some builders like how they affect the tone. Some do not. You be the judge.
Guitar frets come in different shapes and sizes.
What difference does the shape and size of a fret make? A tall fret is great for a player with a lighter touch. If you grip hard, you will pull the notes sharp. Tall frets also last longer.
With small low profile frets there is a difference in playability. Some say that there is a difference in tone. I am of the opinion that everything contributes to the tone. These differences are subjective and personal. One of the big enemies of fret wire is the guitar capo. Capos put more string pressure on the frets than the heaviest hand. This is a good argument for using a capo with a tension adjustment.
Note to self: remove the capo when you are done using it. Contrary to popular opinion, the capo is not cheating. No more so than having frets is cheating. Playing chords without touching the strings and fingerboard is cheating.
Tom Anderson Guitar Works Company used to ship all of their guitars with a fret protector until they started using stainless steel frets. They attributed some fret wear to the pressure on the guitar when the case lid was closed.
Because Artisans use the finest materials available, their guitars typically require the least amount of maintenance. The frets are level, filed to perfection so that you can have the best playing experience. The instrument should not get in the way of your musical creativity and technique.
Musical instruments are made to be played, so wear out those frets. They’ll make more. At some point your guitar will need fret repair or replacement.
Steve Poorman/Luxury Guitarist
Steve Poorman has dedicated most of his life exploring, examining, and experiencing, guitars. As a professional musician, student, and teacher, he has a well rounded perspective. Above all, Steve has the heart of a teacher. He loves to mentor, coach, and inspire others who share his passion for music. His extensive knowledge on topics related to guitars is the result of having over 40 years experience in the field. He will laugh with you about the neurosis that plagues guitarists and cry with you about the guitars that got away.