The importance of good fret work.

In a previous article we talked about how important feel is to most players when it comes to bonding with a particular guitar. The feel really seems to trump just about every other aspect of an instrument when you put it in the hands of a player. A builder can select the finest materials and assemble them in the best way possible, but if a player doesn't enjoy playing the guitar from a feel standpoint nothing else really matters. As we noted in previous articles there are many aspects that contribute to the feel of a guitar, however in our experience fretwork is the most important. Honestly, good fretwork or lack thereof often is the deciding factor between a good guitar and a bad guitar. In this article we look at the different aspects of fretwork and how they affect the overall playability of a instrument and how we feel some builders set themselves apart from others when it comes to their "fretting prowess".

Honestly in last century of guitar building on a very basic level very little has changed when it comes to how frets are installed on an instrument. Though we have seen tons of technology change just about every other aspect of the guitar, frets have remained largely unchanged in their basic functionality. They are still just ribbons of metal often called "fret wire" that are pressed into the fretboard at precise increments determined by the scale length of the guitar. Most builders even still use the same basic tools that were used a century ago. The real "difference" comes not from how the fret is installed but rather how it is prepped once it is installed.  

Fret Dressing

When frets are first installed into a fretboard they are far from the finished form they will need to be on the finished instrument. In fact, installing the frets is only about 10% of the process of fretting when it comes to the time and energy involved. The real "work" and what really sets a good builder apart from the rest is in how the frets are "dressed".

Here are the basic processes:

Leveling - Once all the frets are pressed into the fretboard it is absolutely crucial that all of the frets are level to one another. One fret that is higher or lower than the rest will absolutely wreck a guitar from a playability standpoint. No matter how well the guitar is setup, with an uneven fret the guitar will more than likely buzz when strings are fretted in the proximity of the high/low fret. Not to mention the intonation will be terrible. Great builders understand this and they take a great deal of care to make sure that all the frets are level once they are properly installed. This is done through the use of specially designed sanding blocks and files and is largely still done by hand. Needless to say this process can be time consuming and requires a good amount of skill to do correctly.

Crowning -  After the frets are leveled, the tops, as in the section of the fret that touches the string needs to "finished". Most of the time fret wire in its raw form is pretty flat on top, and  the sanding done to level the frets can add a lot of roughness to the fret itself in the form of deep scratching/marring. If you were to play the guitar in this stage chances are you would probably not be very impressed. Not only would it be very difficult to bend the strings due to the roughness of the frets, the flat tops of the frets would also more than likely cause major issues with intonation as the actual place where the string is being fretted would not be exactly centered on the fret. At this point, a good builder will hand polish and bevel the tops of the frets in order to shape them into their final finished form. This process also takes a very long time to do correctly, and years to master the skill.

Fret End Beveling - Typically the ends of the frets where they meet the edge of the fretboard a very sharp when the frets are first installed.  Most players at least once have played a guitar that had sharp fret ends. It is really uncomfortable to say the least and in extreme cases can actually cut your hand. Very skilled builders will take a great deal of time to round the edges of the fret as well as make sure that the fret end itself is in line with the edge of the fretboard and not protruding where it catches a players hand. This makes a world of difference in how the guitar feels. Master builders will spend a great deal of time to round off sharp edges, blending the fret into the edge of the fretboard.  

Master Builders vs. The Rest

As you probably can tell when you look at how frets are "dressed" there is a great deal of skill involved to get it right. This process is still done largely by hand and you can often tell right away when you look the fretwork on an instrument if it is built by a master builder or right off of an assembly line. Unfortunately, in our experience the fret dressing part of production is really where you see a lot of the larger manufacturers cut corners. In some ways it makes sense, and it is easy to understand that it is just out of necessity. It takes years to really learn how to properly fret an instrument as well as a great deal of time to get it just right. It is very difficult to build instruments in the numbers that the larger manufacturers like to and still maintain a great level of quality when it comes to the frets. Sadly, we have seen a lot of examples of bad fretwork right out of the box on many guitars from the larger manufacturers. Some are so bad they almost need a complete fret job before any player would even think of buying the particular guitar. It is not uncommon to see frets that don't really appear to have been dressed at all. Not only are they not level or crowned, but the edges are sharp and uncomfortable. If you ever want to know how to tell the difference between a great instrument and a mass produced one just look at the frets.

This is really where you see the difference when you buy a "boutique" guitar. The fretwork that some of the builders perform on every instrument they ship is absolutely stunning. The reason for this is pretty simple, these guys know that this is really what makes a great guitar. Nothing else really matters unless the guitar plays great. This is what sets "boutique" guitars apart from the rest. Play one and you will know know what we mean :).

Here are a few brands that we would consider "Master Builders":

Suhr Guitars at Humbucker MusicGrosh Guitars at Humbucker Music   K-Line Guitars at Humbucker Music Fano Guitars at Humbucker Music

              Nash Guitars at Humbucker Music                        James Trussart Guitars at Humbucker Music


Earlier in the article, we mentioned that fretting is one of those things that has not changed much over the years. For the most part that is true, however something that has gained popularity in the last few years and for good reason is Pleking. This technology has really started to take hold with some manufacturers and judging from the results we would predict it is just the beginning. Basically, a plek machine is device that automates some of the fret dressing process through the use of a complex scanning system. In a nutshell, a computer scans the fretboard and makes a 3-D "map" of it and then electronically levels the frets based on those measurements. The precision work that these machines are capable of is incredible and almost impossible by hand. The result is a guitar with the most level frets humanly possible. John Suhr guitars is one company that uses the pleking systems on their guitars. We joke here at the shop that it is hard to tell the difference from one Suhr to the next, but honestly it is kind of true. Every guitar they make is so consistent and seemingly perfect. It is definitely something you have to experience to really believe. We are definitely believers :).