As a luthier, refretting expert, and as inventor of tools for refretting, please read this brief list of customers I’ve refretted guitars for. Then read on, and have fun!!
- Glen Campbell – I’ve refretted all 7 of his stage and studio Taylors, Ovations, Fenders, Martins
- George Lynch, guitarist with Dokken (Lynch Mob) – refretted several of his custom ESP guitars
- Jason Newstead, former bass player for Metallica – purchased a custom bass from Becks
- Clarke Rigsby, BMI award winning studio producer – recording engineer
- Jessy Johnson, guitarist with Prince and the Revolution
- Cris and Curt Kirkwood of the Meatpuppets – refretted all their guitars and basses as they wore them in (or out)
- Jessy V. & Scottie Johnson of the Gin Blossoms – Fenders and Les Pauls
- Ray Herndon, guitarist with Lyle Lovett, player and song writer with Kenny Chesnek – I refretted his vintage strat 3 times in 20 years including my own original 57 strat, 55 strat, 54 les paul, 57 les paul
Lets talk frets. I’ve been asked just about everything you can ask about frets. Questions on wear on frets, dings and pits on frets, lifting and loose frets, sharp along the edges frets, size of frets. What is leveling and crowning frets? What type of metal are frets made of? Does it matter if your frets are flat? Does it matter if your frets are round? Well, I’ve made a life time study of frets since I started working on guitars at around 16 years old (mid 1960’s). Bear in mind that in all my years of learning about frets, I have never read a single book on the subject; I didn’t have to.
This brief is not meant to teach you all there is to know about the art of refretting. No my friend, you would have to spend many months of hands on experience just to get the basics down. This is just a primer, hitting on some of the high points.
When I started refretting, there were virtually no books or videos on the subject (where were you Stu-Mac, Luthiers Merc in 1970?), let alone any companies who specialized in tools for Luthiers! I know now that there are currently about 942 instruction books and 37 different videos. I learned the hard way: Trial and error. I can tell you, no matter who is teaching you refretting techniques; you would have to fret at least 35 guitars just to get a good clue about it! If you think I’m kidding, call me. I’ll give you the phone number of a handful of apprentices I have taught. They’ll tell you I’m being conservative.
OK, lets get started. Its a big topic and I’ll try to give you the basics.
When a customer comes into my shop, it’s for many reasons. Generally, a guitarist has played his guitar to death. His main guitar is buzzing, it sounds awful, and it won’t play in tune. It can’t tune to the others in the band, and generally, won’t play well with others.
Then he plays a freshly dialed in, or refretted instrument, and he realizes how awful his plays! I have had semi-pro and professional guitarists bring their guitars in, and the frets had been so worn they were actually playing on the fretboard! As your frets wear, there are several stages of disappointment with your guitar. When the frets are fresh and the fretboard is perfectly straight and everything is right-on, your guitar will “sing”. (That’s because the string is hitting on a tiny contact patch). The action should be exactly where you want it, the sustain will be optimum, and your intonation will be as perfect as a fretted instrument can be.
Guitars such as this truly inspire great playing. Unfortunately, this rarely exists on many guitars (until they’ve been pro refretted, or had a “Custom Action”). When a guitar has fresh frets and a complete “Custom Action” is performed, your guitar will sing out, bend forever.
Fig. 2a shows a flat fret.
Arrow points to the actual spot where the string contacts the fret.
Fig. 2b shows a much smaller contact area which increases sustain.
Arrow points to alignment with fret tang.
The next step is when the frets are starting to show a small flat area on the top. This is where problems begin. As the flat spot on the top of the fret increases, the sustain begins to diminish slightly (guitarists will notice that the strings seem to wear out quicker: this is because the strings are contacting a larger surface and more string is in contact with the frets. Think about it!).
Additionally, intonation begins to suffer. That clear bell-like-tone is slowly going away. This is minor wear, but believe me, great guitarists can feel and hear the difference. As the wear on the top of the fret continues, the frets get flatter. There is a gradual degradation in the intonation and sustain. Because of the gradual loss of sustain and intonation, many guitarists don’t notice the problem until they play a friends guitar that’s fresh. Then it dawns on them: “Something’s wrong with my guitar!”
Many guitars need regular truss rod adjustments. If the neck is readjusted during this period of fret-wear (without having the frets recrowed), this can and often does make the guitar play and sound worse. It makes the instrument sound worse because you’ve diminished the truss rod clearance of the neck and now the strings are buzzing even more. This is because a larger and larger area of the fret (especially with huge jumbo frets) is coming into contact with the string! (see fig. 2a)
So, lets just buzz over some more basics. Another reason a guitarist comes in is the classic buzzing that happens in the upper register when you bend strings, or just play up around the 12-14 frets. This happens because the fretboard is no longer straight. (Just love those Les Paul’s.) In brief, most all refretting is done for a couple of reasons. The frets are just too flat to recrown and perform my special “Custom Action”, and/or there is a major hump in the fretboard in the upper register where the neck meets the body. (see fig. 4)
Fig. 4 – A Major hump in the upper register
First things first. I have the musician sit down and play the guitar; that way I can get an idea of what kind of chops they have. I always note how they play. Maybe they play great, maybe they play terrible, and maybe they can’t tell if their guitar plays well or not. Maybe their playing skills are superior, and you know that what you’re gonna do will make them sound soooo much better. Next, I put a straight edge on the fretboard. This helps me identify the problem spots. Believe me, every guitar we see has some amount of weirdness with the fretboard. Make a note, I will discuss in detail the next issue: what fret size to use. Sometimes you will be forced to use a bigger fret (both in bead and tang size) to make up for the fret-slot size. Some guys want really big frets. Since we’re talking frets, we gotta look at a fret and identify its parts. (see fig. 5). Remember, bigger frets, even when perfect, can and certainly will cause some definite distortion of intonation. I never recommend big frets for a player who plays jazz, or plays hard. With really big frets, you gotta realize that not only are you shortening the string, but you are bending the string just a tad as it bends over the fret. Frets like the Dunlap 6000 or the 6100 (according to their literature) have a bead of about .055″ tall. That’s pretty huge, especially when combined with the width of the bead. I will often use a 6155 fret (again named by the Dunlap Co.) for most all electric guitars, Les Paul’s, and some acoustics. It’s just the right bead and tang size. I will also use a smaller fret for certain acoustics and banjos, for those better players who don’t critically bend every note. Smaller frets will additionaly allow lower action.
There are some important components of any modern fret. (see fig. 5) “A” is the width of the bead, “B” is the height of the bead. Lets look at these 2 important components. Almost all guitars have frets that are either small (similar to vintage guitars), or medium jumbos (most Gibsons). There’s also a few styles of relatively thin but tall frets called the 6105 (the short-lived Randy Rhodes guitars) and the super jumbo, extra large fret. An “easy to access” supplier is the Dunlap company, and they offer like 29 different size frets, but they all can be based around 4 common sizes (see table below).
Fret Dimensions (see fig. 5)
|Fret Dimensions||“A” (inches)||“B” (inches)|
|6105 (tall and thin)||0.090||0.055|
|6000 (Rude Jumbo) (The biggest, fattest frets available)||0.119||0.058|
Now one can see from the diagram (see fig. 6), that if you have frets that are .080 to .100 thousanths wide and are flat across the top, your high E string (which could be .009″, .010″, or .011″) is grinding over a metal fret area that is 8 to 10 times wider than necessary. This is robbing your guitar of sustain, intonation, and tone! That’s why guitarists who’ve just had their guitar’s frets crowned, or replaced and crowned always comment on how much better their instrument feels and sounds.
Will miracles never cease! Kurt and I use special hand customised files I invented over 26 years ago. (see fig. 7) They are customized triangular shaped files that I use to reshape and triangulate the frets. You will not find one major or minor guitar manufacturer that will take the time to do a “Custom Action” fret dress on their new guitars. This helps keep tone, intonation and smooth action to the max!
So, you want to take the frets out? How do the frets come out? Some manufacturers put then in sideways and they can come out that way (some). We prefer to use a specially custom ground set of butt nose nippers (see fig. 8) where the jaws are ground until they are sharp, then heat-oil treated so they last.
We heat the frets with a soldering iron and then carefully (I mean carefully) remove them up and out. By paying close attention, this can (and must) be done without any chipping of the fretboard (see fig. 9).
After all the frets are removed, we sand the fretboard.
Next we put it on the “Green Monster” (see fig. 10).
It’s ugly but it works killer. What does it do? Well, first notice that the Green Monster is a large board about two inches thick, weighs about 85 pounds and has two large pipe clamps screwed down on it. The clamps are positioned in such a fashion that I can clamp any electric or acoustic to the fixture. When it’s clamped down, it’s not going anywhere. Why clamp it down? I’ll tell you. After more than 26 years of full-time refretting, I’ve seen it all. Take your average Les Paul and string it up. Five out of ten times when the guitar is up to pitch, there will be a hump where the neck meets the body. (see fig. 11)
This is because those lovely factories install the frets on your fretboard before the neck even gets glued to your guitar! They are just being cheap. In fact some factories mash your frets into the fretboard before the fretboard is even glued to the neck. A guitar under string tension will behave differently than a guitar without string tension. We clamp it down and precisely measure how much string tension there is.
We then put some precision blocks behind the back of the headstock to help simulate absolute string tension. This way we can accurately examine the hump on the upper register and allow us to sand it down perfectly. Re-planing and/or sanding a fretboard without tension is like taking a shower with a raincoat on! It accomplishes nothing. With the strings tensioned, you can accurately observe what the truss rod is doing.
For a “World Class Fret Job” one must be able to simulate string tension and then re-plane the fretboard correctly. After that, sand away!
After sanding, next is a careful re-slotting of the fret slots. (see fig. 12) This is an exceptionally important part of refretting. The fret tang must, I repeat must, fit in the slot just right! What’s just right? Good question. The frets must fit tight so they stay in, but not so tight as to cause the fretboard to over bow when you gently hammer them in.
When you consider most all the big factories use saws and equipment that will produce a fret-slot between .021 and .023 thousanths of an inch, and the frets I mentioned all have the same size tang, everything should be hunky-dory, right? You would think so. Unfortunately, what fast-food-factory-fretting doesn’t take into consideration is that every single ebony fretboard, every single Indian rosewood fretboard, and every maple fretboard is different. Some ebony fretboards are as hard as steel, some are brittle, some spongy, and some have no expansion-contraction at all. It’s hard to think about a fretboard as having some degree of expansion, but as sure as there is air, believe me, every fretboard I have ever fretted or refretted has its own little difference to it, and to really do a fret job pro, you gotta be able to feel that difference and work with it to the guitar’s advantage.
You have to have a lot of patience to do this right. There is a lot of trial and error. We can spend several hours making sure the frets tap in just right (with just the right size hammer). You just have to figure that after refretting over 5000 guitars, I’ve got the feel down! Spend as much time as needed to mate the fret tang to the fret slot. Another very important step is carefully taking the new frets and hammering them into the shape of the fretboard. (see fig. 13).
To do this, I have another several pairs of butt-nose nippers, but instead of them being ground flat like the ones to remove the frets, these are ground with an arch to replicate the arch of the fretboard. Now frets are ready to go in. (see fig. 14)
Now, after the frets have been gingerly hammered in placed in the freshly prepared slot, it’s time to trim off the edges (years ago, I fabricated a fret-press (see figs. 15 and 16) ( it sucked, hammering rules!)
After the fret edges are cut with a butt-nose tools. (see fig. 17)
Then we go to work with a specially customized file, with just the right cut to add the correct angle on the fret edges (see figs. 18 and 19). Cut them too far and your string will always fall off the edges, don’t cut them enough and they will always feel sharp. A patient feel and a cautious eye are necessary to do one of many steps. (This is the easy part).
After the fret edges are carefully filed comes the precision work. We need to do a slight leveling of the frets. If you did the most pro work so far, then you can make sure all the frets are exactly level by gently running over the tops of the frets with a fine stone (I use a 6000 grit stone, see fig. 20). You should only need to do 3 or 4 passes. This doesn’t remove any more than a few thousands of material, unless there is a high fret, in which case, that fret will have to be removed and individually replaced.
Next comes a very serious step. Recrowning a factory fret (which may not have been truly round to begin with) now has a flat spot on its top. (see figs. 2b and 6) I can’t tell you how many times I’ve purchased a coil of frets and they are inconsistent or squashed, dinged, badly bent. Generally, factory frets are not very precise, either in tang or bead size. Countless experiments led me to carefully regrind several sizes of triangle files (see fig. 7). In 1975, I pioneered the use and technique of turning flattened frets into round frets. (see figs. 21, 22, and 23) I could spend hours explaining the refined techniques and skill it take to resphape a fret, but it you really want to appreciate this technique, try it yourself.
If you wish to try recrowning yourself, I do sell a set of files, customized by me personally, so you can try it yourself. The important thing is you need to use a gentle, careful, forward twisting and stroking method of working the side of the frets only, being careful not to grind over the tops of the frets. You want to end up with a small area on the top of the fret that is no more than .002″ wide. If you have a badly flattened fret due to wear, or just cheapness from the factories, the flat area on top of your average uncrowned fret can be as wide as the width of the bead (‘A’ in fig. 5) so crowning and reshaping is essential.
If you try recrowning yourself, don’t be surprised if you need a lot of practice to get the reshaping down. Next, another important invention of mine is the use of specially designed buffing wheels, first using a medium course wheel, then a pink, fine wheel. (see the Stu Mac article). This will give the entire fret a high polish without affecting the important “contact patch” directly on the top of the fret. (see fig. 2b)
To finish, just reinstall your nut. We’re gonna assume that your nut is reusable, if not, in our next lesson, we’ll talk about how to make a nut (a serious job in itself) that you can carefully re-glue back on your guitar.
But remember, since you’ve changed the height of your frets, you will have to get a file and carefully bring down the height that the strings run across your first fret, through the nut. Set your bridge and intonation, and you’re ready to have an amazing playing guitar!