Fretwire is one of those things most guitarists seldom think about and to the uninitiated, things can seem more than a little confusing thanks to the many sizes and names out there. So to help you cut through the mix when it comes to fretwire and fretwork, in this article we’ll be diving deep into both topics to help you further understand your frets.
What is fretwire?
Your frets play a critical part in how your guitar plays, less so in how it sounds. Make the jump from a vintage Telecaster to a modern Ibanez and you will feel the difference in the way it plays. Although that may be partly down to the neck profile too, how your fingers feel on the fretboard is largely down to the fretwire.
Different sizes of fretwire will affect your technique to some degree too, and this is due to the way they interact with the strings and the fretboard. A taller fret will require less pressure from your fingers, as well as being easier to bend as you’re not pushing against the wood of the fretboard itself. However, a very tall fret will also mean that if you push down too hard, you’re in danger of bending your notes slightly out of tune whilst playing.
Choice of fret size really comes down to personal playing preference, some players like to feel the wood, whereas others prefer the more slinky feel of playing against the fretwire itself. We’d highly recommend trying to different types if you’ve not done it before, as you may surprise yourself with what you end up liking!
Before we dive into the different materials and sizes of fretwire, lets take a moment to understand the different components of fretwire itself, and how they get their names because of this.
As we can see in the above diagram, fretwire get their names from the height and width of the head/bead, and this is where we get the colloquial terms medium-jumbo, narrow-tall and various others. The 'crown' is also why you'll often see files for fretwork referred to as crowning files. It's also important to note the way they are measured, it's only the width and height of the head that makes up fret wire measurements, the tang is left out.
Now there are two primary materials of fretwire available, and both offer differing performance and durability. There is also a third type, EVO gold, but at this stage this are rare enough to not warrant further discussion.
Nickel Fret Wire
Nickel fretwire is the most common fret material and will be on the majority of guitars as stock. Often called ‘nickel silver’ there’s actually no silver in them at all despite the moniker. Nickel fretwire does an admirable job of supporting your fretting hand, but it does tend to wear down with extended play. You will see the first signs of this with small dents in the frets themselves, running parallel with the strings. When this happens the guitar will need the frets levelling, or perhaps even a total re-fret in serious cases, more on which later!
Stainless Steel Fret Wire
Stainless steel is much harder than traditional nickel-based frets, which makes them highly sought after. Their incredible durability also has a secondary benefit as they provide a more stable platform for your strings to push against, resulting in a playability often described as ‘effortless’. As they are more durable, stainless steel frets are more expensive because they are harder to install. Despite this, stainless steel fretwire is definitely worth the extra investment, even just for the long term durability benefit.
There are some guitarists and luthiers who argue that stainless steel frets make a guitar sound ‘brighter’, but we’ve heard little to no evidence of this with our own ears. If there is a difference, it’s minor enough that only an incredibly well trained ear in a perfect listening environment could discern.
Fret Size Guide
Due to the variety of manufacturers of fretwire, there are various naming conventions for frets as such, no guarantees you're getting the same thing going by name alone. For simplicities sake, we've broken them down into the most commonly found terms, however depending on the manufacturer of the fretwire, you may find that these sizes differ slightly, albeit usually by fractions of an inch.
Please note these naming conventions may differ depending on where you look, particularly with Medium Jumbo which can be anything from 2.7mm (0.106") to 2.4mm (0.094") wide! We've put this list together as a general guide to fret sizes, and it is by no means exhaustive. It should give you the basics from which you can make a decision to purchase, and we always recommend double checking the measurements before you do so.
Vintage fretwire is often found on pre-60s Fender models, they are typically 2.0mm (.078”) wide and 1.1mm (.043”) tall. In the modern era they’ve largely been superseded by larger frets due to the demands of players but if you're a vintage Fender lover you'll be familiar with this size.
As per its name, Narrow Tall fretwire is thin, yet tall which gives a good feel against the fretboard. Narrow Tall frets are usually around 2.2mm (.090”) wide x 1.3mm (.055”) tall. A lot of beginner guitars come with these installed as they’re easy for new players to get to grips with, providing a very balanced playing feel.
You’re pretty unlikely to find Vintage Jumbo Frets at all these days due to the changed taste of the modern guitarist. They are the opposite of Narrow Tall in that they are wide and short, commonly coming in with measurements of around 2.6mm (.102”) wide and 1mm (.042”) tall. Most modern guitarists will find these frets a little awkward to play, having had the majority of their experience with Narrow Tall or Medium Jumbo fret sizes but if you’re a vintage guitar lover, you’ll likely feel very comfortable with this size.
Medium Jumbo fret wire is the most commonly found of all fret sizes nowadays as they provide a great balance between fast playability and ease of bending. You’ll find these on the majority of higher Fender and Gibson guitars and they are generally sized around 2.6mm (.106”) wide and 0.9mm (.036”) tall. That said, there are a lot of varieties of Medium Jumbo so you may find the sizes differ quite significantly depending on the manufacturer. Players who love big bends will feel especially at home with this size.
While Jumbo fretwire isn’t the most popular out of all the sizes available, it certainly has its fans. Players who like to shred will enjoy this size of fret, as it makes lighting fast legato and techniques like two hand tapping much easier. Ordinarily coming in at a size of 2.9mm (0.110”) wide and 1.3mm (.055”) tall, they can often be difficult to play for players with smaller hands. Those who are used to smaller frets may also end up pushing down too hard and sending the notes sharp when first getting to grips with a set of Jumbo Frets.
A note on Radius
Some fretwire will come pre-radiused for easier installation. These will line up with typical neck radius such as 7.25”, 9.5” and 12”, so be sure to check this before purchasing any fretwire for your guitar!
Installing fretwire is not a task that should be taken lightly, so we would highly recommend taking some lessons from a professional luthier before you get stuck in with this. You can run into a lot of issues with this task, particularly with Maple fretboards and bound necks. That said there are several useful online guides available should you wish to dive in headfirst, and don’t mind potentially damaging your guitar in the process of learning a new skill.
You will need a complete fretting tool set to undertake this work, including the following tools:
- Fret Cutter
- Fret Puller
- Fret Hammer
- Fret Levelling Files
- Double Edge Fret File
- Fret Polishing Rubber
Not only will these tools allow you to install frets, but they will also be essential in the servicing of them too. If you're deciding to undertake your own fretwork then check out our full complement of Fretworking Tools.
Fret polishing is a much easier task, something that all guitarists can undertake with a little know how. You can use handy fret polishing kits like this one from D’Addario, and it should be something that every guitarist undertakes with from time to time with a string change. You can either use a low tack masking tape to fill the gaps between your frets and sane with a Fret Polishing Rubber, or you can use the system from D'Addario which does the same thing. Find more information on getting your guitar to play its best with our Guitar Setup Guide.
As we’ve seen in this article your fretwire is an important component of your guitar, hugely affecting its playability. Understanding more about how your instrument works is all part of developing as a guitar player, so next time you’re in the guitar shop looking at a new purchase, you’ll be suitably equipped to make a better decision, and potentially confuse the staff!
Understand more about your guitar hardware with our Guitar Bridge Guide.
Further your knowledge of necks with our Guitar Neck Guide.
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