Throughout history, frets have evolved from strands of sinew tied to the necks of primitively hewn instruments, to strips of bone and ivory, pieces of solid silver, brass and bronze, and now, specially compounded wire which is extruded through shaping dies into large coils, the end result of which is referred to as “Fret wire”. Fret wire is commonly produced from a metal compound known as Nickel Silver and is available in many shapes, sizes and hardness ratings, although lately, Stainless Steel and Gold EVO formulations have become popular. A standard formulation for Nickel Silver can include Copper, Zinc and Nickel. It is also widely used as costume jewelry metal, model railroad tracks, zippers, and table ware because it is corrosion resistant, it looks and polishes like silver, but actually contains no silver. The two most common types of fret wire are referred to as “12% and 18% hardness / Nickel content”, although the actual hardness cannot be guaranteed due to variables which come into play during the manufacturing process. Choosing fret wire is a subjective issue, and depending on the type of stringed instrument, it’s over all design, materials of construction, neck size, scale length…etc, the type, size and hardness of fret wire can affect playability and user comfort, action, intonation, and of course…tone. I maintain an inventory of many types and sizes of fret wire, and I spend a significant amount of time discussing a variety of issues with my clients, including their personal musical tastes, individual playing style and physical approach to the instrument before agreeing on the type of fret wire best suited to their needs.
The Evolution of Modern Frets
The invention of the “T”, or tang fret was a giant step in the evolution of modern stringed instruments. This ingenious extrusion of Nickel – or – German Silver as it is commonly called, has made it much easier to produce mass quantities of fret boards with more consistent and accurately cut scales. This is due to the T-Fret’ thin, barbed installation tang, which in comparison to the much thicker bar fret, has significantly decreased the width of the fret slots, rendering a more accurate scale length.
At one time, Martin guitar Company of Nazareth, Pennsylvania made their own fret material by rolling and forming a 30% hardness compound of Nickel Silver into long strips which were then cut into individual lengths, or “bars”. In the mid 1930’s, they began using “T” Frets in a special order 30% Nickel Silver formulation, but then switched to the softer 18% fret material after the manufacturer, Horton – Angell of North Attleboro Massachusetts advised that the much harder 30% compound would quickly wear out the extrusion tooling, and incur additional production expense. Martin eventually abandoned the use of bar frets, but the older material remained popular among many instrument builders, including a New Yorker named John D’ Angelico who, for years continued to purchase quantities of the Bar Frets from the Martin Company.
Clinton F. Smith’s patented “T-Fret” has remained the world standard in terms of function and design since the late 1920’s, however, Nickel Silver is no longer the primary fret material of choice. Lately, Polymetallurgical Corporation – or – “Polymet” , and Jescar Enterprises have taken fret wire alchemy to new levels with the introduction of Stainless Steel, and Gold EVO formulations. Gold EVO is a Copper alloy which resembles gold and is commonly used in the optical industry. It is significantly harder than 18% Nickel Silver, yet not as hard as Stainless. Gold EVO complies with the European “Nickel Free” health standard, and is also known as hypo-allergenic fret wire. Although Stainless and EVO are more durable than Nickel Silver, their strength and hardness makes them more difficult to install, and causes excessive tool wear.
What Do Frets Actually Do ?
When a string is depressed and makes contact with a fret, the length of the string changes, and it will only vibrate between that Point of Contact and the bridge. This action causes a change in the string’s pitch, raising it incrementally as the distance between each succeeding fret and the instrument’s bridge is decreased. “So… why are there so many different sizes and types of fret wire if they all do the same thing?” In my humble opinion….it’s purely a matter of Ergonomics, (eg) comfort combined with the ease and maximization of performance…or “playability”.
Let’s face it…everyone’s different. Some of my clients play effortlessly with high action, old strings and small, worn frets, while other players can be affected by the most minute differences and changes in an instrument’s set up….especially during variations in season and climate. I’ve had more than a few guitarists get hooked on a certain type of fret wire and request that I install it in every guitar and bass in their collection, while a few other artists vary their choice of fret wire from instrument to instrument.
Fretted vs. Un-Fretted Instruments : Pros & Cons
It is less difficult to achieve intonation of notes and scales on a fretted versus a fretless instrument, and playing chords can be much easier, and less of a strain on the hand. A major disadvantage present in fretted instruments is that the player must work within the temperament of the instrument’s scale, (ie) it is impossible to reach “notes between notes” or microtones unless the player pulls at, or pushes the strings sideways, stretching or “bending” them to influence their pitch microtonally. In comparison, notes played on an unfretted neck will yield a more dampened and muted tone, while notes played on a fretted neck will sound livelier and somewhat more brilliant.
So…we’ve learned thus far that our choice of fret size, and the shape and hardness of the material can alter the way an instrument feels, plays and sounds, and that it’s a good idea to experiment by playing guitars and basses with different types of frets until we find something we really like. For the record…most of my seasoned players and working pros don’t rely on just one particular type of fret wire for all their instruments.
Shake Rattle & Buzz 101
When a string is plucked, it responds by vibrating and undulating in sort of an elliptical manner, with the greatest amount of travel at the center point between where the string made contact with a particular fret and where it ends at the bridge. Sounds simple…right? Well…here’s where things start to get complicated. An Increase in induced energy (eg) how much force is used when the string is plucked will cause some changes in the string’s vibratory path….the harder we pluck the string, the greater its path of movement, and the potential for rattles, false tones or dead notes.
So now we’re in agreement that the amount of force, or energy that we apply to a string will influence its elliptical path and rate of travel. The string needs some space to move around, and when there isn’t enough room for that movement, the string will engage, or make contact with the surface area around it…ergo…string rattle, buzz, dead spots, muted tones and intonation issues. Guitar manufacturers in general try to avoid these problems by installing smaller frets in an effort to reduce the ratio of fret to string surface/contact area, minimize set up time, and get their product out the door.