A fret is a raised element on the neck of a stringed instrument. Frets usually extend across the full width of the neck. On most modern western fretted instruments, frets are metal strips inserted into the fingerboard. On some historical instruments and non-European instruments, frets are made of pieces of string tied around the neck.
Frets divide the neck into fixed segments at intervals related to a musical framework. On instruments such as guitars, each fret represents one semitone in the standard western system, in which one octave is divided into twelve semitones. Fret is often used as a verb, meaning simply "to press down the string behind a fret". Fretting often refers to the frets and/or their system of placement.
Pressing the string against the fret reduces the vibrating length of the string to that between the bridge and the next fret between the fretting finger and the bridge. This is damped if the string were stopped with the soft fingertip on a fretless fingerboard.
Frets make it much easier for a player to achieve an acceptable standard of intonation, since the frets determine the positions for the correct notes. Furthermore, a fretted fingerboard makes it easier to play chords accurately.
A disadvantage of frets is that they restrict pitches to the temperament defined by the fret positions. A player may still influence intonation, however, by pulling the string to the side to increase string tension and raise the pitch. This technique (commonly called 'bending') is often used by electric guitarists of all genres, and is an important part of sitar playing. On instruments with frets that are thicker off the fingerboard, string tension and pitch vary with finger pressure behind the fret. Sometimes a player can pull the string toward the bridge or nut, thus lowering or raising the string tension and pitch. However, except for instruments that accommodate extensive string pulling, like the sitar, much less influence on intonation is possible than on unfretted instruments.
Since the intonation of most modern western fretted instruments is equal tempered, the ratio of the distances of two consecutive frets to the bridge is , or approximately 1.059463. Theoretically, the twelfth fret should divide the string in two exact halves. To compensate for the increase in string tension when the string is pressed against the frets, the bridge position is adjusted slightly so the 12th fret plays exactly in tune.
Many instruments' frets are not spaced according to the semitones of equal temperament, including the Appalachian dulcimer (with frets in a diatonic scale), the Turkish Saz (with frets spaced according to the Makam system of Turkish folk music), the Arabic Buzuq (with frets spaced according to the Arabic maqam system), and the Persian setar and tar (with frets spaced according to the Persian Dastgah system), and the Turkish tanbur (with as many as 5 frets per semitone, to cover all of the commas of the Turkish Makam system).
Fan frets (also fanned frets, slanted frets), or multi-scale: while frets are generally perpendicular to the instrument's neck centerline and parallel to each other, on a "fanned" fretboard, the frets are angled (spread like a fan) with only one center fret perpendicular to the neck's centerline. This gives the lower-pitched strings more length and the higher strings shorter length (comparable to a piano or a harp where heavier strings have different lengths). The idea is to give more accurate tuning and deeper bass. Some think that fanned frets might be more ergonomic. Fanned frets first appeared on the 16th century Orpharion, a variant of the cittern, tuned like a lute. John Starrett revived the idea in the late seventies on his innovative instrument, the Starrboard. Rickenbacker employed a slanted fret, but it was not multi scale, or fanned. Novax Guitars among others offers such guitars today. The appearance of angled frets on these modern instruments belies the antiquity of this technique.
Scalloped fretboard: Scalloping involves removing some of the wood between some or all of the fret. This is intended to allow a lighter touch for more precise fingering, while easing bends or vibratos (since there's no contact between the fingertips and the wooden surface of the fingerboard). It has some popularity with musicians playing heavy metal music, although the concept can also be seen in ancient instruments such as the sitar Scalloped fretboards have not found widespread popularity because tonally accurate play requires a much lighter fretting hand than most guitarists can achieve, and often significantly heavier strings as well.
Fat frets: on older guitars (especially the Fender Stratocaster), frets were typically made out of thin wire, and some electric guitar players replaced that with thicker wire, for "fat frets" or "jumbo frets". Fat frets make bending easier, and they change the feel of the guitar. As well, large frets, offering more metal, remain playable much longer than thin frets. A side effect of a thicker fret is a less precise note, since the string is held over a wider surface, causing a slight inaccuracy of pitch, which increases in significance as frets wear.
It is also possible to find semi-fretted instruments; examples include the Malagasy kabosy and the Afghan Rubab. Semi-fretted versions of guitars and other fretted string instruments, however, are usually one-off, custom adaptations made for players who want to combine elements of both types of sound. One arrangement is for the frets to extend only part of the way along the neck so that the higher notes can be played with the smooth expression possible with a fretless fingerboard. Another approach is the use of frets that extend only partway across the fretboard so that some courses of strings are fretted and others fretless, for example Ryszard Latecki's Latar.
Instruments with straight frets like guitars require a special compensation on the saddle and nut. Every time a string is fretted it is also stretched, and as it stretches the string rises in pitch, making all fretted tones sound sharp. When the saddle is positioned properly, however, the fretted tones all sound sharp to the same degree as long as the distances between the frets are correct. With the right nut compensation, the pitch of the unfretted string can be raised by the same amount. As a result, when the tension of the strings is lowered, the pitches of all notes, both fretted and unfretted, becomes correct.
On instruments equipped with steel strings, such as folk guitars and electric guitars, frets are eventually bound to wear down as the strings cut grooves into them. When this happens, the instrument may need refretting (the frets are removed and replaced) or, in less severe cases, "fret dressing" (the frets are leveled, polished, and possibly recrowned). Often, a few fret dressings can be performed on a guitar before it requires complete refretting.
Fret buzz is one of the many undesirable phenomena that can occur on a guitar or similar stringed instrument. Fret buzz occurs when the vibrating part of one or more strings physically strikes the frets that are higher than the fretted note (or open note). This causes a "buzzing" sound on the guitar that can range from a small annoyance, to severe enough to dampen the note and greatly reduce sustain. Sometimes, fret buzz can be so minimal that there is only a small change in the tone (timbre) of the note, without any noticeable buzzing. Fret buzz can be caused by different things:
Fret buzz is evident in some famous recordings; an example is "Friends" by Led Zeppelin (although this example is undoubtedly caused by alternate open tunings that reduce string tension). In some songs, such as "My Last Serenade" by Killswitch Engage, the guitars are tuned to Dropped C and the low tension of the strings are used to create fret buzz by the bass player in order to create a dirty sound.
Fret repair is a common job performed by luthiers and guitar technicians, though it is often necessary for all fretted instruments. There are many factors that can contribute to fret damage including regular wear, mishandling of the instrument, and humidity.
Regular fret wear causes a flat spot on the previously round top of the fret. This can result in buzzing, poor intonation, and difficult playing. Unless the damage is severe or the fret has become too short, the issue can often be resolved without replacing the frets. Generally, frets shorter than .030 inches do not have enough material remaining and are often replaced instead of repaired.
Fret leveling is a process that sets all frets to a uniform height, which ensures minimal fret buzz even at low action. Before leveling can occur, the neck of the instrument is checked for straightness by placing a straightedge along the neck. Leveling frets while the neck is curved results in uneven frets once the neck is corrected. On modern guitars and electric basses, necks are straightened by adjusting the truss rod. Loosening the truss rod corrects a neck with backbow, while tightening will correct a neck with upbow.
Before performing any fret work, the fingerboard and body of the instrument are covered with low tack tape to prevent any damage from files and other tools. Leveling is achieved by running a leveling file or leveling bar lengthwise up and down the neck. This process takes .002 to .005 inches of material off the frets, bringing them to a uniform height while creating flat tops on the frets.
The flat tops on the frets that result from the leveling process are removed to achieve good intonation and comfortable playing. A crowning file is used to remove material from the sides of the fret, creating a round shape to reduce the area of contact between the strings and the fret. The most common types of crowning files are triangular or concave. The very top of the fret is left untouched leaving a small flat strip along the fret. This creates the ideal fret shape, while leaving the top of the fret intact and keeping all of the frets at the same height.
Leveling and crowning leaves the frets marred and rough. Sandpaper is used to remove the marks and smooth the frets. Different grades of sandpaper are used for the smoothing process, starting with low grade sandpaper between 220 and 400 grit, moving up sequentially to higher grade sandpaper between 600 and 1000 grit. Once the frets are smooth, they are polished with an abrasive pad. Grade 0000 steel wool is also commonly used for polishing but leaves tiny metal fibers that are magnetically attracted to guitar pickups.
Dry weather and low humidity causes the wood in many instrument necks to shrink and contract. Because the metal frets in the instrument do not shrink, the ends of these frets will protrude on each side of the neck. To avoid uncomfortable playing these ends are filed flush to the neck. The file is tilted between 20 and 40 degrees to match the bevel of the frets. Filing is stopped just before contacting the wood or finish of the instrument. Once the frets are flush with the neck and beveled they are smoothed and dressed to avoid any sharp edges. To prevent exposed fret ends and other common issues, the ideal humidity for most instruments is between 40% and 50% humidity.
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