All About Frets Part 3: What Size Fret Should I Choose?

We handle a lot of refrets at the shop these days so we have gotten well-versed in helping people find the right fret for them. If you are researching what frets are right for you guitar, then you have come to the right place! 

Fact: Size Matters! However, when it comes to frets, only two dimensions matter to the Player and they are height and width.

The 2 dimensions that matter most: Height and Width
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The Length of a fret is determined by it’s position on the fretboard. Since most/all necks get wider as you work your way up the frets, the 1st fret is considerably shorter than the 20th fret. For example a typical Tele will have 1.650" nut width while the Butt Width (the width of the neck after the last fret) is 2.2". Each fret has to get a little longer to keep up with the widening of the fingerboard. 

 

The 1st Fret next to the 20th Fret from a recent refret
The 1st fret next to the 20th after being pulled from a Martin Acoustic Guitar
 

So, Height and Width are the two determining factors that shape how a fretboard feels/plays. Depending on how you play, and your expectations or the intended use of a specific guitar, we would cater our recommendation of fret size.

 

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Before we get any further, let’s get on the same page about 2 very important things to make this conversation easier since frets and action are tied together in most conversations from our experience.

1. Action is the distance between the crown (tippy top) of the fret and the bottom of the string, NOT FROM THE FINGERBOARD TO THE BOTTOM OF THE STRING. Read that again, digest it, accept it, and move on. If you want the tallest fret you can find, then your action will only appear higher than if you picked something shorter because of its greater distance off the fingerboard. However, with a properly set-up guitar and a properly slotted nut, the height off the fret should be the same regardless of fret size as long as the tech is competent. Again, just to reiterate, action is the distance between the bottom of the string and the tippy top of the fret.

2. If your fingerboard is finished (like a maple Fender or rosewood Rickenbacker), then a considerable amount of fret height will be lost due to the finish. That accounts for why the same fret size feels shorter on an unfinished fingerboard than on a finished one (think Rosewood vs. Maple). In other words, what you like on a finished fingerboard feels shorter than that same fret will feel on an unfinished fingerboard.

 

A finished fingerboard vs an unfinished fingerboard with the same sized fret
Photographic evidence of point #2. Seriously, those are the same sized frets!

 

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Now let’s get into which size fret you should choose?

A Short and Thin fret will appeal to both Vintage Fender and 1950s Gibson Enthusiast’s since those frets were most common on early electric guitar examples. While these frets tend to make Modern Player’s cringe, I’ll admit I have had my bias against them in previous years, I have grown to appreciate their place in the mix. These frets allow for seriously low action and are a bar-chorders best friend. They don’t allow for getting under the string very easily so many people find bending or vibrato on these frets to be more difficult than a Wider fret.

Short and Thin Fret Examples: Dunlop 6330-6320-6310, Jescar 37053, Jescar 39040, Sanko SBU-23, also called Vintage Fret Wire.

Guitars that have them: Vintage Fender’s prior to the 1980s, 1950s Gibson Electric guitars, the Fender Eric Clapton Stratocaster features these frets as well. 

Text from the History of Fender Book detailing fret sizes

 

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A Short and Wide fret will provide the player with more surface area of the fret making contact with the string. This fret will allow for easier bending and vibrato than the Short and Thin fret but still not as good as a Tall fret that buys you a little Real Estate between the fingerboard and string. An extreme example, the Gibson Fretless Wonder. They had extremely low frets that have been flattened out on top and they require very little pressure to get a note to sound. Leads are fast on these guitars but you are always dragging on the fingerboard a bit. Bending is tough, as is vibrato but if bending ain’t your thing, these frets will certainly not slow you down.

Short and Wide Fret Examples: Dunlop 6230 or 6290, but they still need to be 'crowned down' to achieve true Fretless Wonder height. Jescar 39106, 45100, 47104.

Guitars that have them: 70s era Gibson Fretless Wonder LP Customs, other Gibson’s of the 70s and 80s saw considerable reduction in fret height but not to fretless wonder levels, some Mosrite Guitars, other assorted odd birds from the 70s. This style is not in fashion at the moment so no manufacturers that we deal with are using them.

Photo courtesy of Tom Rutledge, long-time friend of the shop, and one heck of a picker.
Photo courtesy of Tom Rutledge. Check out his incredible playing of Facebook and Youtube

 

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A Medium Height and Medium Width provide great playability potential, which makes bends and vibrato easier by allowing you to get ‘under’ the string easier. This sized fret, often called Medium-Jumbo, provide enough width  and height that bending and vibrato don’t suffer. This is the size fret I chose for my own builds as I find they have the perfect blend of dimensions for my slightly heavy left hand.

Medium Height and Medium Width frets: Jescar 47095, 47090, and 45080 are all great options. As are the Sanko SBB-217 or SBB-23. The Jim Dunlop 6150 is quickly becoming a shop favorite.

Guitars that have them: Lots of Fender Custom Shop guitars, many American Made Fenders utilizing Narrow-Tall frets. Many acoustics go for frets in this size range as well. Most Martin and Taylor guitars are outfitted with the smaller frets in this size range.

6105 frets on a Fender Custom Shop Stratocaster
6105 Frets on a Fender Custom Shop Stratocaster

 

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Medium Height and Wide Width frets start getting into the bigger frets. Frets this large also carry the term Medium Jumbo. Frets this big will require what appears to be slightly higher action in order to compensate for the extra fret height. However, remember that action is measured from the top of the fret to the string so that “extra” action is just a matter of incorrectly calculating the distance.

Medium Height and Wide Width Examples: Dunlop 6155, 6110,  Jescar 51100, 51108, Sanko SBB-221 or SBB-214.

Guitars that have them: PRS Guitars have been using them all along, Jackson, Charvel, Ibanez, and many other Shredder type guitars have these frets as well.

The frets on a 35h Anniversary PRS Custom 24
The typical frets you'll find on most PRS Guitars

 

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Tall Height and Wide Width frets tend to be called Jumbo Frets. These frets get called everything from bass frets to railroad ties and they certainly provide any guitar with enough height to execute a couple level and crowns before you run out of material. While these frets will buy you time in-between refrets they start out pretty darn high, which as we have learned, means your action will also be high.

Tall and Wide Fret examples: Dunlop 6000-6100, Sanko SBB-215, SBB-221, and SBB-213. Jescar’s 57110 and 58118.

Guitars that have these frets: Basses, again, Jackson, Charvel, Ibanez, many shred-friendly guitars.

6100 Frets from Jim Dunlop on a Fender Custom Shop Strat

 

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Obviously there are enough options to make selecting a fret confusing and difficult. Paralysis by analysis is an all to common result for the average player once they delve into this surprisingly deep topic. What frets will allow you to play your best? Well, that’s a question only you can answer. The best way to answer that question is by playing a handful of guitars with the intent of focusing on how the frets affect playability. However, some pre-emptive introspective thought can go a long way and if you find that you are a rhythm player that sticks to chords, maybe those medium-jumbo’s have been working against you? 

So, after all this, hopefully you have a better understanding of frets, how they impact playability, and a little more direction about what will and won’t work for you. And if not, worry not! We can measure the existing frets on your guitar and find a suitable replacement. 

A couple of parting ideas and things to remember…

  • Get a new nut when you refret a guitar for best possible set-up. After a level and crown, a good tech will lower your nut slot height to match the new height of your frets. These lowered nut slots probably won't allow your strings to clear the 1st Brand New Fret. So, nut up!
  • REMEMBER! Action height is measured from the top of a fret, NOT the fingerboard! So the perception is that on shorter frets, the action is lower but barring proper set-up this is a fallacy!
  • Pick your material wisely. Stainless may last forever but it may ruin your tone! Also, many luthiers won’t work on stainless since it is rough on tools. 

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Thanks so much for taking the time to read through my 3 part series on frets! As guitar players, we each have our own experiences with frets so I'd love to hear your thoughts, comments, and stories. Also, feel free to give us a call and speak to one of our Refret Specialists who can certainly help you pinpoint the right fret for your guitar.

Head back to Part One: The Evolution of the fret

Make sure to check out this Blog Post about our Plek Machine Refret Process...

Learn more about our Plek Machine Process

And this video about our Plek Machine Process...

This article was penned by Mathew Jenkins, the Divot King. No mere nickel silver fret could handle the vice-like death grip of his left-hand! #EVO4LYFE

 


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