All About Frets Part 1: The History and Evolution of the Fret

Welcome to my 3 part series about frets! I know it’s been a while since my last blog installment but with things insanely busy at the shop, it’s been hard to find the time to type! I have had a couple requests to cover the subject of frets as this formerly simple part on a guitar has become far more complex over the last 5 years or so. Frets are complex? Well, enough that I can write 3 full blog posts about them! Heck, I didn’t realize there could possibly be so much to learn about something so small but what started as a rabbit hole turned into a sink hole, so sit back, relax, and prepare to learn more about frets than you ever thought possible!

Let's start by defining what frets are. Frets are the thin strips of metal that divide the fingerboard into different pitches. Frets are generally made of a metal alloy, which is a blend of specific metals. For many years, players did not think twice about their frets. Whatever their guitar had was what they played. It’s not until more recently that we have gotten more analytical, picky, confused, and educated about the whole thing. Fret size matters to just about every player, even those that don’t know it yet!

Various fret sizes offered by the Fender Custom Shop
The fret choices listed in the Fender Custom Shop Catalog

 

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Frets are a crucial component to the guitar. Don’t agree? Ever played a fretless guitar? Didn’t think so! They are super rare for a great reason: they are exceptionally difficult to play, much like any unfitted, stringed instrument like a violin. Frets are a guitar players best friend and the benefits they provide range from blatantly obvious to wow, I never thought of it like that! Let’s take an in-depth look at this kinda confusing but indispensable part of any, or rather most, guitars and start with a little history.

The History and Evolution of Frets

The earliest frets were made of bone. While bone is hard enough for early gut strings, once metal strings became a thing, bone frets became unusable due to its inability to handle wear and tear. Do a google image search for yourself and just try to find an image of a guitar with bone frets!

Bar Frets were the 1st metal frets and they were square on the bottom with with a flat but radius-ed top that followed the radius of the fingerboard. The “crown” as we know it today, hadn’t been invented yet so prior to the early 1920s, all guitars featured Bar Frets. Bar frets are still available today but they require very large fret slots as they are considerably thicker than any fret with a Tang. Frets have that orange drink astronauts drink? Not exactly!

 

An image of bar frets from Nashville Guitar Craft Academy

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Along came Clinton F Smith, who patented the T Fret in the 1929. The T stands for tang. This is the mushroom shaped fret (when viewed from cross-section) that most of us are familiar with. Tangs or Barbs help keep these frets seated properly in the fret slot. Smith also developed the Crown concept. Not only did this give the player a much more playable surface but they also tightened up intonation. There is some debate about when this fret style was created but Clinton Smith certainly got the patent in 1929, just check it out here… For perspective, it wasn’t until the mid 1934 that Martin Guitars bailed of Bar Frets and made the switch.

T Fret vs Bar Fret: IN A BATTLE FOR THE AGES!

 

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Moving on to the early days of the electric guitar world, in the early 1950s Fender was using tiny little frets that were buried in lacquer. History would dub them ‘Vintage Frets’ once we started looking back at things. These tiny frets are barely more than a speed-bump but somehow they made it through the 60s into the 70s before Fender began using a larger fret on some models. Yes, some guitars were made with jumbo frets shortly after CBS took over but it wasn’t until 1983 that Medium Jumbo Frets became standard (except on Vintage Reissue models). I joke about Vintage Frets being recycled paper-clips. If you like to feel the fingerboard, then these frets are for you. The Eric Clapton Signature Strat has been using these frets for decades and any Vintage Fender in original condition should still have these small frets. I know the All Original 64 Strat and 68 Tele I have here at the moment still have them!

 

Vintage Frets on a Telecaster Thinline: Short and thin.
These Vintage Frets on a Telecaster Thinline are very low!

 

During the early 1950s, Gibson was also using Vintage Fret Wire on their 1st electric guitars. They were the same rather short and kinda thin frets on Fender Guitars. In 1959, Gibson switch over to a Jumbo Fret (that is Jumbo by 1950/60 standards. Today they would be considered a medium-jumbo). As things moved on in to the 1960s, Gibson continued using these medium jumbo frets even though until today. A well-known term associated with Gibson starting in the 1970s is Fretless Wonder. This fret is so short that it barely pokes out of the fingerboard at all. This made the playability insanely fast for some and it left others struggling with bends and vibrato since they became more difficult with less fret. While only available for a short while, that style of fret has not come back into fashion yet, though you could feasibly lower any fret to those levels. 

 

An except from the 1975 Gibson Catalog mentioning the Fretless Action
Fine Wire Frets for "Fretless Action".

 

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Once the 1980s arrived a bevy of new and different fret sizes creep into the mix, especially taller and wider frets. Medium-Jumbos took over as music morphed into Hair Metal, Hard Rock, Heavy Metal, and Progressive Rock. Players were expanding the horizon of the guitar, exploring the entire fingerboard, and with the introduction of products like the Floyd Rose Tremolo, player expectations towards performance had increased significantly.

Recent additions to the conversation that I have to mention include fan-fretted guitars and True Temperament Frets. Fanned frets are still straight but installed at varying angles to compensate for tuning issues that plague just about every guitar with normal frets.

A Strandberg Fanned Fret Guitar: Multi-Scale Lengths for maximum intonation

Strandberg Guitars make some of the finest Fanned-Fret Guitars.

True Temperament Frets are the "squiggly" frets, that have all the micro-adjustments built into the shape of the fret itself. Go ahead and give it a google for more about these 2 options.

True Temperament Frets: Squiggly frets look weird but offer superior intonation

Finding someone to refret these badboys may require some serious sleuthing!

 

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Nowadays, there are quite a few great manufacturers of fret wire and they all have a slightly different approach to things. Jescar, Dunlop, Stew Mac and Sanko all make incredible products and there are quite a few options to choose from. Which leads us to the next chapter…

Head to Part II to learn about Fret Manufacturers and Materials

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