Scott Zimmerman - 11-6-03
From Banjo Newsletter, August 2003
This month I want to explore the subject of frets. Iıll touch on points obvious to the seasoned musician as well as points little understood by many. There just may be some information useful to the repairman and builder as well. Due to space, it will at best be an overview that hopefully will cause you to think and seek out more information.
For most musicians, attention is focussed on their instrumentıs frets only every few years or so when the frets are long past due for some maintenance, and the only option is to replace them. Most musicians simply seek out someone to do the job, hand over their instrument and wait for its return. I would like to increase everyone's knowledge about frets a degree. Frets are made of nickel/silver, which contains no silver at all itıs a nickel/tin alloy. Frets are made by an extrusion process where nickel/silver wire is pulled through a series of shaping dies to size and then formed to the proper specifications. This process also hardens it to a small extent. The process to manufacture fret wire is high-precision machining and the machines needed are very expensive. Fretwire must be manufactured to extremely close tolerances of about two-thousandths of an inch.
Letıs bring this discussion to the banjo player. Remember that the great banjos of the 1930s were made anywhere from ten to fifteen years before bluegrass existed, and before 3-finger picking came to be so popular. There is no basis to believe that engineers were concerned with how you would sound playing Scruggs style on a Mastertone style banjo seventy years later. These banjos were designed with the music of Dave Macon and Eddie Peabody playing a flatpick in mind, which in some fundamental ways requires very different performance characteristics. The frets are a perfect example of this. The frets on these early banjos were very slender and rather low in profile to suit the playability and sound of the day. Most modern banjo makers know this and modern banjo frets are more robust than those old frets of the 1930s. They are a bit wider and a little taller. The logic can be simplified. A thin fret delivers a thinner sound. A wider fret delivers a stronger more solid sound, exactly what modern banjo players demand. A word of caution: our modern society seems to believe that in a case where a little is better, a lot must be much better. It doesnıt work like that in this case, there is a definite point of diminished return. To put it simply, donıt use electric guitar bass frets on your banjo expecting to sound like your hero; it wonıt work.
I build my banjos with frets slightly wider than modern banjo fretwire. I do this because I noticed a dramatic difference in sound. They are only about 0.2mm wider but you can hear the difference and really feel the improved playability. Which brings me to my next point. It is amazing to me how many people equate low frets with easy playability. This is wrong. In fact, taller frets are necessary for the most easy fretting. To those shaking their heads, here is why:
Itıs simple physics. To have a clean fretted note you need to have the string achieve a sufficient breaking angle over the fret to allow the fret to efficiently terminate the string vibration. The higher the frets the less pressure is needed to achieve this termination of vibrations. Anyone who has played with frets that have been leveled numerous times knows the opposite effect. The strings must be pressed hard to make up for the lack of breaking angle in order to get a clean sounding note. Many times this is not noticed until a fret change is done and immediately the playability improves. What you can expect from a fresh new fret job or a refret from old style low frets to taller modern frets is the immediate ability to play cleanly with less pressure on your fretting hand. This means your fretting hand will be more relaxed, which can mean more stamina, faster speed and the ability to attempt more intricate fretting. This can be a revolutionary discovery and I have had the opportunity to introduce this idea to die-hard veteran players who for thirty years had played with the thin frets in a sort of ³purist² mentality. After they grasp the new dynamics at their fingertips, they embark on a whole new experience in playing.
Here is another shocking bit of news that the electric guitar headbangers have known this for years and have even taken to the next extreme by scalloping the wood between the frets to achieve the ultimate in playability. This allows for feather light touch on the strings. For the record, I am not promoting this on banjos as I donıt think the playability will suit bluegrass picking, but I donıt discourage someone from experimenting. And I have seen at least one Van Eps banjo from the 1920ıs where this was done, possibly from the factory.
I would like to switch to a small discussion of fret repair. Banjos are the ultimate tinkerers instrument with all those parts and bolts and nuts. A common question I get from musicians is, can they expect to be able to successfully replace the frets on their banjo themselves, and achieve satisfactory results.
I have to sadly reply that, more than any other repair, fretwork should be left to the experts. You need a firm grasp of the techniques, and very good ability with your hands. Fretwork involves techniques that donıt lend themselves to measurements to confirm success or failure. It is a matter of mastering skills involving feel and touch to a large extent. I donıt discourage people from getting involved in this work, but do yourself a favor. Buy a few flea market guitars and experiment and teach yourself.
Donıt try out your skills on your Mastertone after buying a book or video on the subject. And be very responsible when you think to solicit some victim from a friend to practice on. Like many things in luthiery, the job rarely proceeds as smoothly as it did on the video. You donıt want to find out the hard way why fretwork is so expensive when you go to a qualified repairman. I would like to make a few final comments about maintenance. Frets need little maintenance. If you read my article a few years ago about fretboard maintenance you have all the information you need. For those that didnıt, you can lightly buff your frets and fretboard with 0000 steel wool a couple of times a year before you do your twice yearly light application of fingerboard oil. That's it.
For most musicians, maintenance is really a matter of monitoring the frets for problems that might need attention by the repairman: things like raised or lifting fret ends that can cause a buzz or catch a string. Frets that raise in the middle will definitely cause a playability problem. When you have played sufficiently on your banjo you will develop grooves in the frets from string wear and flat spots from bending. This in normal and part of life. Grooves in you frets are not a sign of misuse of the cap, as I often hear. Buzzes are the number one sign that something is not right, but it takes a trained eye to locate the exact reason as it could be something not involving the frets at all.
Regarding the use of fretboard treatments sold to make your fretting smoother or faster, I donıt discourage their use if you are so inclined. But my experience is that sometimes they are misused. Be especially careful with the aerosol brands. I would never spray directly onto the fretboard, but instead spray onto a cloth and wipe the cloth on to the fretboard. You donıt need to use these treatments every time you play or practice, and you donıt need to use them before and after each time.
Scott Zimmerman has extensive experience regarding the fretwork on stringed instruments. In the mid 1970s he fretted up to 300 necks every day while working in production at Fender, later redesigning Fenderıs system of installing frets in the early 1980s. This system remains largely as he designed it twenty years ago.
Scott is a regular contributor to the Banjo Newsletter. This monthly magazine is essential to the 5 string banjo player of any skill level. Over the years, it has been the single most comprehensive source of banjo information and tablature, and all back issues are available.
If you are not familiar with the names of the parts of a banjo, click here. There is no resonator on back of this banjo. It may or may not be present on yours.
Acoustic string instruments are particularly prone to major damage from the environment in the winter months and Scott has written a thorough article on instrument care in winter.