The frets on a guitar are incredibly important, and it’s vital that they are level and in good condition if a guitar is to play as well as it possibly can.
Frets wear over time, but worn frets do not necessarily have to be replaced. If there is enough meat left on them, they can be levelled, re profiled and polished so that they are as good as new.
When the frets on a guitar are perfectly level it is much easier to achieve a nice low action setup. Correctly profiled frets give better tone and intonation, and polished frets have a much nicer feel under the fingers, and allow for smoother vibrato.
Here’s how I level the frets on a guitar:
First up, I take the strings off and remove the neck if it is a bolt on model. Glued in or through necks also have the strings removed, and the body covered safely in a fleece bag to keep it protected during the work.
Remove Neck Hardware
As much as possible, I like the neck to be stripped of all parts. I will usually remove machineheads and locking nuts – anything that isn’t glued in place. While this isn’t strictly necessary, it does enable me to clean the headstock properly as part of the job.
Mask Off Fretboard
Using low tack tape I now mask off the fretboard so that only the frets can be seen. I also mask off the headstock and put masking tape over the nut to prevent it from getting knocked out of place.
Straightening the Neck
To level the frets accurately, the neck must also be straight. I use a notched steel ruler to gauge the straightness of the neck, and adjust the truss rod until I get it right. Necks that cannot be straightened in this way are placed in a jig that allows me to put pressure on the neck and bend it how I want – especially useful for necks that have a back bow even when the truss rod is completely slackened.
Loose Fret Check
Now I check for loose frets and make sure they are sorted before I proceed. This may involve regluing them in, or a simple tap with a soft faced hammer. One loose fret can be a serious problem if it goes unnoticed at this stage, so I check and double check until I’m happy there are none.
I use an oil stone to level the frets, working carefully up and down the fretboard with first the rougher side and then the smooth side. The oilstone removes the taller part of the unworn frets and brings them down to the same level as the worn frets. The marks left on the fret make it possible to see which have been touched, so it’s a case of keeping going until you can see that all dips have been removed. The final passes are done across the fretboard, so that the scratches in the metal are in the right direction for the next stage.
Now the frets are level, but have a flat top which needs to be rounded over. Depending on the job I use a special fret file (the correct one that matched the fretwire on your guitar) or simply my finger and wet ‘n’ dry paper. Whichever method is used, I work from 400 grit right through to 1000 grit and finish off with wire wool. This will leave a smooth, nicely profiled fret that is ready to play.
If you want, the frets can now be polished. Wire wool does leave them looking nice anyway, but with some metal polish and a cloth I can get the frets to a mirror shine. It’s as much cosmetic as it is a functional part of the process, but there’s nothing wrong with looking nice!
All masking tape is now removed and the guitar is ready to be assembled and set up. This might be a standard setup, a specialist setup tailored to floating trem guitars, or perhaps even my legendary Full Beans setup service. Regardless which you choose, with perfect frets your setup can really shine!
Not sure if your frets need levelling? Get in touch!