As guitarists progress in their playing journeys and begin to upgrade their gear, a lot more of the specs listed by the manufacturer begin to come into play. When you bought your very first guitar, there’s a good chance you weren’t even particularly bothered whether it had single coil pickups or humbuckers, let alone worrying about what fret radius it had, or, what size the fret wire was.
Each of the guitar’s specs does have an impact on its tone, playability, and a number of other factors that you may never have even imagine you’d be concerned with, but once you’re progressing, you might find that some of the hardware on your current guitar is holding back your progression. With that in mind, in this KillerGuitarRigs Guide, we’ll be taking a deep dive into fret wire – we’ll be learning about:
- What is Fret Wire?
- Fret Wire Structure
- Does Fret Wire Impact Intonation?
- Common Fret Wire Sizes
And much more!
What is Fret Wire?
First of all, we’ll explain the concept of a fret. Early stringed instruments used pieces of string tied around the neck at specific intervals to help identify the positions of the notes, and also to assist the player in fingering the note. Over time, the string was replaced with metal wires embedded into the fretboard – this innovation not only helped to prevent the loss of intonation that occurred when marker strings moved, but also to improve the overall tone of the instrument.
Full size guitars tend to have between 20 and 24 frets depending on the style of the guitar itself. Acoustic guitars are usually at the lower end as intricate high fret solos are pretty rare on these guitars, and unless there’s a cutaway, everything past the 14th or 15th fret is borderline inaccessible. On electric guitars there are typically between 21 and 24 frets. Of course, having more frets increases the scale range that your guitar is capable of, so guitarists who love screaming high fret solos prize 24 fret instruments in particular.
Modern fret wire is typically made from one of two different metal alloys. The most common is German Silver – a confusing name for a metal that contains no silver in its chemical makeup! In fact, German silver is an alloy of steel and approx. 18% nickel – copper. Another commonly used alloy, although less popular, is stainless steel.
Each fret is manufactured in the same way – there is the buried half, and the exposed half. In the buried half is the tang, which is the primary support for the fret, and the barbs, sometimes referred to as studs, which are protruding pieces that anchor the fret in place. When a fret wire is properly seated, the only part that should be exposed above the surface of the fretboard should be the rounded crown.
Does Fret Wire Impact Intonation?
There are a couple of ways in which fret wire impacts intonation. Firstly, when softer metals are used; over time, frets wear down with use, and when there’s less fret material, it requires a firmer push down on the string to fret the note. Without any change to setup, this will impact intonation, especially in cases where frets wear unevenly (read our full guide for more on intonation).
In all but the most extreme cases, however, frets take a very long time to wear to the point at which intonation issues become apparent. This is particularly apparent with stainless steel frets, which are extremely hard wearing.
So, how else does fret wire impact intonation? The taller the fret, the less finger pressure is required to finger a clear note, and in many cases, with tall frets, you don’t even need to push the string hard down to the fretboard. Tall frets are usually popular with players who play around the high frets a lot as they make it easier to play big bends without choking out. Also, they tend to last longer in most cases, obviously because there’s more material, but also because the required pressure is lower. The intonation downside to tall frets is that players who tend to be a bit heavy handed end up putting too much pressure where it isn’t required, and end up bending the string sharp.
Conversely, shorter frets require more finger pressure, which in turn does lead to slightly faster wear. But, because there’s a shorter pivot point between the fret crown and the fretboard, general intonation is more accurate. Additionally, it’s easier to lower action and avoid fret buzz with shorter frets.
Common Fret Wire Sizes
There are many manufacturers of fret wire, but by far the most popular is Dunlop. Their lineup includes 5 different sizes:
|6230||Small||.078” x .043”||This is the smallest wire in the Dunlop lineup. It’s commonly found on older and vintage guitars. These strings are particularly useful for anybody playing with a slide.|
|6150||Vintage Jumbo||.102” x .042”||Vintage Jumbo wire is a rare find. It is much wider, but shorter than the 6230 wire. This wire does not favor easy playability.|
|6105||Modern Narrow/Tall||.090” x .055”||Modern Narrow/Tall is one of the most popular sizes available today. This wire is a great starting point for beginners as it offers a great combination of comfort and low required finger pressure.|
|6100||Jumbo||.110” x .055”||Jumbo wires are the largest of all the fret wire types. For experienced players with good finger control, they offer excellent accuracy, great tone and easy bending.|
|6130||Medium Jumbo||.106” x .036″||Medium Jumbo is probably the most commonly used size of all. It’s the standard fret on nearly all Gibson models, and is popular with many other manufacturers, too.|
Final Thoughts on Fret Wire Sizes
As with many modifiable elements of a guitar, the size of the fret wire is a personal preference, although it’s a preference that most newer players don’t even think about until they’re beginning to progress and perhaps find themselves being held back by their gear. In summary, shorter frets are ideal for players who want to be able to feel the fretboard as they play, especially if they’re more heavy handed and have less control over how much pressure they apply consistently. Tall frets are great for players who regularly play solos with big bends, and who need precision and clear tones.
Of course, the best way to find out what you like is to play a range of different guitars with different fret sizes to see what you prefer.