It should be obvious, right? Bigger frets mean bigger tone, and that sounds
like something we’d all want from our guitars.
As with so many things about the guitar, however,
the truth isn’t necessarily that straightforward.
Fret size and shape can affect a great
many aspects of your guitar’s sound and feel,
so it’s worth looking at the bigger picture before
jumping to any quick conclusions.
The “fatter wire = fatter tone” equation is
nothing new. Ever since jumbo frets have been
available, many great players—Rory Gallagher,
Stevie Ray Vaughan, Kenny Wayne Shepherd—
have been known to re-fret their Fender Stratocasters
in particular with jumbo wire (vintage-spec
Strats arguably provide a more dramatic beforeand-
after picture than some other guitars, since
they were born with narrow frets). More metal
in any fixed component usually means a greater
vibrational coupling between string and wood,
so there is presumably something to this theory.
But what else changes with fret size?
While larger frets do seem to result in a
rounder tone, perhaps with increased sustain
too, they also yield a somewhat less precise
note than narrower frets—at least, as examined
“under the microscope.” Unless it is very precisely
shaped, and frequently dressed, the broad crown
of that jumbo fret can “blur” your note ever so
slightly, which might even be part of the sonic
appeal for some players—the way, for example,
a tweed Deluxe is a little blurrier or hairier at
most volume settings than a blackface Deluxe.
Be aware, however, that the phenomenon can
work against some sonic goals too.
Since they present a finer break point at the
neck end of the strings’ speaking length, narrower
vintage-gauge frets are generally more precise
in their noting accuracy. From this, you tend to
get a sharper tone, possibly with increased intonation
accuracy, plus enhanced overtone clarity
in some cases, which could be heard as a little
more “shimmer.” If you’re thinking these are all
characteristics of the classic Fender sound,
you’d be right—or they are, at least, until you
change those vintage frets to jumbo. But narrower
frets were also used on Gibson Les Pauls
prior to 1959, so their characteristics apply to
these guitars as well. Does a ’57 goldtop with
PAFs sound thin or whimpy thanks to its narrow
fret wire? Not likely, largely because so many
other factors also affect its tone—body woods,
set-neck construction, scale length, pickups—
and the impact of narrow-gauge frets doesn’t
outweigh any of them. It does, however, influence
the overall sonic stew of guitars of that
era, which is always the product of many different
Fret gauge might have a bigger impact on
playing feel than on tone for many guitarists.
Wider frets are often attributed a smoother,
more buttery playing feel, which also makes
it easier to bend strings. Ease of bending is
also enhanced by taller frets, whether wide or
narrow. Narrow frets shouldn’t be too hard to
bend on, unless they are badly worn down, and
they also leave a little more finger room on the
fretboard—particularly in the higher positions—
which might suit some players better. Ultimately,
if you’re mostly playing rock, heavier blues, or any
shred or metal styles, you might prefer jumbo
or medium-jumbo frets. However, for country,
rockabilly, surf, or old-school ’50s rock and roll,
narrow frets could be the way to go. In any case,
though, if your frets are in good condition and
your guitar is set up right, the size of that wire
in and of itself shouldn’t stop you from sounding
great on whatever you play.
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