THEIR SHAPE AFFECTS YOUR PLAYING FEEL.
When we talk about the “feel” of a neck, a big part of that is really the feel of the frets. The ’board part of any fingerboard (aka fretboard) is of relatively little consequence compared to the way the frets themselves feel under the fingertips of your fretting hand. From wide and low to narrow and high—and all possible variables—each fret yields a different “touch”, and in turn, inspires and encourages a different form of playing. What’s “best” depends on what you want to achieve. Wider frets (jumbo or medium-jumbo) are often preferred by heavy benders, while narrow frets are often the choice of guitarists looking for a sharp, precise feel, but there can be plenty of compromise in between. Play as many types as you can get your hands on and see what works for you.
THEIR SHAPE ALSO AFFECTS YOUR TONE.
We might credit a guitar’s nut with transferring neck-end string vibration into the wood, but for anything other than strings played open, the frets are actually tackling that job. For this reason, their shape impacts tone as well as playing feel. Many players are convinced that fatter fret wire equates with fatter tone, and there could be some logic here, considering that more metal in any fixed component usually means a greater vibrational coupling between string and guitar. Wider frets also present somewhat blurrier, “thicker”, less distinct noting than narrow frets, which can yield a more precise note and more shimmering harmonics.
DIFFERENT FRET MATERIALS ALSO SOUND AND FEEL DIFFERENT.
Fret wire is commonly made from only two different materials: a “nickel” alloy, which actually contains approximately 18 per cent nickel-silver (also called “German silver,” itself a silver-free alloy of nickel and copper), and the less-traditional stainless steel. The former is far more common, although the latter is making inroads. Think of nickel frets as warm, round, and juicy, while stainless-steel frets are clear and precise, in relative terms. Of course, all this is also translated through the wood and pickups of any given guitar, so the tonal differences might in some cases be extremely minor. Most players will also note that stainless-steel frets feel smoother and harder, while their traditional nickel brethren feel a little softer. As you’d expect, both types wear accordingly, too.
FRET CONDITION IS A KEY FACTOR IN ANY GUITAR’S PERFORMANCE.
Your axe just won’t play right in any sense of the word if its frets are in poor condition. Frets that are dinged, rough, and abrasive will feel rough and scratchy under the fingertips, and will bite against the strings when you’re bending. Frets whose “crowns”—the top edge that meets the fretted string—have been worn down from heavy playing will impede your tone and your intonation by providing a less precise end point to determine the note. Any serious divots will also affect playability. To keep frets in the best possible condition, have them regularly dressed and crowned by a professional repairman, and your guitar will both feel and sound better.
FRETS ARE A CONSUMABLE, AND WHEN THEY’RE CONSUMED THEY’VE GOT TO GO.
Ads for vintage guitars will often boast of instruments in “100% original condition,” but when the frets are worn down past the point of no return it’s time to get them replaced, if you want that prized acquisition to be anything more than a wall hanger. Just as amps burn through tubes when played, a well-played guitar will eventually wear through its frets. Easy playing with little bending and a light touch might help a ’57 Strat hold onto frets that are still perfectly playable today, but if you don’t play that way yourself then they’re likely to need to be changed some day—a tough call to make, when originality is so heavily prized. For guitars that are anything less than ultra-collectible, don’t be precious about your frets: if they’re heavily worn, get them replaced by a professional. Done right, the job will breath new life into any instrument.