Things wear out with frequent use.
Cars bog down, kitchen appliances break, knives dull…hell even people get worn down with all the trappings of modern life.
And if you’re a guitar player, even your beloved guitar will eventually wear down.
The modern electric guitar is no exception – use it frequently enough and the paint will wear, the wood will darken (especially maple fretboards), your strings will inevitably break, your electronics will start sounding like a bowl of shit and your frets will wear down. That’s just the way it is, and unfortunately, there is no going around it. While some people may like the look and feel of a well worn guitar, it’s not going to be in top form if the frets are worn down. This depends though, some people might actually find use for this kind of situation. Worn out frets will cause dead spots, buzz and a lot of unsavory sounds that will make even the best made guitar sound shitty.
For the longest time, most guitars come stock with nickel plated frets. It works, and for as long as anyone electric guitars have been on the scene, nobody really made a fuss about it wearing down. However, frequent use will wear it down, resulting in trips to a luthier to get the guitar refretted, causing down time which is not desirable for anyone, especially those who use their guitars heavily as in the case of professional musicians who depend on their instruments to make a living.
That was the case with nickel frets until someone decided to put something harder and came up with the idea of stainless steel frets.
Stainless steel you say?
It’s not an entirely new concept and had been around for quite a bit. Some higher end guitars have come with it oe (original equipment) as I was told. Warmoth makes replacement necks with jumbo frets made of stainless steel.
Why go with stainless though?
There are a variety of reasons why people choose to go stainless when they go for a re-fret. Let me point out some of the pro’s and cons of going for stainless steel. Back in November 2016, I decided to try the stainless steel route and sent off my then newly acquired Kramer Striker 100ST. When I got the guitar, it was still wearing the factory nickel frets which were already fairly well worn and already beyond salvation via leveling. Another reason I decided to send it off under the knife is that while I absolutely love it due to its paint job, it was still not as precious to me as either Hanna or Yuri. There are lots of people offering stainless steel refret jobs but I opted to bring the 5150 to my trusted guitar tech Mico.
Below are some of my observations that I collected and learned over the past year and a half. While Yuri is still my beloved and mostly go-to superstrat that I can pick up for session work, gigs and what not due to it’s surprising versatility, the 5150 is fast becoming a favorite, if not already on part with the main girl.
My 5150 hangs from the first position on my guitar tree so it’s always within reach. While I don’t practice so much daily nowadays, I still use it regularly enough to start wearing down the frets. Up until now, there are absolutely no flat spots anywhere, even along my favorite string positions. By comparison, Phoebe (Telecaster) started showing wear within a year of the same amount of usage. I think it’s fair to say that the frets will last a long time before they begin to show signs of wear.
Regular nickel steel frets can be polished smooth like stainless steel ones. However, stainless keeps its shine and sparkle far longer than nickel steel. I haven’t polished the frets off my Kramer as of today, but it still feels very smooth. By comparison, whenever I polish my other guitars with nickel steel frets, the shine tends to go away after a couple of months or so. It could be that because they’re always exposed to the air in my room but hey, so is the 5150’s.
The smoothness lends well to bending and overall control, although for the uninitiated, this may lead to some awkward out of tune bends and some may even find themselves unintentionally slipping. Even now, I can still have some occasional slips.
I had my fret ends finished hotdog style and needless to say, it helps my hands glide better over the neck.
Alright, this is one of the more hotly contested debates about the matter. Truth be told, I didn’t spot any substantial increase in sustain with it although the guitar obviously sounds more bright, and sparkly. Stainless steel did not make my guitar any more “toneful” than it was when it had nickel steel frets. If anything though, the guitar sounds much more responsive although it could also be argued that this could be the result of the set-up job as much as the frets being changed out.
But yes, not much in the way of tonal changes. At least not much to my ears.
To close this rambling entry (which I actually started writing last year, and kept editing and saving), I would recommend it to everyone! If you’re a heavily gigging musician, you will definitely find this useful since you won’t have to worry about wear so much. Even if you’re a casual musician (as long as you don’t mind paying for service) then go for this.
Lastly, shameless plug – if you want a good refret job, go to Papi’s Guitar Shop in Quezon City. Mico does a really swell job with each and every refret he does, and I have yet to hear someone who’s not sold into his work.