Both your guitar strings and guitar frets wear out in the course of time. This happens as a natural result of the usage of the guitar and the friction between your guitar strings and the frets. Fret wear is common, but how much fret wear is too much?

When you are no longer able to play the guitar comfortably and you notice fret buzz and intonation problems, those are signals that your fret wear is too much. If you notice flattened or pitted frets, or any type of uneven wear, it’s time to fix your guitar frets. The good news is your frets can be fixed or replaced.

Depending on the fret problems you face, you will likely have the option of fret dressing or fret replacement. A professional luthier will know how to do both and you are well-advised to seek a professional luthier’s services with regard to fret problems. Trying to fix worn-out frets by yourself can cause further, irreparable damages.

What are frets made of?

Nickel silver

Typically, frets are made of nickel silver. Nickel silver is a very misleading name, as this alloy does not contain any silver. Nickel silver alloy is made of only 18 percent nickel, 80 percent copper, and some other materials, such as zinc. It is worth mentioning that quality nickel silver fret wires usually have more zinc and less copper.

Jescar is the brand name that often comes up in reference to the longer longevity of nickel silver frets. Their formula for nickel silver frets is 18 percent nickel, 62 percent copper, and 20 percent zinc. This type of fret wire lasts longer because it is harder than traditional fret wire.

Most guitar manufacturers gladly use nickel silver in the production of fret wires. Its soft structure makes it easy to bend. Nickel silver conforms to fingerboards well and is resistant to tarnish and skin oils. However, the softness of nickel silver also makes it more susceptible to wear and tear.

Stainless steel

This type of metal is tough and can withstand a lot of pressure. Can you wear out stainless steel frets? You most certainly can, but not that easy. However, those guitar players, especially the beginners, who press the strings harder, might want to look into buying stainless steel frets, because they are definitely more durable.

Stainless steel frets wear down slowly and with them, you might never need to replace the frets on your guitar. However, they are more expensive and more slippery than nickel silver frets. Due to the hardness of their material, stainless steel frets are more difficult to cut, so the cost of repairing them is also higher since luthiers have to replace their tools more often.

If you don’t want to face the inconvenience of constantly changing your guitar strings, keep in mind that there are claims that stainless steel frets can wear out the strings more quickly, because of their hardness. Also, keep in mind that if you pair stainless steel frets with stainless guitar strings, they are bound to wear out faster.

What causes frets to wear out?

Different factors play a certain role in wearing out your frets. These four factors are the most common ones.

  1. Fret material – as described above, both nickel silver and stainless steel frets wear out, with the latter being more durable.
  2. String type – when strings and frets make contact, there is a battle between the weaker and the tougher metal. There are two types of electric string types – plain and wound. Plain strings are usually steel, while wound strings are nickel-plated. Since plain strings are steel, they will wear out the frets faster.
  3. Playing style – your playing style also determines how much your frets will wear out. Playing styles, such as heavy strumming, that apply more pressure wear out the frets more quickly.
  4. Playing with a capo – a capo presses the strings down onto the fretboard, thus creating even more friction. If you use capos constantly, it will definitely speed up the wear-out of your frets. Also, check out if you can leave a capo on the guitar.

How do you know if your frets are worn out?

If you suspect that there is something wrong with your frets, you should look for these problems:

  • Visual indicators –¬†such as dents, divots, or flat spots.
  • Fret buzz – you will hear a literal fret buzzing sound as a result of fret wear-out.
  • Intonation problems – in case of intonation problems you will sometimes need to replace the nuts and frets on your guitar.

What does a worn-out fret look like?

When you look for worn-out frets you should look for flattened frets and pitted frets. Flattened frets, with a distinct oval appearance, are the result of flattening, which happens as a result of your guitar strings squishing fret wires. Pitted frets are more serious and they are the result of continued pressure that has created a pit. They can create fret buzz, cause intonation problems and even break your strings.

How do you fix worn-out frets?

There are two types of service that can fix worn-out frets. Even though you can buy tools online and try to fix frets by yourself, we recommend that you get these services done by a professional luthier:

  1. Fret dressing is basically filing down all the frets to the same height by using a fret file. This means that after filling, all frets are the same level as the lowest, worn-out fret. The next step is to re-crown the frets by filing them to get a rounded top. Fret dressing is mostly suitable for light fret wear.
  2. Fret replacement is replacing a worn-out fret with a new fret wire. This process is particularly suitable for replacing one worn-out fret, instead of filing all the frets to the level of the damaged one. Replacing a nickel silver fret will cost you less than replacing a stainless steel fret, simply because the latter is most difficult to shape and it takes more time.

How long do guitar frets usually last?

It’s not easy to answer this question as several factors influence the longevity of your frets. Some frets last only a few years, while others can last decades. If you play the guitar more frequently and often for long hours, you are likely to wear out frets faster. Factors such as temperature and humidity, your playing style, fret material, and how you maintain your frets all influence the durability of your frets.

If the humidity is too low, your guitar neck can shrink. On the other hand, if it is too high, your frets could swell up. Aim to store your guitar in a cool, dry place. When it comes to your playing style, if you frequently bend similar notes, it will affect those frets to wear out faster. If you are curious to know how long flatwound guitar strings last, you can find out here.

A man holding the guitar.

How can you prevent frets from wearing out?

Freat wear is inevitable and it’s not worth stressing over. However, there are certain things that you can do to prolong your frets’ life and keep your frets in an optimum playing condition.

Adjust your playing style

Adjusting your playing style is not always easy, especially if you are a rookie guitar player. However, it’s beneficial to develop good habits from the start and try not to press on the fret too hard when playing. If you press softer, both your frets and strings will have a longer life. Learning the feel of the guitar can take some time if you are a new player. Be patient and work on learning how to apply the ideal amount of pressure to get the right sound.

Maintain your frets

If you notice that there is something wrong with your guitar frets or that they produce a buzzing sound or intonation problems, don’t postpone taking your guitar to a professional. Your frets might be candidates for fret dressing. It’s better to do this sooner than later, as leveling and reshaping the frets on the guitar is less expensive than replacing them altogether.

Clean your guitar

Make sure to give your strings and fretboard a good cleaning whenever you finish playing the guitar. Here you can find out how to clean a fretboard on an electric guitar and if you can use Clorox wipes on your guitar. If you use a cleaner or a polish, never splatter it all over the guitar. Apply the product to the fabric and gently clean smaller areas on the guitar’s surface. Use a dry cloth to wipe off any residue.

It is also good practice to wash your hands before playing and even during your practice if your hands tend to sweat a lot. Dirt and oil from your hands create more friction and add to the wear and tear of your guitar frets and strings. If you notice any corrosion or rusty strings, replace them as soon as possible. Remember that rust is an arch-enemy of your guitar’s frets and strings.

Wrap-up

Taking care of your guitar is important and it will ensure that your guitar keeps rocking for many years to come. However, both your frets and strings will eventually wear out, as they are consumables and are meant to be replaced after a certain period of time. Maintain your guitar and clean it regularly. Don’t become too obsessive about it, as excessive cleaning can also cause damage to your frets.