I don't know about you, but one of the greatest joys I get from playing and owning a banjo is taking it out of the case and simply admiring it for a few moments before I play. In particular, I like to look at the intricacies of the inlays in the fingerboard. But then I notice something horrendous on the frets!
Grab your banjo and try it for yourself.
Now look closer. Maybe pull a string or two to one side.
Now what do you see?
I would be willing to put good money on the fact that some of you are looking very closely at the frets and wondering how that peculiar looking dent that has formed.
Welcome to the wonderful world of fret wear. What is it? Why is it important? How does it affect my progress? Lets take a look.
Fret wear is exactly what it suggests. It is the wearing down of the frets from contact from the strings. The fact of the matter is, frets and strings are made from metal. As you play notes, hammer on, pull off, bend etc, the metal strings begin to wear on the frets, creating grooves and dents in the frets themselves. Chances are, you probably don't always look that closely at the fingerboard and because the damage is occurring directly under the string, it is not always obvious until you pull a couple back and take a closer look.
If you are still a relative newcomer to the banjo, you will likely notice it more towards the bottom of the neck towards the tuners, since you likely are learning in that area, while the upper frets of the neck will likely appear perfect. Like anything on a banjo, the rate at which this wear occurs will be directly relative to how much you play. The more you play, the faster the frets will wear.
Frets on most banjos (and other fretted instruments) are mostly what we refer to as nickel silver frets. Now, despite the name, there actually isn't any silver in there at all. Instead, they are usually about 18% nickel, 80% copper, with the remaining 2% being made of other metals such as zinc or lead among others. However, different manufacturers have different ratios. The result is a hard wearing metal that is also easy to work with both in manufacturing and in repairs, particularly when you consider the wear on the specific tools needed for the job. It also means that, albeit slowly, they will always wear some over time.
Why does this matter? Well, fret wear, if left unattended can quickly become the root cause of a host of issues. Commonly, string rattle/string buzz and intonation and tuning issues are all hallmarks of worn frets. If you have ever experienced these, you will know how frustrating this can become, particularly if you are still nearer the start of your banjo journey.
As a quick refresher, intonation refers to the string being in tune at every fret along the fingerboard. A basic part of any banjo set up at the Deering factory is the correct placement of the bridge to insure the best possible pitch at every note up and down the neck. This is the starting point.
But arguably the most important factor is the the correct and accurate placement of frets. Frets, regardless of style and height are designed to have a perfect apex on the very top of the fret from which the string "bears off". This apex is where the string makes contact and can only be correct if the fret is in exactly the right place.
Now, as a fret begins to wear over time, the location and angle of that apex will vary so the string bears off the fret from a different location than was intended. This happens sometimes towards the neck and other times towards the bridge, depending on how the fret has worn. This change may seem insignificant to the naked eye, but any experienced tech will tell you, it doesn't take much to throw the intonation off.
It is such a gradual change, you don't always notice it right away and of course, depending on what you are playing, you may only notice it on certain strings at certain notes.
Fret wear is a great place to start looking if you are having intonation problems.
Aaaahhhh, string buzz. The worst enemy of any player. Where is it? Where is it coming from? What is causing it? The answer is really that a number of issues may be causing this horrible noise and you may also start to experience some annoying rattles and buzzes on certain strings or notes. Once again, fret wear could easily be a key cause of this and it is worth inspecting frets in and around the area that you are experiencing issues.
Why would this happen? Well, lets say for example you play a note on the first string at the 2nd fret (E). The second fret is nicely worn down after the endless hours of practice. When pressed at the second fret, the string is essentially sitting lower than it should, thanks to the groove in that fret.
Meanwhile, the next fret along towards the bridge (3rd fret) is relatively unscathed and would be sitting at its normal height. When that string is played, there is simply not enough clearance for the string to vibrate freely and so it buzzes against that adjacent fret. In extreme cases, the note can choke out completely.
It is important to remember that fret wear is inevitable. It is an unavoidable consequence of physics that every player faces. But there are ways that you can delay the wear.
A common technique related issue that we see among beginners is the death grip, where players have a natural tendency to squeeze the neck and the strings with all their might. Obviously, the greater the pressure, the more likely the frets will wear faster. Frets don't need much effort to make the note. In fact you would be surprised at how little effort it takes so try to adopt a lighter touch in your fretting hand. This will bring with it benefits in your overall playing as a more relaxed, lighter grip will allow you to move around the neck smoother, with less effort. And, of course your hand will be less likely to cramp up!
You might also consider stainless steel frets as an alternative to the traditional nickel silver. Stainless steel frets are far more resilient to fret wear and will last longer. However, they are harder metal and therefore harder to work with and far more wearing on tools used to work on them. As such, they are usually more expensive than the standard nickel silver frets.
Stainless steel frets are available as a separate service or can be added to any of the the Deering Service Center packages.
So you are probably wondering what you can do. Well, it depends on the severity of your fret wear. If it is minimal, you can certainly extend the life of your frets by having them dressed and leveled. The result would be balanced fret heights, although slightly lower than when they first started.
If on the other hand you go a long time without giving your frets any kind of attention, chances are you will need a refret. This involves complete removal and replacement of all the frets. In some cases, you may only need a partial refret whereby only the first few frets are replaced, which as you might imagine, is more affordable than a complete refret.
We can't say this enough, but for success in your banjo journey, keeping your banjo well kept and in playable condition is vital. It will not only keep your banjo sounding great, but will also help you progress and develop free of the frustrations that come with having to fight a poorly kept banjo.
Frets are just one part of this, but can cause a host of frustrating issues that will only hinder your progress.
So next time you are gazing in awe of your banjo, take a second and pull a couple of strings to one side and make sure your frets are not showing signs of wear. If they are, give us a call.
It might just make the difference.