Choosing the right fret wire for your guitar can be confusing and even overwhelming. I created this guide to help you choose the best frets for your next guitar-building or re-fret project. In this ultimate luthier’s guide to fret wire, I’ll be sharing my personal observations and some lessons I learned building my custom guitars over the past 20+ years as we take an in-depth look at the guitar fret materials, hardness and sizes, as well as the effects and importance of each detail to make the process of selecting the perfect fret wire for your next guitar a simple process you can feel confident about.
Why Is Fret Wire So Important?
There are so many important parts to think about when designing or building a guitar, but the type and size of frets (and the quality of the fretwork) are some of the most important. While the guitar bracing or tone-woods might have a greater influence on the guitar’s voice, the frets are uniquely important, because they are the point of interaction for the player’s fingers and hands. They are an intimate and critical component that must feel comfortable and natural for the rest of the guitar and its woods, finishes and voice to be fully appreciated. The wrong fret material or size, or simply poor fretwork in general, can result in an otherwise wonderful guitar never becoming the true favorite instrument it could have been.
If you’re in need of some instruction on the techniques and approach to fretwork, you can also check out our two-part Online Luthier Courses, “Fretwork Mastery Part 1” and “Fretwork Mastery Part 2”—more on that later in this article.
What Is The Best Fret Wire?
Unfortunately, it isn’t as easy as just saying this one material or size of fretting wire is “The Best Fret Wire” and having that one specific fret wire work great for all guitars and all players. The good news is that when you understand a few key aspects of what makes a specific guitar fret wire work in different situations, and how they affect the guitar’s feel and tone, it becomes much easier to choose the perfect frets for each guitar you build or re-fret.
Choosing The Perfect Guitar Fret Wire
- Fret Crown—The top of the fret wire has a rounded top and a flat bottom. This portion sits on top of the fingerboard and has two basic metrics that we will be discussing: Crown Height and Crown Width.
- Fret Tang—The tang is the portion of the fret wire inserted into the fret slots that are cut into the guitar fretboard or fingerboard. The width of the tang should fit snugly into the fret slot and not easily be pulled out. We cover the proper fitting and adjusting of the fret tangs in great detail in the Fretwork Mastery Part 1 course.
- Fret Barbs—The barbs are on the fret tang’s sides and help to hold the fret in place, once it is driven into the fret slot.
Now that we have the terms and design of the fret wire clear, let’s move on to the two main aspects I look at when choosing each guitar’s frets.
Sizes Of Fret Wire
When I first started building guitars, I was worried about the wearing-out of the nickel silver frets I was using and the eventual need for the guitar to be re-fretted. Because of that, my first handful of guitars had jumbo frets. My thinking was that if I used big, massive frets, then there would be more material there, and it would last longer (could handle more fret leveling before needing to be replaced).
I was also aware that the larger frets’ additional mass adds more sustain to the fretted notes and even makes string bending a bit more comfortable. Sounds great, BUT…I realized that when the guitar frets are that big on an acoustic steel string or acoustic archtop guitar, it just doesn’t feel as comfortable and isn’t what many players of those guitars are used to (remember, this is all personal preference).
I later started shifting my attention to making the playability and comfort the main focus and switched to a medium fret wire. For me, that middle ground (medium-sized fret wire) ended up being the sweet spot of balancing comfort, string bending, sustain and durability. (I still was a little worried about durability, though, I have to admit, and we’ll talk about what I experimented with in the following section on fret wire materials.)
Right now, let’s look closer at the main factors involved when choosing the perfect guitar fret size. When we speak of “size,” we usually refer to the crown width and crown height. Here are a few of my observations about each fret wire size listed by crown width and height. (The impact of the fret wire size on tone and other aspects of the guitar that we will be talking about in the following sections are very subtle, and keep in mind that it is largely personal preference based.)
Fret Crown Width
- Narrow Frets (usually between .053″ and .080″)—Mostly used for pre-WWII guitars, ukuleles, banjoes, mandolins and other instruments like that. Not very common on guitars these days.
- Medium Frets (usually between .080″ and .095″)—This medium-sized wire is the sweet spot, in my opinion, giving a comfortable feel and enough mass for nice sustain and even some decent string bending at the larger end of this medium fret width category. I feel like the intonation may be a bit more accurate with a medium fret than the wide or jumbo size, which I’ll talk more about shortly.
- Wide Frets (usually between .100″ and .110″)—If you are a heavy metal shredder or rock player, you most likely love these frets. Lots of sustain and great for bending and tapping. These wide or jumbo frets are often used for electric guitars and basses. If a good job of fret crowing is done, then the intonation when new should be just the same as a medium fret, but as the wider fret wears and flattens the rounded crown shape, it can lead to more noticeable intonation problems as the string point of contact gets subtly moved closer to the saddle making the string a tiny bit sharp. It’s subtle, but it does happen, so it’s good to be aware of.
Fret Crown Height
- Low Frets (usually .036″ or lower)—These low frets generally are used only in fret replacement situations where you need to match the existing frets that have already been worn and re-leveled.
- Medium-Height Frets (usually between .039″ – .045″ tall)—The medium height frets come in as the sweet spot for me again, as they offer a comfortable middle ground giving enough material for a few leveling jobs and not so much height that your fingers don’t touch the fingerboard when fretting the note.
- Tall Frets (usually .045″ and up)—These frets are taller and, as such, will give you the most material for future fret leveling and crowning. Some people like a taller fret because they feel it takes less pressure to make a clear note since their fingers are not touching the fingerboard as much. Other people don’t like them because if you aren’t used to using them, you can press too much and make the string sharp, especially with lighter-gauge strings.
Fret Wire Materials
Around the time I was discovering that a medium fret size could give my guitars a nice balance of fret mass AND playing comfort, a new craze started spreading through the guitar-making community: Stainless Steel Frets. Logically, it made good sense to me to use a harder fret material, so I jumped on the bandwagon and did quite a few guitars in stainless frets. Some of the re-fret jobs I did were changed from 18% nickel wire to stainless steel, so I was able to carefully observe the subtle shift in tone and feel in those guitars, and I learned A LOT.
- Nickel Silver (Hardness: HV5/200)—This fret wire is actually a copper alloy with nickel added for the harness. Despite its name, it has no silver in it. The most common type is the 18% nickel, which I use most often for my guitars. There is also a softer version used by some classical guitar makers with only 12% nickel. I have observed that the nickel silver fret wire has the warmest tone, and the string seems to grip onto it just a bit (compared to the following guitar fret wire materials). This is the most common type of guitar fret material.
- EVO Gold (Hardness: HV5/250)—If you are wondering, what is EVO gold fret wire, you’re not alone, as it’s the newest addition to our fret material options and is made from copper, tin, iron and titanium (CuSn15Fe1Ti0.1). It has no nickel, perfect for people who have allergies or other concerns with nickel frets. The tone and feel are best described as in between the 18% nickel silver and the stainless steel fret materials (not surprising since the hardness of the EVO gold is right in the middle as well). The gold color can be a really nice and unique touch on certain guitars, and the extra hardness seems to be enough to extend the life of the frets without totally destroying your fretting tools as stainless does—more on that in the next section. I have used this wire the least of the three, but I am currently using it on several guitars, and so far, I love it. It seems to be that sweet spot again, a balance of workability and durability, and it looks great too.
- Stainless Steel (Hardness: HV5/250)—This is the hardest fret wire on the list, and because of that extreme hardness, there are some pros and some cons. The pros are that they last virtually forever and they stay looking good too. I mentioned earlier that some of the guitars I installed this on were re-frets. I was able to play and observe the guitars with nickel silver frets and then do the same again after I installed the stainless steel frets. I heard and felt what were to me very noticeable differences. First is the feel: the stainless was like walking on ice, so smooth and slippery, it just begs you to bend the strings (maybe too slippery). The thing that shocked me most was how much it changed the tone of the guitars. The stainless added a subtle yet noticeable brightness and, to me, was even a touch colder sounding than before. The worst part of stainless steel frets is the way it totally destroys your tools. Just during the few years where I was doing a lot of stainless fret installation, I went through many different fret cutters, tang nippers, fret crowning files and a whole lot of elbow grease, too, as the fret jobs took much longer to do.
I feel like a broken record, but it bears repeating that much of what we are discussing is a personal preference. I’m sharing some of my opinions, so keep that in mind and stay open to what you might like as you experiment with these different fret sizes and materials.
What Fret Wire Do Your Favorite Guitars Have? (Fender, Gibson, Taylor, etc.)
Now that you know a little more about the main factors that differentiate fret wire and that influence playing comfort and even guitar tone, there is still one more way to get some more helpful clues as to which fret wire will be the best for your guitar and your playing style. That is to check and see what frets are used by your favorite guitar companies and luthiers.
My Favorite Fret Wire
So now that you know a bit about my story and how I ended up trying so many different fret wires, I did eventually settle on my favorite wire size and materials that I use on almost all of my guitars. My good friend and client Roberto suggested I try a wire that he found to be the most comfortable of the guitars in his collection, so I did. I instantly fell in love with them.
Trusted Fret Wire Suppliers & Resources
There are many places to buy fret wire these days, but these are my go-to sources I have been using for many years (Note – this article is not sponsored). I prefer to buy in 1lb rolls. Still, if you don’t need that much, each of these luthier supply companies sells smaller quantities in different forms, so you should have no problem finding just the size, material and quantity you need to do your own experiments and make your own observations.
You can click the logos below to go directly to their Fret Wire Pages
I also found the fret wire sizing and brand chart at the following link very helpful for sorting out the different fret wire manufacturers and sizes, materials, etc. So you might want to check that out as well if you need more detailed specs and brand related info for re-frets and things like that:
Learn To Master Your Guitar Fretwork
Now that you have a deeper understanding of why choosing the perfect fret wire size and material is so important, the next step is to learn the techniques and secrets of consistently creating flawless fretwork installation, leveling, and polishing so that every guitar you work on or build leaves your shop looking perfect and playing like a dream.
Below you can watch the trailer videos from two of our Luthier’s EDGE online training courses which make up a 2 Part Fretwork Mastery Series.