Groan, Grind and Polish: Understanding Basic Fretwork
When does a guitar need fretwork? Just what is a grind and polish? What is a refretting? Glad you asked. Fretwork is one of the most mysterious and misunderstood aspects of guitar repair, and yet frets provide the fundamental connection between you, your strings and your guitar. A good fret job is like getting a new guitar all over again. It eliminates buzzes caused by loose or worn frets, brings the neck action to its optimum level, and makes the guitar or bass a real pleasure to play from both a technical and aesthetic standpoint.
First things first: For the sake of clarity, note that we guitarists often use the term fret to mean two different things. When we refer to playing a note on the first fret, we really mean the space on the fretboard between the nut and the first piece of fretwire. Its common in playing vernacular to refer to frets and fret positions in this way. When you ask a repairman to check out your frets, though, he's not looking at those in-between spaces on the neck he's looking at the fretwire.
Without beating this to death, let's examine the point just a little bit further. Lets say you're playing an open G chord. When you finger that high G on the first string, the note you hear is the sound of the string vibrating from the third piece of fretwire forward. What you've done, essentially, is made the string shorter and thus higher in pitch. The string isn't shortened where your finger is on the wood but where the string is clamped down on the fretwire. Frets are set up and down the neck in positions that result in tuned notes. Without them, it'd be very hard to play in tune. That's why fretless bass is so tough!
Okay, enough of the physics lesson. Lets talk about fretwork.
A new, well-maintained fret looks like a strip of semi-circular chrome embedded in your fretboard. Older frets are dull and often dimpled from string wear, particularly under the plain strings close to the nut. Poorly installed frets can work themselves loose from the fretboard, and a bad grind and polish job can leave frets looking like flat metal ribbons.
The first thing that might rejuvenate old frets is a simple polishing, which is included as part of many guitar shops setups. The fret is cleaned and polished with a special metal polish, leaving it mirror-bright and friction-free, making for smooth and easy bends.
Next in fretwork intensity is the grind and polish, the ol G and P, where the frets are first leveled so they all stand at an equal height, then crowned to shape them to a semi-circular finish, then finally sanded, buffed and polished to leave them looking as good as new.
It's important to recognize two limiting factors in the decision to get a G and P. First, some instruments simply need an adjustment to the truss rod, nut or bridge to remove an errant buzz or two. Be sure you know what the problem is before you bring your guitar to the shop. Second, some instruments are so far gone that a G and P wont make things much better and may even make them worse. If your frets are low and flat to begin with, grinding them down further will only serve to exacerbate your fretaches. If your fretboard is somewhat uneven, or if your neck is responding poorly to a trussrod adjustment, nothing you do to the frets will make things better.
When all else fails, and you just cant squeeze any more life out of your frets, you'll need to consider a complete refretting. This means that all of the frets on your neck would actually be removed and replaced. Yeah, we know it sounds frightful. But frets are made of lead, a soft metal that breaks down under the wear and tear of your playing. Anyone who has put in a lot of time on any one guitar needs a refretting sooner or later. Refretting jobs typically cost anywhere between $150 and $400, depending on the grade of wire, the way the frets are set, and the difficulty of the work. Be sure to put the job in the hands of a luthier you trust.
Take a close look at your guitars frets. Now that you know how they function and how they can be repaired, consider that a good fret can improve your guitars feel and sound. Keep an eye in this section of the site for more info on how to do some fretwork yourself.