When Is it Time for a Re-Fret? And What Is “Back Buzz?” – Acoustic Guitar

From the July 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY MAMIE MINCH

Q: My question is about the frets on a vintage Gibson that is new to me. It’s a 1960s B-25 (solid spruce top and mahogany body with solid back and laminated sides, and a rosewood fingerboard) in pretty good shape, and it’s even had the plastic bridge replaced with a rosewood one at some point (I understand this is an upgrade). The frets seem like they’re original, but the first few are awfully flat and have deep divots. Should I keep the vintage frets for the sake of the guitar’s authenticity? Clearly, with the new bridge, it’s not all original. —Elizabeth, New York, New York

A: Congrats on the new old guitar. You’re right, replacing the hollow plastic bridge (and removing the tone-killing bolts that held it in place) is an upgrade for these guitars! I’ve always liked these—they’re neat Gibsons that were built to be less expensive, and having a rosewood bridge and bone saddle put on will really enhance the sound. 

Now, about those frets: You can think about your frets like the tires on your car. They’re a part of your guitar that gets a lot of direct use, and eventually, they’re bound to wear out. They need to be replaced every so often. Like a new set of tires, especially with a nicer product, a re-fret isn’t cheap, but they feel so much better afterward that you’re always glad you did it. Most frets are made of 18 percent nickel-silver, which is softer than your steel strings and slowly wears down with use. Stainless steel and other harder alloys are also available, but if the frets are harder than your strings, the trade-off will be that your strings take the brunt of the wear; stainless frets might never wear out, but your strings will tend to break more often. 

Guitar collectors do get geeky about small details being original, but the original frets will be cool only if they’re in usable shape. Vintage frets on working instruments are usually not going to be considered terribly special or irreplaceable. Frets are meant to be used. If they have light divots or some uneven wear, they can likely be leveled and dressed, but if they are so worn and gouged out that they don’t do their job anymore, it’s time for replacements. Your repair person will choose new fret wire of the same dimensions and the only thing you’ll notice when they’re done is how easy it is to play.

Q: I have been hearing a mysterious metallic fret buzz when I use my capo above the fourth fret on my ’90s Martin. It’s so weird—I don’t hear it when I make chords up the neck, only when I use a capo, but it is pretty constant and really hard to ignore! Help!  —Annie, Brooklyn, New York

There is nothing worse than playing a game of chase-that-buzz on your guitar. Of course without handling your guitar I can only speculate, but I have an idea of what this could be. If it only happens when you use a capo up the neck, and is consistent when you play, here’s a possible diagnosis: The problem is what’s called “back buzz.” It’s when the string rattles against the tops of your frets between the nut and the capo, and if you play with a capo often, it can be really annoying. Your repair person could do a couple of different things based on what else she notices about the guitar. She would probably start by making sure the truss rod isn’t overtightened. She might raise the nut slot for that string (by filling the slot, shimming the nut, or cutting a new higher one), or she might dress the frets to make sure that there isn’t one slightly high fret to blame. I feel for you; this is a pretty annoying issue and you shouldn’t have to suffer—get thee to the repair shop!

Mamie Minch is the co-owner of Brooklyn Lutherie. She is the former head of repair at Retrofret Guitars and an active blues player.

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This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Buzzing strings are a serious bummer and often difficult to diagnose. Download our FREE guide on identifying and fixing 10 common causes of string buzz.

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