I’m reading an advertisement from a fret protectant product by Zymol called “Bridge”; the advert says EXACTLY what I want to say, and so I’ll repeat it here word for word:
Boy … sounds like something to avoid, doesn’t it? Let’s talk about that.
First, I’ll mention that this blog is NOT about re-fretting a guitar, or about polishing frets; that might be a good topic for another day, but today we are talking specifically about cleaning and protecting the wood of your fretboard.
If your fretboard is sporting only the usual player’s grime, then I recommend cleaning it with nothing more than a good bit of old fashioned elbow grease, a cloth with water and a mild soap, like dish detergent. Personally, I like old socks as the cloth. If you are cleaning a board with decades of ground-in grime, then I use a product like LA’s Totally Awesome Cleaner and/or naphtha. Be aware that the stronger the cleaner, the more likely you are to wind up with a dry oil-depleted fretboard. Which brings us to…
Here is where my opening quote comes in, and here is where I like coconut oil (which just happens to be a main ingredient in Zymol’s Bridge product). Some folks prefer lemon or some other oil on fretboards while others shout “use nothing at all”. Personally, I am among the use nothing crowd when we’re talking about say, a maple board finished in a bunch of polyurethane. I mean, really … nothing’s going to penetrate that PLASTIC anyway; any oil you try to apply will just rub/drip off! However, if we are talking about an unfinished board, especially rosewood or ebony, or an old board with little to no nitro left on it … then I oil the board, especially if it’s noticeably dry.
Why coconut oil instead of lemon, orange, or one of the other oils? Because it kills fungus, bacteria, and viruses. Yep, it kills all that crap that would like to eat your fretboard. A couple of nice side benefits are that it’s super easy to work with since it is a paste at room temp, and that it just might keep you from catching a virus! When working coconut oil into the board, remember to use it sparingly. Just a couple little dabs on a cloth will get you through the average fretboard. If it’s a super dry board, you might repeat the process. And, you will always want to thoroughly rub the board down with a dry cloth afterwards … unless maybe you want a little to rub off on overly dry finger tips!
Oh, and if you like the idea of using a product specifically for guitars, by all means ... I sugest using the Zymol product ... with all it's coco-nutty goodness :-)
I’ve been “retired” from the road for over 20 years now. When our first daughter was born I decided that being home to be a husband and father was more important than being a road warrior. That daughter is now out of college and more-or-less on her own, but my wife and I have a new little girl who just started kindergarten, so again, I have a pretty good reason for still keeping my little lily white hiney home. But yesterday I was listening to Paul McCartney on Pandora while driving and it hit me; if Paul were to call me out of retirement, I’d say yes without hesitation.
Why? Well, it’s certainly not just because of the opportunity to play with a “living legend” before it’s too late. I assure you the majority of music icons don’t interest me a bit. But McCartney … well … wow. Yes, as regular readers of this blog know, I’m a McCartney fan for sure (read the blog). But from a GUITAR PLAYER standpoint, here are the bullet points:
Varity: Holy crap, McCartney’s catalog of hits, both in and out of the Beatles is more varied in styles and textures than ANY other artist! That’s what hit me as I listened to a smattering of his stuff from many decades. I mean, there isn’t a single guitar tone that he hasn’t used on record. As a certified TONE guy, I can TOTALLY appreciate that. I mean, I might actually be able to come up with a totally genuine answer to my wife’s question of “why on earth do you have so many guitars, amps, and guitar gizmos?” … “Because, sweetie, I need each and every single one of them to cop the tones on Paul’s songs”. How cool is that fellow gear addicts???
The man himself: I learned many years ago that if you are going to squeeze into an aluminum tube with a dozen or so other musicians and call it home for weeks or months at a time, all it takes is one JERK and the experience becomes miserable. I just cannot imagine a jerk ever gaining entrance to McCartney’s band. He’s just too darn nice a guy (he IS a Knight after all).
So there! Sorry to my lovely wife Kim, but if Sir Paul calls me up, I’ll be on the road again. Of course there are better odds that I’ll win the state lottery while being hit by a bus on an ocean cruise …
How about y’all? What artist would be YOUR ultimate gig and why? I’m curious!
Howdy friendly guitar friends! So, any of you who know me know that I’ve always got my guitar “deal radar” up; man, I LOVE finding gems at pawn shops and yard sales. But, Goodwill? I mean, sure, we’ve all picked up some cool stage clothes at Goodwill … maybe even a pseudo-vintage microphone. So, how about a near mint 1957 Fender Strat? Impossible you say? Well right now, as I pen this blog, one is up for sale on Goodwill’s auction site, I kid you NOT!
With four days to go in the auction, it’s already over 13-grand, so it’s not like you’re gonna totally STEEL it … but when you consider that this is a guitar with a full retail value of close to six-figures, there is certainly an opportunity here for a deal.
And, if you think this is a once-in-a-lifetime fluke, here is a nice clean 1967 Gibson SG Melody Maker that sold for about $1,200 last week. Sweeeet!
So, there ya go bargain hunters, if Goodwill is not on your gear radar, it should be! Oh, and can you imagine who donated that Strat to Goodwill? I can hear it now “Let’s donate grandpa’s old guitar to Goodwill, I’m sure it’s not worth much”…
Okay gang, as you all know, I’m ALWAYS on the lookout for guitars and amps that I consider “sleepers” … you know, they are awesome, but somehow the awesomeness has been undetected and so they can be bought “for a song”. Today’s entry is the Yamaha G50 and G100 amps of the late 1970’s - 1980’s. I had one come through my shop, and it turned out the only problem it had was a tired speaker. With a new WGS ET65 in her, she was a superb clean amp. I’m going to keep this short (I promise), but let’s talk just a little bit about why these are cool and VERY under-rated amps.
Okay, first, let’s start with this: these amps are often able to be bought for under a hundred bucks. Got your attention? Good, let’s dive in.
These solid-state amps were Yamaha’s take on Fender’s Twin Reverb, the reigning heavy-weight combo king of the late 1970’s. Their 50 and 100 wat versions are as loud as comparable 50 and 100 watt tube amps; this was far before the days of inflated solid-state output ratings. Yamaha was, and is, a great Japanese company that takes quality seriously. Designed with help from Paul Rivera, they are built well and can fill a big stage.
They were made in the original series as well as the II and III versions. With all three variants, the clean tone is big, fat and juicy with acutronics long-spring verb; in other words, a GREAT clean amp for Jazz, etc. … but also a great pedal platform! With all three variants, the “distortion” is downright awful; unless cheesy buzzy 80’s solid-state distortion is your thing (hey maybe you’re in a Devo tribute band), you will NOT like the amps distortion. Put a pedal in front of her!
A final note: As is soooo often the case with mass-produced amps, the one place where Yamaha cheesed out was on the speaker(s). Just like with Gibson’s excellent Lab Series amps of the same period (see my blog), they stuck speakers in that didn’t really sound great and couldn’t really handle the power of the amps. So, be prepared to drop a WGS ET65 (or two if you get the 100-watt 2x12 version) in to unleash these amps true potential!
Several months back I “accidentally” acquired a 1958 Gibson ES-125TD, I had no plan to purchase it … it came and found me; I have grown to flat-out LOVE that ol girl, and I just gotta gush!
First a (very) quick bit of history. The hollow-body P-90 equipped ES-125 was considered by Gibson to be a “beginner” electric guitar, think of it sort of as their version of a Fender Musicmaster/Mustang/Duosonic, etc. The guitar was first introduced in 1941but none were made from late 1942-1945 due to WWII. From there, the guitar stayed in continuous production until 1970/71 … yep, that makes a huge 30-year run!
Along the way, the guitar had several notable options added. There was the ES-125-T or “thin” model, the ES-125D “dual-pickup” model, and the ES-125-C or “cut-away” model. And yes, they could be combined in every imaginable way; for instance, an ES-125TDC was a thin body model with two pickups and a cut-away. My 1958 model, the ES-125TD is thin body with two pickups and no cut-away.
Okay, so why do I consider these guitars to be “sleepers”, well, let’s talk about that!
First I MUST say this, not all ES-125 models are anywhere near equal to each other. These are really guitars that you will want to actually physically play prior to purchase, unless the seller offers a generous return policy! Why?
Well, think about that 30-year span. Why, the 41/42 “pre-war” models were during the absolute infancy of the electric guitar. They were really made as beginner level f-hole acoustic guitars with a primitive pickup thrown on. These guitars are really best at only one thing: being an authentic blues box. On the other end, the last three years of production occurred during the dreadful years of Norlin ownership of Gibson. The guitars from this era often have sketchy materials and workmanship. Ha, but what about those models made during Gibsons “Golden Era”, the 1950’s. This is where it gets good … really good! Now mind you, guitars with more than a few decades on the odometer have undoubtedly lived extremely varied lives … and this will greatly affect weather they have aged gracefully or terribly … so again, it’s best to actually play before you buy!
1958, the year my 125 was made, is considered by most to be right in the pinnacle years for Gibson. Les Paul models from this era are priced waaaaaay out of the reach of ordinary folks like me. Now, my 125 was made from the same stash of Brizillian rosewood as a ’58 Paul, most likely the same hands made both guitars, and they have aged for precisely the same amount of time. My guitar has two P-90 pickups of the same build as those used on ‘50s Pauls … but my 125 cost about 1/50th to 1/100th of what a Les Paul from 1958 generally brings these days. See, sleeper!
A couple of important observations where the ES-125 is concerned. First, if you plan to play with a lot of gain and/or loud, be sure to get a thin body model; I’ve played both, and the fat bodies howl outta control when ya crank em up. Second, unless you are specifically looking for a blues or jazz guitar, get one with dual pickups. It’s amazing how truly versatile the dual pickup ES-125 is. Man, on that bridge pickup I can pull off surf-rock, AC/DC and Bakersfield Tele, the neck will go anywhere from straight-up jazz and blues to SRV, and with the dual volume and tone controls, the in-between position is like a chameleon that can go from Scotty Moore to Contemporary Christian chime and everywhere in-between.
Seriously, the thin body dual pickup ES125 is a truly versatile guitar that holds its ground against all contenders. I kinda wish mine had the cut-away for easier access to the highest frets … but like I said, I didn’t come looking for her, she came to me, and I love her just the way she is!
There are a lot of famous ES-125 players out there and you can google up all kinds more info if I’ve wetted your appetite, but here is, I believe a must-read blog if you want to learn more about this fine “sleeper guitar”:
So, I just finished covering the Summer NAMM show here in Nashville for Vintage Guitar Magazine. I’ve been attending the NAMM shows for decades now, they are where manufacturers of musical stuff show off their latest creations in hopes of drumming up sales. For us guitar players, this year’s show was interesting in as much as there was a notable divide between the folks offering up decidedly vintage style guitars, like the historic models from Fender’s Custom Shop, and those offering all-out digital guitar-like thingies. Let’s talk about that!
Digital technology has been grafted into electric guitars for at least a decade and a half now, so this ain’t nothing new … but … what IS new(ish) is the idea that a guitar can be ALL digital. Hummm.
Now, I was an early adopter of the add-on digital capabilities of the Roland 9-pin system for a long time, and I currently have two electrics and one acoustic equipped with Roland pickup systems; I am particularly fond of mixing the sound of an acoustic guitar with a lush string pad, and I’ve enjoyed playing horn lines on disco tunes … but when all is said and done, I was still playing a REAL-DEAL electric guitar. For the record, the Roland rigs can be darn cool!
During the time Roland was rolling their first 9-pin stuff out, there were a few other companies (most notably Casio) that jumped on that bandwagon … but most have now jumped off, although there are a few companies that still offer guitars with factory-installed Roland 9-pin pickups, my fav is the Godin nylon-string. Where Roland guitar synths are concerned, man, don’t fear the ones and zeros, they behave themselves.
Way back on ‘07 Gibson offered the “Digital Les Paul” which mangled and strangled the guitars signal in all kind of strange proprietary digital ways, but all in all offered nothing the public wanted at a price no one could afford.
Around that same time Line-6 began offering their digital “Variax” guitars, which digitally sampled each string and then mangled the ones and zeros to make it sound like something else. While the Variax line has matured greatly since its inception, most players still see the guitars as a novelty item to give them a little something different on a song or two. (I know, Variax lovers, feel free to voice your disagreement … but ya just don’t see many players out there with ONLY a Variax on stage).
Last year I bought my first fully digital guitar-like thing, the “You Rock Guitar”. All I can say is that there is most definitely nothing about this so-called “instrument” that rocks. Cheese city baby!
Then there are the Peavey guitars with Auto-Tune built-in. They basically sample the analog signal, turn it into digital, run it through the auto tune software and spit it back out … in essence giving you a fully digital “representation” of what the strings did. As a geek I think they are kinda neat, but as a tone guy, I can’t use the words that accurately describe the sound; I’d get in too much trouble.
Two 100% digital guitar offerings caught my eye. What do I think of them? Man, I just don’t know; in the digital guitar world, the line between cool and cheesy is VERY thin! And so, I’m just going to report my findings here and let you all make up your own minds whether these fall on the side of coolness or stinky cheese.
First, the feature-packed Cyber-Axe with built-in CPU and buttons out the ying-yang Check this wild-child out!
And last, yep … it was only a matter of time … the latest iPhone/iPad based guitar, the “Fusion Guitar”:
Wow! So, this has turned into part four in this series:
But man, it was brought to my attention that I totally forgot about the lowly old P-90s! Well, let’s rectify that situation!
Once again, I need to make it clear that these are my personal recommendations. You may be going for something totally different, and as such may want to totally disregard my suggestions; if so, I fully understand, and rest assured, my feelings will not be hurt in the least bit.
Okay, now this is important, as far as pickup height is concerned, P-90’s are an entirely different animal from either humbuckers or single-coils. With a Strat or Tele style single-coil pickup the magnetic field, or the part of the string being sensed by the pickup, is soooo small and, even microscopic changes in pickup height make a perceivable sonic difference. Humbuckers are sensing a much larger portion of the strings movement, and as such are a little more lenient on pickup to string height adjustment. From nearly as close as the pickup can get without touching the strings to as far away as it can be adjusted, decent tones can be had.
Now a P-90 is an “interesting bird”; tone-wise it’s in the same camp as the early PAF Humbuckers, in fact, the design goal of the first humbuckers was to sound just like a P-90, but without the hum! But, of course from a physical standpoint, the P-90 is much more akin to a Fender-style single-coil pickup. However, there are some very important things to keep in mind when setting the height of a P90:
The P-90 IS a single-coil pickup, but that coil is way wider and more shallow than on a Strat or Tele style single-coil; the P-90 is also wound with a lot more turns of wire ie: it’s a lot fatter and hotter. As a matter of fact a 1957 P-90 has about the same output as a 1957 PAF. Result: Tonally, the P-90 is more like a PAF humbucker than a Strat single-coil. The narrow coil and (relatively) low output is a big part of the Fender spank ... and the P-90 has neither!
Fender’s designs employed pole-pieces that are the actual MAGNETS, whereas the P-90’s use steel screws/slugs (same as the humbuckers), with magnets on the back-plate wedged up aginst those steel pole-pieces making them somewhat magnetically charged. This means the Fender pole pieces have a gauss (magnetic pull) of about 3-4 times what a P-90 has. So again, the result: Tonally, the P-90 is more like a PAF humbucker than a Strat single-coil. The strong magnetic pull is a big part of the Fender chime!
And so, setting the height on a P-90 is a lot more like setting a humbucker than it is a Strat/Tele pickup. Because the magnetic pull is fairly low (in the 300-Gauss range compared to 1100 for a typical Strat pickup), you can get by with placing the pole-screws very close to the strings without worry about it sacrificing string resonance. Because the coil is so wide and the gauss so low, the P-90 is also quite forgiving placement-wise, although not as much so as a humbucker which has even less pole gauss and more coil(s) width.
One last thing to mention: P-90’s are an archaic design from the 1940’s; really, they are the oldest pickup designs still in regular use. As such, they were never really designed to be very adjustable. In fact the earliest versions (often called the “A-90”) didn’t even have adjustable pole-screws, just fixed steel slugs. Now, the soap-bar versions generally have a decent amount of height adjustment available … but those old “dog-ear” versions, well … if ya want to make any drastic height adjustments to them, you gotta actually “shim” them. Yep … archaic!
I prefer to use a digital caliper to take measurements, but a quality luthier’s ruler will do fine if you have excellent vision! Okay, so with no further ado, here are my suggestions and reasons why.
Low E: 2.6mm / 0.10"
Hi E : 2.35mm / 0.092"
Low E: 4.5mm / 0.18"
Hi E : 3.43mm / 0.135"
(Measurements from the bottom of the string to the top of the magnetic pole piece screws)
Yep … that’s CLOSE … even a little closer than a humbucker on the bridge! But here’s why: That old design used a pair of magnets forced head-to head with a poor old pole screw/slug smashed in between to “charge” the pole-piece. The measured magnetism (gauss) at the actual pole screws in these is only about 200-300gauss, compare that to the 1000+ gauss of a typical Strat or Tele style pickup … there’s a HUGE difference here, buddy! As you raise the pickup closer to the strings the tone gets brighter and more focused … now with a super bright single coil, that’s usually a bad thing, especially on the bridge pickup. However, with the relatively warm tone, wide detection area, and inherently low magnetic pull of these archaic designs, that’s EXACTLY what makes them come alive
A P-90 sittin’ far away from the strings produces a downright fluffy/thuddy tone (with a lot of 60-cycle buzz, too) … hey, if that’s what you’re going for then do it! Personally, if I want that tone, I just roll down the tone pot and maybe the volume a little. The truth is that you might find the tone you are looking for anywhere from the closest you can get those puppies to the strings all the way to as far as you can get them away from the strings (about 6-7mm is as far as you can go on a Les Paul style guitar). As always, just remember this:
The closer you get to the strings the brighter, louder, and more focused the tone will get.
The further you move the pickup away from the strings the warmer, quieter, and less focused the tone will get.
And here is my last comment on this subject; I have a 1958 Gibson ES125TD with a pair of original “dog-ear” P90s that are sitting WAAAAY further away from the strings than the recommendations I just gave above, and I wouldn’t even consider shimming them up closer. Why? Because that warm, sloppy, sweet, fat tone is exactly what I’m looking for out of that guitar … so there, I just discounted everything I’ve said. Go figure!
There ya have it, see y’all next time.
I’m a Fender guy through and through, my first amp was a Brown Deluxe, and my first workhorse gigging amp was a silver-face Twin Reverb; with the JBL D130F speakers, the thing actually weighed more than I did at age 15! Since then I have played a plethora of vintage tweed, brown, blackface, and silverface fenders. For the last decade or so, a ’67 Super Reverb has been my gigging amp of choice. But several months back a ’67 blackface Pro Reverb followed me home from a used music store … and she’s giving the Super a real run for the money!
The Pro is an amp that has all the right stuff to be a fantastic club amp. She’s tube rectified, for nice early sponginess, and she does not quite have the huge trannies of say the blackface Bassman or the Super Reverb, so again, she gets juicy a little earlier, but she DOES have enough clean headroom on tap for a loud club date, unlike say a Deluxe Reverb. She IS about the same size as a Twin Reverb, but with half the power section and WAY smaller transformers, she’s a LOT lighter! And then there’s the TONE…
Tone-wise, the Pro Reverb has its own beautiful niche. It’s way bigger and bolder than a Deluxe, or even Vibrolux Reverb, but not quite the all-out force of a Super … and a LONG way from the hard-hitting Twin. She really sits in that sweet spot of having enough of everything without having too much of anything … which makes her VERY rewarding to play at medium-loud stage volume. And, the sound is uber juicy Fender tone at its best. And maybe it’s just the one I have … but of all the Fenders that have rode through my stable, this one has the best reverb of ANY of them! Oh, and the tremolo sounds super sweet, too.
I just happen to have an old Twin-Reverb road case that the Pro fits in perfectly, so I’m definitely seeing this Pro Reverb under the buss on my upcoming shows!
One SPEAKER related side-note: My Pro came with fully healthy stock Fender/Oxford speakers, and she sounded sweet … but she just started to loose bottom-end solidity and “fart-out” as she was pushed. I took my own advice (given on the Q&A forum many times) and installed a pair of ET-65s and man … it went from sweet to sweeeeeeet … and no more farting out. Probably a good idea to keep those original speakers safely boxed and stored anyway.
As any of you who have bought my pickup sets already know, I include quality tone caps at my preferred values with all my pickup sets. Yes, they DO affect your tone. How much? Well, here’s my list from what I consider MOST important to least. Remember we’re talking SOLID BODY ELECTRIC GUITAR HERE!
#1: The amp (taking ALL design features into consideration)
#2: The Pickups and Speakers (tie)
#3: The guitar’s scale
#4: The guitar’s body (materials, specs & methods)
#5: The Guitar’s Neck (materials, specs & methods)
#6: The guitar’s electronics, including pots, wire, jack, and CAPS!
#7: The guitar’s hardware, especially the bridge and nut
#8: The guitar’s frets
So, caps are fairly far down the list … but … for folks trying to eek out that last little bit to take a guitar from good to truly great, yes, the tone cap value will be important.
For simplicities sake, we’ll specifically be comparing the three most common values: 0.1uf, 0.047uf, and 0.022uf; I’ll also mention that I like 0.033 caps with P90’s … we won’t specifically discuss them, but as you can imagine, they fall in-between the 0.022 and 0.047uf. Ready? Let’s dig in!
First a quick reminder of what a “tone cap” in a standard passive electric guitar actually is; it simply is a device that shunts high-frequencies to ground, effectively eliminating them. Effectively, the bigger the cap, the more highs are eliminated. The “tone pot” (potentiometer) controls how much of the guitars signal is sent to the tone cap to have its highs removed. Standard tone pots are between 250K-ohms and 1000K-ohms (1-meg). By far the most popular values are 250K, which are typical in Fenders, and 500K, which are typical in Gibsons. When it comes to passive guitar TONE controls, there is not a significant difference between the two values, except for the speed in which the control reacts. Folks, feel free to disagree with me here, but I’ll try to prove this at the end of this blog. Now, if we were talking VOLUME controls, then there is more difference … but that’s a whole nother blog topic! One last note: a “250K” pot in a perfect world would sweep from 250,000 (250K) ohms to zero ohms (dead short); in the real world it could be anywhere from about 225-280K on one end, and 3-12 ohms on the other end. In other words: the tone cap is NEVER totally out of the circuit, even when “on 10”, there is still a little signal going through the cap, unless you use a no-load tone pot that clicks into a dead-off short at “10”. Most folks do not use those … so we’ll assume you are not using them. Okay let’s talk CAPS!
This I the one that Leo Fender originally choose to use in his single-coil guitars. In fact, early Broadcasters, no-casters, and Telecasters actually had a .1uf cap that was fully engaged in the circuit when you selected the 3rd position on the selector switch … removing all highs and turning the guitar into total mud! Now, that’s crazy … but I DO still recommend .1uf caps with fender style single-coil pickups. Why? Because they sound the warmest, and that’s a nice compliment to the typical Strat or Tele! Here are some graphs, first of a .1uf tone control with a 250K pot, first fully rolled down, then mid-way, and then full on 10.
Pretty dramatic! The roll-off begins well below 1,000Hz, and pretty much everything above 5K is completely removed with the control on zero. Notice, by the way, how the bottom end remains nearly smooth and unchanged throughout the control sweep. That’s important in single-coils!
Again with a 250K pot, first fully rolled down, then mid-way, and then full on 10.
Here, we start to see a little less in the way of top roll-off. This cap is often used in Teles, when folks want a little more top-end bite, and it works well for that.
Again these graphs are with a 250K pot, first fully rolled down, then mid-way, and then full on 10.
Here you will notice quite a bit less of the top frequencies are removed, and possibly just as important … you will notice that when the control is fully on 10, there is actually a small decrease in the low frequencies. This might work out well in humbuckers, but spells the death-nail for bright single-coils!
And one last graph with the .022uf, this one is the same as the first one, a .022 cap and the control rolled all the way down, but this time with a 500K tone pot often used in Gibsons. The result is nearly identical to that of the 250K, it's just that the sweep of the control will feel different.
There is only one reason to pay more than five bucks for any passive guitar cap, and that reason is if it’s to preserve the integrity of a valuable vintage instrument. The main thing you need are caps that are dead-on with their claimed value, are stable under all temperatures and conditions, and have ultra-low esr. Only the very cheapest caps fall below this, sadly, many low-end guitars use these, replace those puppies right away! If ya want to spend $50 on a repro bumblebee go for it, but the reward will be in bragging rights, not tone. Three – five bucks will buy ya a cap that exceeds any and all specs needed in a guitar tone circuit.
Y’all let me know if ya want to do a little hair-splitting talking about the differences between Mylar, polypropylene, oil-n-paper, etc. The short story is: it aint much; the long story is … well, long!
As a bit of an artistic diversion, I “make” a few guitars every now and then, a habit I’ve had since I made my first guitar in Jr. High wood shop at age 15. Lately, I’ve been making Tele style guitars, since Nashville guitar slingers need top-shelf hard-core road guitars at a working-man’s price. There seem to be plenty of Strats in this category, but Tele’s … not so much. The process of making vintage Tele style guitars has really brought fret size to the forefront; as the traditional 3-saddle bridge really makes intonation difficult, which makes fret selection extra-important. At a later date, I’ll delve into what separates world-class Tele ELECTRONICS from the simply mediocre; but for now, let’s talk frets.
First: a note: while some of what we are discussing here relates to both acoustic as well as electric guitars, we are specifically talking about ELECTRIC guitars at this time! So a good place to start where frets are concerned would be a basic frame-of-reference; problem is, there is no such thing! Over the 70 years or so of the modern electric guitar’s life, quite a variety of frets have made finger-board appearances. So, dispel the belief that there is a “normal” that can apply to ALL electric guitars. There are a few very GENERAL observations that can be made, however.
Here is the single most important nugget, taken from an earlier blog my buddy Dave Hunter did on this topic: “While larger frets do seem to result in a rounder tone, perhaps with increased sustain too, they also yield a somewhat less precise note than narrower frets”. Please read Dave’s fine blog for his always dead-on thoughts on this topic!
So there ya have the view from 50,000-feet! Big frets = bigger tone, smaller frets equal more precise intonation. Ah, if it were just that easy; if there were only TWO fret sizes … big ones for those who want maximum tone, especially on single-string big bend solos, and small ones for those who want precise intonation. But take a look at this fret size chart, and understand that these are ONLY the most common guitar fret sizes! Yea, these waters are getting murky!
Yes, we have heard about Stevie Ray’s using enormous “bass” fret wire on some of his guitars, something his long-time guitar tech says is hogwash … but he DID play big frets, but unless you also plan to play with the huge strings he played with and only in HIS style, don’t even consider it! On the other end of the spectrum is the infamous Norlin-era Gibson “fretless wonders” of the 1970’s. With frets so small you “won’t even know they are there”. Again, unless you only play chords and play VERY light gauge strings, don’t even THINK about going there! So, that leaves us …
For MOST guitar players, this will translate into either Dunlop 6110 “Jumbo” or Stewart-MacDonald’s #150 (SRV). These are the frets to go for if you DO want the tone and playability of someone like SRV, and if you are willing to sacrifice a little precise intonation on chords for a big ballsy tone on single-note bends. Also remember, big frets require big strings! As far as I’m concerned Jumbo frets arte only for medium gauge or bigger strings … unless you play very lightly, you will undoubtedly bend chords out of tune with light-gauge strings and big frets … ugg!
Like Pre-CBS Fender’s and modern Dunlop 6230 or Stew-Mac #141 & 147. These are the frets for folks who are picky about tuning and are precise players. I especially like these frets on a Tele with a vintage 3-saddle bridge, as intonation is so compromised on these guitars anyway! Inverse to the big frets, I’d say these are for those who use light(ish) gauge strings … say 10’s or smaller.
This is what most “modern” guitars are equipped with, like the Fender “standard” size and Dunlop 6130. And, I believe these frets are a great “best of both worlds” compromise on most any Strat or Les-Paul style guitar. They bend nicely, offer full-bodied tone, intonate fairly accurately, and are friendly to all but the most extreme string sizes. There is a reason why the major manufacturers have almost all adopted this fret size as their standard … it just works!
As for stupidly wide or tall frets, I would certainly avoid them unless you really don’t care about intonation or play stupidly lightly. But always remember: these are just my recommendations. Folks have really taken the fret thing to extremes with scalloped fret-boards … and then there is the “glitter” guitar that is ALL fret ... with no fret-board at all ... but I’m gonna say these just flat ain’t for everybody!