Refret. Do You Care? Should You?

Got Nibs? Then you probably got original frets, too. I know this isn't a Gibson-it looks like an Epiphone with those parallelogram inlays.

After 50 or so years of use, you can bet the frets are going to start showing some wear.  There has been a lot of discussion about whether a refret devalues a vintage guitar and I don’t want to spend much time on that aspect. Suffice it to say that if you are spending top dollar for a mint, under the bed ES-335, ES-345 or ES-355, it probably should have its original frets. In all other situations, it doesn’t really matter that much.  If you are buying the guitar as an investor, then original is probably a better bet but not a priority. If you’re buying to play, the get a guitar that has good frets-original or otherwise because A: a refret by a good luthier is expensive and B: Bad frets will make your guitar no fun to play. What I mean by bad frets is either they are so worn that the guitar won’t intonate properly or the guitar buzzes at certain frets or a refret is so poorly done that the frets are all different heights or loose or some other indicator of poor workmanship. So, how do you know? Well, the good news is that it isn’t that hard to see a refret on a guitar that has a fingerboard binding. When the guitar leaves the factory with its original frets, the binding has little “nibs” that run slightly up the end of the fret. When a 335 is refretted, nearly all luthiers don’t bother to replicate the nibs. It’s just too much work and no one seems to care that much about them.  No nibs always means a refret. Another thing to look for is if the frets overhang the binding. In a factory fretted guitar, the frets stop at the binding with no overlap. Now if the frets don’t overlap, it doesn’t mean they are original but if they do, then they definitely are NOT original. I happen to think its a nice look for a refret to have the fret tops run over the binding but thats just me. It also gives you a little more fret for bends on the high E if you bend toward the edge of the board. The most important thing in a refretted guitar is that the frets are set evenly into their slots, are all the same height (check with a straight edge-it should touch every fret when laid on top of them) and are nicely crowned and polished. If the frets are very wide and flat, the guitar isn’t going to intonate well because the area of the fret in contact with the string is too wide. The string should only contact the fret at a single point-making contact with as little metal as possible. That means if it was refretted with those big jumbo frets that so many players like, they had better be crowned-that is rounded off so there is a clear “high” point on each fret. If you play very lightly, the problems associated with bad frets will be minimized but if you press down hard and play with a heavy hand like I do, tall frets will cause tuning problems because you’re pushing the string down behind the fret right to the surface of the fingerboard and your note will be sharp. So lighten up if you can. If you’re a big note bender, you’ll definitely want you frets to be in good shape. When you push the string across the fret, you want the height top be consistent so the note will continue to ring as you raise the pitch. A fret with flat spots will “fret out” and dampen your tone and your bend. So, while we haven’t really done anything to solve the age old if it’s refretted, does it lower the value issue, I think it’s clear that a good fret job is superior to badly worn original frets. Remember a good fret job is going to cost you at least $400 so look at them before you buy that 335. If it’s beat to hell and the frets aren’t worn, that’s a refret. If it’s dead mint and the frets are worn down to the fingerboard, you might want to check to be sure it isn’t a refin.

Here's a nicely executed fret job where the frets overhang the binding. No nibs here.

4 Responses to “Refret. Do You Care? Should You?”

  1. Larry says:

    “I think it’s clear that a good fret job is superior to badly worn original frets.”

    That sure will make or break the playamility of am otherwise good piece.
    Enjoyed the read on your thoughts on this.

    I have been blessed with never having needed a refret even on guitars I have had for many years.
    My thoughts on if it ever cane to this on a Gibson I would indeed miss the nibs.

    After veiwing some very good refrets such as that posted I have come to see the beauty in a job well done and would not hesitate to dio it or purchase one done right.
    May even be better.

    I believe that is an example of a Michael Tuttle job in the picture.
    His work is distinctive.

  2. OK Guitars says:

    Hi Larry
    Thanks for reading. I hope that 335 makes your day every time you pick it up. I’m not sure who did the fret job in the photo. I sometimes just grab photos off the internet as in this case when I don’t have a good photo that illustrates my point. None of my current guitars are refrets either. I’ve had plenty of them and I’d say half of them were well executed and most of them were pretty average. I have had a couple that were unplayable without a lot of filing and crowning. I keep a set of fret files but don’t really like to use them. If I mess up, the consequences are costly.

  3. Lobosang says:

    Hi OK guitars, I was reading your comments on refret of 335 guitars. Everything is explained in good detail, however, there is one error about the factory fitted frets. Look at ES335 Larry carlton carefully you will find that there are no binding nibs and the factory fitted fret ends (overhang/crown) extend over the binding.

    I have also observed that many gibson guitars with frets ending at the binding and having nibs often allow the high E string to slip into the small gap between the fret end and the binding and the string getting stuck while effecting vibrato, which is very frustrating and annoying in the middle of a gig!!. You will experience such cases with Gibson Guitars having binding nibs. SO My advice for such guitars is its always better to refret by sanding through the plastic nibs and insert new frets with overhang crown extended over the binding. Again its good to preserve original factory fitted frets provided quality fret jobs are done, but the present gibson guitar fret jobs are horrible (supposed to be pleked) you will find many flat frets without proper crowning.

    I have ES335LC and Les Paul Std, both guitars had this issue (flat/pleked frets). all frets had different crown heights across fret board. I removed all the factory fitted frets and refretted with jescar frets after proper levelling (sanding with 320 grit radius (12″) sanding block) of fret board. This ensures no fret levelling is required after refretting and all frets have the same height and now its playing wonderfull or smooth!!. Just sharing some serious observations on the quality control of gibson guitars.

  4. cgelber says:

    I totally disagree. I’ve never seen original frets that overhang the bindings. I’ve owned more than 500 65 and earlier 335/345/355’s.
    I’m sure Larry Carltons guitar has been re-fretted more than once. I don’t know about the new ones since I rarely see them. I really don’t like the way the frets over the binding look. It just looks wrong on an ES.

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