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Idle Frets

 

"Little" frets on a 58 unbound 335. If the guitar is set up properly, you shouldn't have any trouble bending the crap out of the strings.

“Little” frets on a 58 unbound 335. If the guitar is set up properly, you shouldn’t have any trouble bending the crap out of the strings.

I’m not very adept with a pair of calipers. Today I tried to measure the frets on all the guitars I have in the house (snow day with nothing much to do). I know approximately how big the frets are supposed to be but for some reason my measurements aren’t that close. Of course, the size of the fret wire as it came out of the box 50 years ago (or tube or whatever) isn’t necessarily the size of the fret wire today. Some general knowledge of Gibson’s fret “repertoire” will help. In 1958, Gibson wasn’t using what we now call “jumbo” fret wire in the first 335’s off the line. The first thing I noticed when I picked up the first 58 I ever owned was that the frets looked like vintage Fender frets (I was a Fender guy before I was a Gibson guy). I measured them at .075″ which is pretty close to Fender which, if what I read on the internet is correct, are .078″. Often, when I get a request from a potential buyer for a dot neck, I ask whether they want a 58, 59, 60 or 61. Most want a 59 and when I ask why, they sometimes say “I can’t play on those little frets on the 58”. I’ve been playing a string of 58’s for the past few months and, while I’m not the world’s best player (OK, not even a good player), I find very little difference between the feel of a 58 and the feel of a 59. Big bends seem to work just fine on the “little” 58 frets. I think setup has more to do with bending than fret wire does but perhaps fat frets are more forgiving of a mediocre setup. I’ll have to look into that. I measured a few others as well. The frets on my 59 ES-345 were around .085″ and were extremely comfortable -a bit flatter than the 58’s but that could be from dressing and wear. The 66 I have had about the same size as the 59 only taller. I have an 82 here that measures .092″ so apparently bigger frets were introduced at some point after the 60’s ended. My 59 Epi Sheraton’s frets measured .080 but I’m such a klutz, they were probably the same as those on my 59 ES-345 and I just didn’t a good measurement. These are pretty small differences after all. But, when you compare these “vintage jumbo” frets to modern jumbo frets, they are quite a lot smaller. A .085 today is considered medium. So, what do I specify when I need to have one of my vintage beauties refretted? I’ve had great results with Dunlop 6105 wire (.090″). It’s so close to vintage spec that I can’t tell the difference. I played refrets done with 6100, 6120, Stew Mac 146 and 154 and they all seem pretty good. I will say that I’m completely obsessive about proper intonation and the big wide 6120’s make intonation more difficult and finicky-especially when they need a crown. In fact, all these frets, once they flatten out from wear (“railroad ties” in luthier vernacular) will cause you some intonation issues. It’s simple physics really. The more precise the pressure point on the string (i.e. the top of the fret) the more precise the note. With flat frets, if the string contacts the back edge of the fret, the note will be rather different from the note produced at the middle or front edge of the fret. On a properly crowned fret, there is only a single point at which the string touches the fret. That doesn’t mean you can get away with poor intonation but it allows you to better adjust and control it. So, I’m afraid I haven’t shed that much light on which 335s used which frets-it seems like 58’s used little ones and 59-66 (and later) used what would be called medium today. If anybody is real good with the calipers, I’d be happy to learn what you find. 99% of what I know about these guitars comes from owning them and looking at them. ¬†You can’t get most of this stuff from a book.

These are original 59 frets. Not exactly huge by modern standards but plenty big for me. These measure around .082"

These are original 59 frets. Not exactly huge by modern standards but plenty big for me. These measure around .085″

9 Responses to “Idle Frets”

  1. RAB says:

    Charlie, interesting as always…I agree, a good set-up (and good strings) are important to a well-playing axe. While I prefer a larger fret I didn’t have any trouble at all playing smaller, “1958” style frets nor the stock frets on a 1957 PAF Goldtop LP I had. It does seem a little harder to do big Blues bends on smaller frets and I’ve sometimes compensated for that by using a slightly lighter gauge of strings on those fiddles…

  2. joe campagna says:

    Charlie,Fret width doesn’t count for much if they have been dressed down to nothing over the years.You should be measuring the height of the frets.That is what enables a player to get a hold of the string when bending.Most of these guitars don’t have much left to the crown no matter what the width is.The width only adds or takes away comfort when moving up or down the fretboard.Joe Campagna/Luthier.

  3. Gary Gay says:

    It’s not the width of the fret that concerns me, but the HEIGHT. I find that .045 is about the lowest height I can comfortably play. Anything less and I start having trouble getting “under” the string to bend it, as the string starts to slip under my fingertip. When doing a refret I wouldn’t consider anything less than .050 high to start with, figuring I’m going to lose a few thousandths of height from leveling and crowning.

    Wider frets do seem to last longer for me, as there is simply more metal to wear before the frets wear to the point of replacement. To be honest, I find there isn’t as much a problem with intonation from wide frets to my ears-at least not once the drummer kicks in.

  4. Rod says:

    I have a 53 Gold Top with the (original?) banjo/mandolin frets and have never had any problem bending with this. The ‘Big Fret’ syndrome has been with us for forty odd years now, it can only be a matter of time before ‘small frets’ becomes the latest ‘must have’ mod for guitars? Big frets, small frets, it really doesn’t make much difference provided the fret job is good, the guitar is set up decently and you use good quality strings. Play with your ears and fingers, not your eyes!

  5. Rod says:

    On rereading my post I should stress that I know Gibson used larger fretwire from partway through 1959 (don’t know exactly when.) When I said ’40 years’ I was referring to the period during which players have demanded big frets when refretting and indeed had refrets done when not need just to increase the size of the fretwire.

  6. Mark S says:

    Hi Charlie, very interesting piece. I was previously led to believe that the closest wire to the vintage Gibson late ’59+ wire nowadays (in mass production) is the Stewmac 0141 wire (0.95″ x 0.45″). So it seems that it was a good bit narrower in reality at 0.85″

    I also heard that for the reissues Gibson uses Jascar 45100 (0.1″ x 0.45″) although they don’t publish that information anywhere.

  7. cgelber says:

    It’s really hard to measure these little differences even with a set of digital calipers. I came up with .085 but the difference between .085 and .095 is 1/100 of an inch which isn’t nothing but is probably beyond the accuracy of my crappy calipers.

  8. Hi Charlie
    I just measured a few with the following results 1964 335 (which you sold me, Beautifullest GTR ever!!!!) – .1045, 1962 ES-330 – .1045, I have a 62/63 335 in for a refret currently, and by the man doing the work measures .102. My 1963 LP Jr. .1015. Ive read that the width changed to.10X in 59, but this is forumn guesses. so. . .

    I just called Gibson and got no help. This is a question for Gruhn was his answer.

    The 6105 Dunlop you mention is .090 and more importantly .055 crown height.
    Stew Mac 146 – .106, .036 and Stew Mac 154 .1000, .050

    Interesting my 4 examples are all about the same. I believe all of these guitars to be with original frets. The LPjr larry Cragg just set-up and he said this is the last fret dress before a refret in mandatory. And we both thought that GTR has original frets.

    With what I know now, I think I’ll something that specs .103ish and, .050ish

    If anyone has discovered the magic spec of 59-64 ES 335’s frets please do share.

    I will report back my impressions of the wire I use.

    Thanks for the great info Charlie.

  9. Craig Livaich says:

    AMAZING SUPER HAPPY RESULTS!!!!!

    1962 ES335 back from a refret, bone nut, and original replacent nylon saddles. I used Stew Mac 149- .103 and .046 high. They are near perfect. I cant put the guitar down and cosmetically identical to my 64. The frets are a bit higher than what Im used to as all my guitars are worn to the end of their life. I adapted within 30 minutes to height, and would use the exact same fret nextime. And the same guy By the way.

    This is my player, and I will try to wear it out before I die. Anyone contemplating a refret–Dont hesitate if you want tone. The upper harmonics and consistency of the neck are to die for.

    But before you do, I would determine that you cant level and crown due current fret height.

    Hope this helps someone out there.

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