If there are buzzes that just cannot be adjusted out or the action just can’t be set the way you want it on a particular piece, it may be time to examine the fretwork. If the existing fretwork cannot be leveled to remedy playability issues, it may be time to consider a refret.
There are four types of refrets: maintenance, corrective, modification and partial.
A maintenance refret is when a fingerboard is basically true, but the frets have been worn from use and it's time for new ones. A good example of this is the typical Martin refret; the guitar has been well loved and played and now its time for fret replacement to keep on enjoying playing the instrument.
A corrective refret is when there is something wrong that the frets need to be replaced. Examples include: when several frets are poorly seated or have popped ends, when the fret ends are overly beveled (70s fender Strats come to mind), when the frets have enough height but the height is precluded by fingerboard distortions (humps, dips, twist) that will not allow fret leveling to satisfy desired playability and relief curve and still maintain a reasonable post leveling fret height. Necks are always under compression from the strings and from many common truss rod designs as well, thus they can move and settle over time.
A modification refret is when a different fret size and/or radius are preferred. A good example of this is refretting vintage RI Fenders with a flatter radius and taller frets to facilitate bending and slurs, and also refretting low stock Gibson frets for a taller fret height. Some folks like a particular guitar and want it to do a particular thing (or everything) and this is how they tailor the playability to their preference.
A refret can be any combination of these types and often are.
The last scenario, partial refretting, is applicable when most of the frets are in pretty good shape relative to the relief curve and radius, but either there is an isolated fingerboard problem (i.e. hump at body joint) or the lower frets are worn out in the open position chord areas (cowboy chord) only. In the case of a fingerboard distortion, the frets in that area are removed, the fingerboard cleaned up and frets reinstalled and leveled; I have done this many times on bound Gibson necks inside the binding nibs and the work is essentially undetectable. In the case of worn lower frets, the frets can be replaced and leveled and special care is taken to ensure that the new frets blend seamlessly into the old frets, so there is no drop off in action or impact on intonation.
Whether or not to do fretwork
Below are some criteria to help discern whether refretting is a viable option:
The situation is that you, the player, has a guitar that needs a refret (not wants, but needs). In the case of a bolt on guitar, i.e. a Fender Stratocaster etc, there is the option of refretting the existing neck, or replacing it with a new one. If you like the original tone (necks do sound different) or back shape (fit in your hand), then consider refretting it. You can get bigger frets and/or a flatter radius if so desired, or just put back to the original fret size prior to playing the frets away (and enjoying it). If you wish to maintain the originality of the guitar, then consider refretting it, i.e. keeping a now desirable Fender together.
If you do not like the tone or back shape of the neck, or do not care about the logo etc, but want to keep the body or feel you can improve the tone or feel of the guitar as a whole with a different neck (add a 22nd fret etc), then get a replacement neck. I would caution folks not to get a replacement neck solely to save money over refretting the existing neck. Depending on what and where one gets a replacement neck, the cost of the neck, finishing it, new nut and setting it up (and they all invariably require some fret leveling) could very well cost close to or more than refretting the original neck.
For folks with a set neck guitar, the decision is much simpler: either continue to play the guitar with the disappointing action and frets while it continues to wear, replace the whole guitar with another, or refret it and keep playing it. As values climb for Gibson Les Pauls and playability suffers due to wear, shrinkage or workmanship, many folks find a LP they like and refret it to taste.
With a refret, you can have it your way instead of how the factory, previous owners and time would have it. And refrets are repeatable, even more so when the data of a Plek file can be referred back to over time.
Refrets and tone
Regarding a refret, there can be some tonal change making a guitar slightly brighter (bright means there is treble with bass and mids supporting as opposed to thin which has no bass and mids supporting) as:
In general the larger the jump in fretsize, the bigger the possible difference in tone; i.e. if you put 6100 on a fretless wonder, it'll sound different. Also, a more solid acoustic system generally will have a greater frequency response/range - there will be more of everything.
Keep in mind too that you will play more comfortably on a neck/fret job you like, thus play more and influence the tone by exploring the guitar's range more.
Fret Material Offered
These days I use fretwire primarily from Jescar and Stewart McDonald as it is consistently shaped of high quality materials with a well formed tang and barbs. I stock most of the available sizes and materials in the above supplier hyperlinks.
I prefer to discuss the sizes by crown height and width; tang size is relatively similar in that I often modify the tang to appropriately fit the slots as necessary. The 6xxx numbers are old Dunlop designations and may not be the same actual dimensions between different suppliers; the most common example of this is Warmoth’s 6105 designation of .095” wide by .047” tall is slightly wider and significantly shorter than the most common 6105 size of .090” wide by .055” tall. See the Measuring Fret Size page for more info.
Stainless Steel frets
Stainless steel frets are harder than nickel silver frets and can be polished up to a higher luster, will not oxidize from moisture, salty perspiration or climatic/environmental conditions, have a slicker/faster feel for slurs and bends, and have a much longer service life that nickel silver frets. However, not every player likes or wants SS frets.
On the debate of NS vs. SS fret tone, - in order to keep things in perspective - I personally hear the difference to be very small/subtle compared to changing saddles, pot values (even within 10%) strings (gauge, brand, material, even newness), cables and pickups. Everything adds up to create/impact tone. I would not choose frets necessarily for tone, but playability - if you aren't happy playing the instrument, it won't really make tones in your hands because you won't play it much. In my opinion, strings are the greatest influence on tone acoustically (pickups are the greatest electrically, scale length and wood are the greatest structurally, followed by bridge design/material – this is all debated in the luthier/guitarist community).
Some folks report hearing a “ping” to the attack of a note acoustically on SS frets. On an electric guitar, the amp is at least 51% of the tone (depending upon effects usage etc). I am not aware of many reports of a significantly different tone from SS frets when played amplified.
I began working with and offering SS frets as soon as they first became available (begged Ken Warmoth for some raw wire when I first heard about it in 2001). As in all areas of my service, I do not try to push it on folks, but do suggest that players with a heavy fretting hand grip (fret eaters) consider SS for a longer lasting fret job (like Rob Fahey’s main gigging acoustics). I have fretted electric and acoustic guitars and electric basses with SS by request.
Refrets begin with a base price of $300, Plek’d and set up to your spec, you supply two sets of strings. Strings for scanning must be conductive as the Plek uses continuity to find the string paths and begin building its map of the fingerboard, so no corroded or coated strings (Elixir, Cleartone, Daddario EXP etc); coated strings can be installed post Plek leveling for the final set up if desired. If you do not supply strings, you will be provided shop Daddarios and billed accordingly.
Partial refrets are billed the full Plek level and set up $160 plus $7/fret (plus applicable additional qualifiers listed above).
Finished fingerboards that necessitate refinishing in matching material, tint and sheen are an additional $85 to $100. Sometimes this cost is slightly higher if the back of the neck is oversprayed to smooth out prior dings etc (by request/approval).
Gloss finished PRS necks (set necks, rosewood fingerboards done in acrylic urethane over isolator ala Custom 22s etc, not EGs, CEs, Swamp Ash Specials etc) must have the fingerboard edges resprayed upon refretting as the finish material lets go and breaks out white when removing the old frets, cleaning slots and installing the new frets which looks terrible. As a former PRS employee, I just can’t let a refret on a high line PRS leave my shop looking and feeling that way, so I insist on refinishing that area so the refret looks and feels like OEM factory work. This cost ranges from $100 to $150.
If you really dig a guitar, how it fits your hand and body, the acoustic tone, then make it work for you. If not, then pass it along and find another one to fit the bill.