Vintage guitars come to us in a variety of states, from perfect players, to fractured firewood. From out-of-this-world workhorses to out-of-whack wall-hangers. However bad it gets, any guitar can be improved with a few cheap tools, a smattering of know how and a little time. Obviously serious vintage guitar repairs such as resetting a glued neck, or repairing a cracked headstock, are better attempted by an experienced luthier; likewise, if the guitar is especially fragile or valuable. But with so many interesting, and potentially great playing instruments available, often at very low prices, it is certainly worth attempting some small repairs yourself. After all, there is little sense in paying a luthier hundreds of dollars for a vintage guitar repair if the instrument is worth only a fraction of the total bill. With a little bid of reading, and a few not-too-expensive tools, you can drastically improve the playability of your vintage guitar. In this article we shall look at the problem of loose frets, the resulting fret buzz, and sharp fret ends.
Frets, as you probably know, are the thin strips of metal set into the fingerboard of the guitar's neck. The fret metal is soft, and, although designed for many years of use, is subject to wear. Furthermore, these are typically just pressed into the guitars fretboard, and held in place by barbs invisible once in place. The generally accepted wisdom, is that over time, the fretboard may shrink somewhat, allowing individual frets to come loose and lift slightly. This may cause noise when played (fret buzz), or create sharp edges really noticeable when you move you fretting hand up and down the neck. Although fretboard shrinkage may well cause some of these issues, in my experience some guitar brands are WAY more susceptible to such problems than others. I can't ever recall a lifted fret on any Gibson instrument that has come through my hands, yet you are unlikely to find ANY fret firmly in position on some less expensive guitars. So it is my contention that in some cases, fret problems relate to poor practices during construction. Part of the problem relates to the huge explosion in guitar sales in the middle 1960s. Most guitar companies expanded their operations at this time, especially in terms of entry level instruments. Even with this expansion, often the manufacturers would fail to keep up with demand. In some cases, timbers may have been insufficiently dried, in order to accelerate production. These guitars will certainly suffer from fretboard shrinkage. Furthermore, workforces expanded markedly, with fretwork often delegated to newer employees. It may be that a lot of these mid 1960s vintage guitar fretboards were completed by inexperienced staff, with managers focusing on completing orders: i.e. quantity over quality. Less expensive 1960s guitars often have shockingly bad frets!
Whatever the causes, a raised fret can ruin the playability of an otherwise great instrument, whilst fixing it may take just a few minutes, possibly seconds.
So what precisely are we talking about here? Fret buzz can have a number of sources. We are not talking about fret buzz when one plays an open string (nut problems). Neither fret buzz across a large portion of the neck, especially towards the body (too low bridge). The fret buzz caused by a slightly raised fret will only occur in that one position, and possibly only on one string. Notes will sound perfectly up the neck except at that one fret only. So the first step is to identify the problem fret. Usually these buzzes will occur on the highest and lowest strings, as the ends of the fret are far more likely to lift than the middle. So, the first step is to play the guitar and find the spot(s) where the buzzing occurs. The raised fret will be the next fret along from the one that causes the buzz. Easy as that. It is worth double checking this with a fret rocker (StewMac tools are great quality, but there are many cheaper equivalent tools available). A fret rocker, is effectively a straight edge that extends across three frets only. If it rocks, the center fret is too high. You should move it up and down to see whether the whole fret, or just one or both ends are raised. On an unstrung guitar, the whole fretboard may be Commercially available fret rockers are five sided, with different length edges providing a 'three-fret' edge for any area of the fretboard. A long edge for the lower frets and shorter edges for the higher frets.
The first fix, especially for a guitar with slight buzzing in maybe one position only, is the simplest. Lay the guitar flat, with the neck supported by Music Nomad guitar cradle. You don't need to remove all strings, though loosening them and pushing them out of the way will help, you can use a string spreader, however some guitar cradles (like the Music Nomad) have this built in. Then comes the fix... simply give a firm tap (just one) to the raised fret area, with a rubber fret hammer. In many cases this will solve the fret buzzing entirely.
A more reliable method than the fret hammer is to use a fret press, however this may well be overkill. Fret pressing tools can be significantly more expensive, and are perhaps not worth purchasing unless you have a lot of frets needing fixing!
If the fretboard has shrunk, or if the fret slot is too big, no amount of hammering and/or fret pressing will hold it permanently in place. A small amount of superglue is the answer, either dripped down a cocktail pick, or applied with a super-fine pipette. The fret can then be pressed or gently hammered into place. The entire fret may be glued, or just the raised ends. Naturally superglue dries almost immediately, but is wet enough to run into the fret slot. You don't need to remove the fret before gluing, but quick work is essential. Excess superglue on the fretboard may be scraped off with a blade, but a better trick is to apply paste wax beforehand, creating a barrier for the glue.
And importantly, the work is reversible. If you are not happy with the fret's position, simply heat it with a soldering iron, and the glue will rapidly 'unstick'.
Sharp edges on a fretboard can be a real pain, quite literally. Just playing the guitar can cause injury, and strings (especially the high E) can get snagged on the fret end. But fixing these is really easy. Generally this occurs when the fret ends have lifted slightly, but may also be the result of substandard workmanship in the first place. So the first step is to make sure all frets are correctly seated as described above, with all ends glued in place where required. The fret ends can then be filed gently (remember frets are made of soft metal), either side of the fret 'corners' and directly along the side of the fretboard - wherever the fret is sharp. There are several different file types available for this job; I use a special triangular fret file with a plain edge - this allows the fret to be filed without any danger of damaging the fretboard. Again, StewMac tools are great quality, but other equivalent tools are available at lower prices.
The techniques described above won't cure a warped neck, or frets that are worn beyond their useful life. But they will solve the vast majority of fret problems. Many previously unplayable guitars can be brought round with a little knowledge, effort and a few basic tools. You will be amazed at how much more playable you can make your guitars, and there's a definite sense of satisfaction from doing it yourself. But do try and work on some low budget guitars before you work on your vintage archtop! If you want to work on your guitars, there is no better place to start than Dan Erlewine's The Guitar Player Repair Guide. If you don't own this book, BUY IT!