What Guitar Frets Are and Why They Matter

Using the frets changes the pitch of a string

guitar fret and fretboard

Frets are strips of metal—generally, an alloy of nickel and brass—embedded along a guitar's fretboard, which makes up most of the guitar's neck. By depressing a string against the fretboard below a fret, meaning away from the guitar body, the vibrating length of that string changes, and a specific note results.

Although strictly speaking, the fret is the metal strip itself, the location on the fretboard below a fret is referred to as being that fret. For example, the position between the nut at the bottom of the fretboard—the end farthest from the guitar body—and the first fret is referred to as the "first fret," the position between the first and second frets is called the "second fret," and so on.

Moving up the fretboard and toward the guitar body, one fret raises the pitch of the resulting note by a "half-step" or semitone. The note at the 12th fret of a guitar represents one full octave above the pitch of the open string. The 12th fret divides the "scale length" (the distance between the nut and the bridge, above which the strings are attached) exactly in half.

Number of Frets

Depending on the type of guitar, and to a lesser degree the model, guitars have different numbers of frets. The standard classical guitar has 19 frets. The guitar's neck meets the body at the 12th fret. Guitarists attempting to play the upper frets beyond the 12th ​fret on a classical guitar will need to adjust their picking hand position.

Steel-stringed  tend to have more variation in the number of frets. Many steel-stringed instruments have 20 frets (for example, the Martin D-28 or Gibson Hummingbird), but it is not uncommon to see guitars with more. To allow for easier access to these upper frets, some acoustic guitars feature a "cutaway," an indentation in the body of the instrument.

Electric guitars have the most variation in numbers of frets, typically from 21 to 24. Some examples are:

  • Fender Telecaster and Stratocaster: Traditionally had 21 frets but began offering 22-fret necks in the 1980s.
  • Gibson Les Paul: 22 frets, joining the body at the 16th fret.
  • : 22 frets, joining the body at the 19th fret.

Fret Buzz 

On guitars with steel strings, frets experience wear and tear and eventually wear down. When this starts to happen, frets will begin to "buzz," making a literal buzzing sound. Fret buzzing plagues many guitars due to poor manufacturing or setup. Although fret buzz can be caused by significant problems, in many cases, simple adjustments such as raising string action can fix these problems. , a catalog of problems that cause fret buzz, offers suggestions for correcting it. Although the list is geared toward acoustic guitars, virtually the same conditions occur in electric guitars.

Intonation

If you've ever played a G chord that sounded fine, only to play an E chord that sounds out of tune, you've experienced an intonation problem with a guitar. Intonation problems can sometimes be a symptom of serious issues with a guitar but often can be corrected with a minor adjustment. Although intonation is not necessarily caused by problems with frets, worn frets or frets that are too high are often the culprits. You can  by yourself.