Stainless steel frets
When I first started working on guitars more than thirty years ago, stainless steel fretwire (SS) was not available. Whilst nickel frets are still fitted on the vast majority of production guitars, a number of manufacturers, including Ibanez and Suhr, are fitting stainless steel frets to some, if not all, of their guitars.
As stainless steel frets become more widely accepted in the guitar world I am more frequently being asked to refret a guitar with this type of fretwire.
Working with stainless steel frets
Working with stainless steel fretwire does present a number of challenges. Compared with nickel frets, stainless steel is a lot, lot harder. Fretwire hardness is often measured in relation to the Vickers hardness scale. So nickel fretwire generally has a hardness rating of 175, whilst stainless steel fretwire has a rating of 300. So nearly twice as hard.
For me this has two implications. Firstly, specialist tools are needed to work with this type of material, and secondly, because of the hardness, the installation process takes a lot longer. Over time I have invested in tools that allow me to work with stainless steel frets. But they tend to be quite expensive. As a consequence I will charge quite a bit more to refret a guitar with stainless steel rather than nickel frets.
Depending on playing style, frequency of playing and string gauge used, nickel frets can wear quite quickly. Nickel frets also tarnish quite quickly. In all, nickel frets need a bit more maintenance to keep them in the best playing condition. That said, I wouldn’t want to overstate this aspect of nickel frets. The vast majority of guitars are fitted with nickel frets and serve the guitarist very well.
Conversely, after 5 years of heavy playing, SS frets will show hardly any sign of wear. They also don’t tarnish, so maintaining that polished look. Polished frets are so much nicer to play, with string bending being a lot easier.
Stainless steel frets and impact on tone
This is a very subjective issue. Some people claim that SS frets make the overall sound a little brighter. Personally, I hear very little tonal difference between nickel and steel. If there is a difference it is marginal, particularly on electric guitars. That said, Tommy Emmanuel believes that stainless steel fretwire make the guitar sing more. And if Tommy says so, that is good enough for me!
Pros & Cons of SS frets
- Minimal fret wear, even after many years of use.
- It is unlikely your guitar will ever need a fret dress or a refret
- Strings don’t scratch the top of the frets in the way that they do on nickel frets. This means that string bending should always feel smooth.
- Frets do not tarnish or loose their brightness.
- The installation process, particularly when fitting jumbo frets, takes a lot longer than nickel frets. Hence the higher cost of a refret with SS frets
- Not all luthiers and guitar techs have the tools and experience needed to do a good refret job in SS. Check before committing!
Flame Guitars video on stainless steel frets
Earlier this year I made a video entitled “Installing stainless steel frets-tools and techniques“.
In this video I look at the tools that are needed to install SS frets and how installation techniques may differ from those used to install nickel frets. Click on the link above to watch the video
Time to give stainless steel frets a try on one of your guitars?
If you are think about fitting stainless steel fretwire on your guitar, have a look at my “Fretwork & refret” page. On that page you will see all my current prices for fretwork.