Frets on guitars and other stringed musical instruments are strips or bars of metal embedded along the fretboard that extend in ever-shortening distances to the end of the guitar’s fingerboard, or fretboard. These are fundamental to changing the pitch of any note being played and are prone to wear and tear due to friction with strings, which, in many cases, are made of denser, harder metals than the frets themselves. As the condition of frets determines how well-intonated a guitar plays, it is not uncommon for professional players to refret their instruments as often as 12 to 18 months.
Frets are mostly made up of “nickel silver”—a misleading term used for an alloy comprising nickel, copper, and zinc. Standard cupronickel frets contain 18% nickel, 80% copper, and a small amount of zinc, lead, or cadmium. The silvery hue of the nickel lends the misleading name “nickel silver” to the cupronickel alloy.
Below, we discuss some of the unique advantages of cupronickel frets that make them a preferred choice on guitars and a cost-effective way to source cupronickel frets and other exotic metals and alloys for custom guitar hardware.
Why Are Cupronickel Frets Used in Various Stringed Instruments?
Durability and smoothness are the key factors that influence the choice of fret material. There are pre-war and post-war vintage guitars that still have brass frets on them. As brass frets tend to wear more quickly, they are usually preferred on classical guitars with soft, nylon strings. Cupronickel frets are harder and more durable than brass frets but still softer than stainless steel frets (which can ruin files, cutters, and other luthier tools) for easy installation. EVO gold fret—a combination of copper and titanium—is relatively harder than cupronickel but softer than stainless steel. This makes EVO frets less prone to wear and tear while maintaining their individual tonal quality.
In the fret hardness spectrum, stainless steel is arguably the best material due to its outstanding longevity and bright tonal quality. Stainless steel frets are either made of pure stainless steel or a combination of nickel, silver, and stainless steel. If a player prefers nickel, bronze, or steel strings, stainless steel frets are easily the most durable.
It is worth noting that irrespective of the material used, fret wear is unavoidable to an extent. The friction caused by metal-on-metal causes frets to eventually lose their crown. Also, using a guitar capo onto the fretboard for an extended time can cause frets to flatten and wear out at a faster rate. As the hardness of stainless steel frets makes them extremely difficult to work with, cupronickel frets are starting to appear more often on various stringed instruments. The following are some of the key advantages of cupronickel frets that make them highly desirable:
- Durability: High-quality cupronickel frets have a higher content of zinc, which makes them harder than traditional frets and increases their durability. The hardness of cupronickel frets with 20% zinc is on par with some stainless steel frets; however, the longevity of cupronickel frets depends on how often the guitar is played and how hard the strings are pressed down.
- Ease of polishing: Nickel in cupronickel frets prevent corrosion but can be discolored due to oxidization from sweat and oil on a player’s hands. Polishing cupronickel frets improves their lifespan and makes it easier to bend strings. Stainless steel frets do not need frequent polishing and can hold their polish longer than cupronickel frets. While the hardness of stainless steel lends a smoother surface to frets, it requires more time and effort in leveling, re-crowning, and polishing. Unlike stainless steel frets, cupronickel frets are easier to level and polish.
- Inexpensive installation: Though stainless steel frets last longer than conventional frets, they are hard to bend, file, and polish. Most luthiers charge more than double a normal refretting cost to refret a guitar with stainless steel, as it nearly destroys tools such as fret cutters and crowing files and takes much longer to do. In contrast, cupronickel frets are easier to install than their stainless steel counterparts.
These properties of cupronickel frets are sure to make major brands prefer them on the production guitars. For luthiers, the cost-effectiveness of cupronickel frets further increases when recycled from scrap metals instead of new metals sourced straight from the mills.
Sourcing Cupronickel Frets from a Reliable Metal Supplier
At Industrial Metal Service, we have a large inventory of in-demand metals and alloys, including aluminum, stainless steel, brass, cupronickel, titanium, and Invar, that are used for custom guitar hardware. We use x-ray fluorescence technology to verify the quality and composition of metal remnants and make sure that you receive the highest grade of materials as per your requirements.