Well, I had my first EVER refret last week. I’ve never really cared enough about a guitar to get it done… well, either that or I haven’t kept a guitar for long enough and played it hard enough to even think about it. Or maybe, in the case of my favourite PRS, the frets have never been so darn weak as these are… were.
When you hear PRS talk about his guitars, all he cares about is the tone they produce. Everything is picked according to their place in the tonal spectrum… I’m all for that as my guitar is the most lively I’ve ever heard (unplugged as well as plugged in), but it would appear that in part of this trade off, the fret wires they chose for the Brent Mason signature modal are about as strong as a soggy piece of paper.
It all started to go really wrong about 18 months ago when I noticed I was getting a ‘sitar’ effect from my open D string, then about 9 months later it also started to happen on the open A string. Not only were the frets weak (I was at this point worried about the wear on them), it would appear that the nut was as well. So, I made do like a proper Englishman and stuck a small piece of cardboard under the strings in the nut. This not only meant my tuning stability went out the window, but also, some of the attack and brightness I love about my guitar went as well. Once this had become completely out of control I thought “Sod it, I’m going to have to get this fixed.”
Cardboard under the strings to stop 'sitaring"
I contacted an excellent luthier who lives some distance from me, and discussed it with him, told him about the nut and showed him this photo of my current fret wear. We arranged for the long ol’ trip to his workshop, so I put my beloved guitar in the car (as I knew I had a week without gigs) and drove it up to him, which was about 150 miles away. As we discussed the work that needed doing, we came to the conclusion that I needed a shim under the nut (as it would appear the nut wasn’t cut correctly in the first place) and a total refret… I decided to go all in and get stainless steel. The PRS BM model ships with PRS’ version of 6100 jumbo frets, which have always been a little high for me, so I took the leap of faith and went down to the slightly lower 6150s.
6 years of fret wear
The only guitar I’d ever really spent any time on with SS frets was Tom Quayle’s signature Ibanez and I liked the attack of them, the slight zing they provide and maybe some brightness… maybe. So, I thought “why not”. At this point, I put the question out on our FB group “Stainless Steel frets, pros and cons” and quickly got a thread full of “My Suhr has them, they are amazing” and so on, so I was confident I had made the right choice!
When my guitar arrived back with me, I had 1 day to familiarise myself with it before I was due to play an all-day gig. But, as work is mental busy right now, I literally only had the time to make sure the neck was good, all the notes sung out and I could still do some of the ridiculous bends I like to show off with (I bend up to a 4th). Once I had this clear in my mind, my guitar went back in the case and the first time I properly played it was at the gig. I know, crazy, right?
The first thing you notice is that they are SO smooth it’s like there’s almost nothing there, it feels like there is hardly any resistance between your strings and the frets, so bending is MUCH easier. The first song in our set has no guitar solo in it, so I was feeling fine… when my first solo arrived in the second song, I totally over-bent the minor 3rd bend and it was hideous, but as I’ve been doing this for a ‘few’ years, I could quickly adapt and from there on in, my intonation was pretty much on point. I found that the bends were easier and took much less effort, but most surprisingly, vibrating the note at the top of the bend was considerably easier as well (my bent note vibrato isn’t great, so any help is appreciated).
Oh!!! Shiny new Stainless Steel frets for the win!
One of my biggest fears is that my string life is going to reduce somewhat, but it’s a minor worry as I am extremely picky about having new strings for each gig. I just can’t play live unless they are new and slinky to the feel and yes, that does mean I use Ernie Ball strings – after 30 odd years, they just feel right under my fingers. I’ve tried all the others, but always come back to EB regular slinky’s. As those strings are nickel wound, they aren’t the strongest strings on the planet, and going up against the SS frets I expect they won’t last as long… purely due to the fact that nickel frets against nickel strings means that the ‘damage’ caused by playing will be pretty well evenly split between the frets and strings. But, as these are now up against a much harder fret material, they will take the majority of wear and tear. However, every time I do break a string, it’s over the bridge or over the pickups (I tend to play hard when I’m really “in the zone” - lol at myself for saying that) and have never, according to my failing memory, broken a string over the fretboard, so time will tell if this will happen.
Tonally, SS frets appear to make everything a little zingier, maybe a little brighter. Although, to be honest, I don’t know if that’s my head playing tricks on me. As they are bright, shiny and new, does it mean my brain is telling the tone is? To test this I recorded my guitar direct through my sound card, the same line I had recorded a week before (this is how I test effect plug ins) and the difference was negligible, maybe slightly more attack. I’m almost certain to the point of arrogance that once it was going through my pedals and amp, the sound coming out the speakers was not that different. I’ve seen a lot of talk online about the frets being brighter, but I’m not sure I can hear it that much, maybe a little, but certain nothing major. It’s more of an attack thing, and that’s more of a response issue than tonal, I think.
The tech who did the job used the phrase “You’ll never regret it, or have to refret it” which is reassuring as I play really hard when I’m in country mode and that tends to be a lot of what I am doing these days. So I am hopeful that the massive expensive I have laid out will be an investment for life. After spending a lot of the day playing this guitar at an all-day gig on Saturday, I’ve come to the following conclusion about SS frets. If you have a guitar you love and you want a refret, just get them done with the SS frets… it’s almost like your finger strength has been increased!
PROS: considerably longer fret life, bends are much smoother, vibrato is much easier, more responsive to your attack, they never get dull.
CONS: string life (if you are using nickel strings) will be diminished, expensive.
Seems to be a no brainer really!