The fretboard is one of the factors that greatly affect your playing. If you experience Muted frets or buzzing frets then you are experiencing dead frets!
How do you fix a dead guitar fret? Many causes of this problem, including hardware (pickup system, string lock system), resonance oscillation, or some common reasons such as intonation and action issues.
In this article, we will cover each possible cause of dead frets in great detail… So let’s get started!
- What are Dead Frets?
- What Causes Dead Frets?
- Uneven or Loose Frets
- Uneven Fretboard
- Old guitar strings
- Neck Angle
- Warped Neck
- Resonant Dead Frets
- Sympathetic Resonance
- Fixing Sympathetic Resonance
- Fret Dressing
- Uneven Frets
- Checking and Repairing Loose Frets
- High Frets
- Fixing High Frets
- FAQ for What is a Dead Fret
- How do find a dead fret?
- What causes dead frets on an acoustic guitar?
- What can do with a dead fret on an acoustic guitar?
- What are the benefits of a dead fret on an acoustic guitar?
- What are the drawbacks of installing a dead fret on an acoustic guitar?
- How does a dead fret on an acoustic guitar work?
- How to fix a dead fret on an acoustic guitar?
- Ways to remove deaf frets on an acoustic guitar?
- How much does it cost to fix a dead fret?
What are Dead Frets?
I consider anything that affects your resonance on a single fret, as a dead fret.
Dead frets are single positions on the fretboard that do not resonate properly. If you can all the frets on a string being problematic then I would NOT describe this problem as a dead fret. As the solution will be different!
When going to fix dead frets you need to be aware that where you do not get the tone or there is buzzing, it means that the next fret higher is the one that is the problem!
For example, if you play a note on the 12th fret then it’s the 13th fret which you need to correct.
What Causes Dead Frets?
Dead frets usually happen because there is some interference in the tension and imbalance on the guitar necks or a problem with the vibration of the string.
Below we look at the types of things that can attribute to this problem:
- Loose Frets – A fret after the one your fretting is a touch high and is touching your string as it vibrates.
- Uneven Fretboard – This is when there is a hump on the fretboard
- Old Guitar Strings – Old guitar strings may alter the intonation causes dead frets
- Neck Angle – if the neck is bowed too much strings can catch on the lower frets
- Warped Neck – when your neck almost twist
Above are all the factors that can attribute to dead frets. Some of these options are easy to fix and others can be more technical. However, let’s look at how you can identify and fix each of the criteria!
Uneven or Loose Frets
An uneven or loose fret consists of A fret that has popped-up out of its slot or has worn down over time.
Usually, a fret may not be seated correctly during use, resulting in it being taller than the adjacent frets. In other words, the frets loosen out of their slots or aren’t pressed as deeply into the socket as it should be.
In this case, the guitar player can easily fix a loose or uneven fret themselves by removing the strings and then knocking it into the correct position.
You will do this by using a plastic or brass hammer and then place a towel over the fretboard where you will knock it gently.
Sometimes it will go back fine right away but other times it may come loose again and so for added certainty, you can glue it to keep it in place.
You can then use a ruler to make sure it is flat against its neighbors!
In cases where the guitar frets have been worn out because they are too old, players can also consider replacing the fret altogether with a new one!
An uneven fretboard is when a group of frets is not level and higher than the surrounding frets.
Some of the reasons for this may be in the guitar’s manufacture, or the low frets may become worn out after being played a lot.
This issue may get more prominent as time goes on if the action drifts slightly with environmental changes.
The usual approach is ??to simply level the high frets so it is consistent with the surrounding frets.
You can use a short straight edge ruler or even a card to measure the evenness of the fretboard. Having identified the uneven frets you will need to remove the current frets, the file is down the placement slightly to ensure when you place the frets back they are lower, to point that they do not interfere with the vibrations of the strings.
Fretboard re-leveling is not something that everyone can do at home and is also quite expensive. So if you value your guitar and do not want to risk destroying it then take yours to a technician or luthier.
Old guitar strings
When you pluck a note, your left-hand presses on the string. The string acts on the fret creating vibrations and produces sound. The frequency of these vibrations determines the pitch of the note being played.
If you have old guitar strings then the strings won’t tune properly as it doesn’t hold the tension as it should.
This is very common and just changing the strings and giving them time to settle may remove the dead fret that you are experiencing.
Another common reason the fret is dead can be down to the neck bowing too much.
This creates a massive impact, causing the entire group of frets to be dead.
To check if your rod is straight, do as following:
- Use the capo to clamp the first fret and press 14 on the fretboard (or the last fret on the electric guitar)
- Insert a business card or similar straight-edge stuff into space between the 7th fret and the thickest string on your fretboard.
- If you find that the card comes in without touching the strings and still has a gap, or your card is difficult to come in without touching the strings, then your neck is not straight (or at a relief that you are comfortable with).
- You can now adjust it by adjusting the truss rod inside the neck.
In extreme cases, there will be no gap at all (they’re touching) between Fret #2 and the guitar string, and the result is a dead fret… the guitar can’t even produce the note!
A guitar neck is warped when it curves sideways. A warped guitar neck is described when the neck is unbalanced and one side is lower than the other.
When looking down at a warped neck, you will notice that the frets look like a winding staircase.
A warped neck will cause problems with dead frets as it will alter the fret height and tension of the strings.
The cost of repairing a warped guitar neck can vary on the issue.
You can spend a lot of time trying to correct it only to make things worse. In most cases, the neck is irreparable thus warranting a full-neck replacement.
Resonant Dead Frets
Sympathetic resonance occurs when something vibrates and something nearby vibrates in response due to being ‘sympathetic’ to the same frequency. What this really means is that the second object responds to the first object and vibrates at the same frequency.
If for example, you have two tuning forks and strike one of them, the other tuning fork (being sympathetic to the same frequency) will also begin to vibrate.
Sympathetic resonance can be extremely powerful and even has to be factored into the design of buildings.
When it comes to guitar maintenance, a dead fret caused by sympathetic resonance occurs when you play a note and another part of the guitar vibrates at the same frequency, the energy from the note is depleted, forcing it to decay rapidly.
Of course, this can also go the other way, in the form of wolf notes. A wolf note is almost the exact opposite of a dead fret, expanding the overtone frequencies of a note, and making the note louder.
You can test whether sympathetic resonance is the cause of a dead fret (or wolf note) easily by simply detuning the string you are hearing the problem on and then rechecking the position of the dead fret.
If the location of the dead fret changes relative to the amount of tension placed on the string, you can safely rule out a physical issue such as uneven frets.
Fixing Sympathetic Resonance
In some cases, you can fix a dead fret caused by sympathetic resonance by changing the weight at the headstock. This may be fixed by adding something as simple as a clip-on tuner, changing the tuning pegs, or using a product specifically designed for this problem.
Fender makes one particular product known as the Fender Fatfinger, which is a weighted clamp designed to increase sustain and reduce the occurrence of dead frets.
In other cases, guitarists accept that guitars are made from wood, which being organic has unique characteristics that in some cases we need to work around e.g. becoming more proficient at muting/dampening. It really depends on the extent of the problem.
Another cause of dead frets is badly worn frets. This tends to occur on older guitars that have been played a lot.
Over time, one fret (usually in a position of the neck that is played most often), will become worn in comparison to its neighboring frets. In this instance it’s better to replace the fret rather than level the remaining frets to the same height.
Compared to a complete refret, swapping out one fret will be considerably less expensive.
In other cases, the top of the fret (the crown aka the bead) becomes worn increasing the surface area of the fret wire and creating a larger point of contact for the strings. This allows the string to vibrate against the fret wires, which in turn absorbs much of the energy of the note.
This won’t necessarily create a classic ‘dead note’ but it can create additional problems including fret buzz, poor intonation, and result in you going through guitar strings faster.
Ideally, your frets will be crowned to reduce the contact area at the top of the fret. Unless you know what you are doing and own the necessary tools (notched straight edge, fret file and/or leveling beam, crowning file, or 3 corner file) you will be best served to take your guitar to a luthier, or at least practicing fret dressing on an older, less valuable guitar.
Fret dressing is challenging work and requires a great deal of patience. It’s not something you should do on a guitar you value if you haven’t done it before.
If you take the guitar to a repairer or luthier they can assess the entire neck and let you know if the guitar would benefit from a complete fret dress e.g. leveling all the frets, along with crowning and polishing. Doing so helps the string glide over the fret wires when bending notes, making a guitar feel like new again.
In the majority of cases, a dead fret will be caused by a physical problem with the guitar’s fretboard, resulting in one fret sitting higher than its surrounding frets.
This can be caused by insufficient neck relief in which case you simply need to check the straightness of the neck and adjust your truss rod accordingly. Other causes include loose frets which we’ll address below and uneven frets due to the frets wearing at different rates.
Checking and Repairing Loose Frets
The simplest way to check for loose frets on your guitar’s fretboard is to take a small block of timber and press it firmly against the ends of the fret wires. If you detect any movement you have a loose fret.
In some cases these can be pressed back into place or tapped using a fret hammer (or small mallet), however, you may also need to apply superglue.
If doing this yourself, use thin super glue which will provide better penetration, and apply directly to the fret slot (the channel the tang of the fret wire is seated within) using a toothpick or similar small item. Take care not to get any glue on your fretboard by masking the area first.
If you have ruled out sympathetic resonance, the neck relief is fine, and you have checked for loose frets then the cause of your dead fret is likely to be an uneven fret caused by uneven fret wear.
This is perhaps the most common cause of dead frets and is simple enough to identify but you will require either a fret rocker or a short straight edge rule (you can also use a credit card if you have nothing else available).
Fret rockers are simple tools with three sides, all of different widths. The fret rocker spans three frets on the guitar’s neck. If the fret rocker can ‘rock’ back and forth at all, it means the middle fret is higher than the two outside frets.
When checking fret height, be sure to check each fret and run the fret rocker across the frets to ensure there are no uneven spots, rather than the entire fret being higher than its surrounding frets.
The three different lengths are used to span three frets as you move further up the neck. Generally, the longer side is used up to the 11th – 12th fret but once past the 12th fret as the frets become narrower you will need to use the two shorter sides of the rocker.
Fixing High Frets
Once you have identified the high fret, the height of the fret must be reduced to the same height as its surrounding frets. This can be done using a fret file, before crowning and polishing. But, unless experienced or working on a less valuable guitar, I would recommend taking your guitar to a luthier. Fretwork is specialist work and beyond the scope of this article.
If you haven’t done this type of work before you run the risk of causing damage, that would otherwise require a complete refret if you remove too much material.
But, if you have the necessary tools and have a less valuable guitar to practice on, be sure to protect the guitar’s fretboard by masking or utilizing fret guards (which sit on top of the fret and protect the surrounding fretboard).
Then file the fret down to the same height. Once done, take a 3 corner file or dedicated crowning file and begin to crown the fret to reduce the surface area at the point of contact for the strings.
Once done polish the frets using 1200 grit sandpaper, followed by super-fine grade steel wool.
I hope the information above helps you identify and repair dead frets. As previously mentioned, due to sympathetic resonance in some cases fixing dead frets is difficult and some guitarists choose to live with the problem. However, in the majority of cases, a dead fret will be caused by a high fret which as shown above can easily be identified using a fret rocker. If you enjoyed this article be sure to check out my other articles on acoustic guitar maintenance.
FAQ for What is a Dead Fret
How do find a dead fret?
Pull the note with your index finger on the smallest string, which is the first fret, and place your finger on the first string, which is the smallest string, at the first fret, and pluck the note. The next fret should be the dead fret, so ascend up the neck and play each note there until you find it.
What causes dead frets on an acoustic guitar?
There are times when the guitar neck tension and imbalance are interfering with the string’s vibration, or the tension on the neck is too tight. There are some factors that can cause dead frets on old guitar strings, such as the way they are intonationd. A bowed neck can catch strings on the lower frets if the neck is bowed too much.
What can do with a dead fret on an acoustic guitar?
A dead fret is a fret that does not produce the desired note when played. It can be caused by one of many things, including a guitar string being too high or too low on the fingerboard.
The first step is to identify the dead fret, which can be done by playing the guitar and listening for any notes that don’t sound right. Once you’ve identified it, you can take off the string and either move it up or down to find a more appropriate place for it to be. If none of these work, you’ll have to replace your strings with new ones.
What are the benefits of a dead fret on an acoustic guitar?
Dead fret is an extra fret put on an acoustic guitar to help the player produce higher notes.
The benefits of a dead fret on an acoustic guitar are:
1) The player can easily play higher notes.
2) The player can easily play chords in different positions.
3) The string tension is reduced.
4) It allows the player to easily reach high frets.
5) It reduces the need for string bending and finger stretching, which helps with speed and accuracy.
What are the drawbacks of installing a dead fret on an acoustic guitar?
A dead fret is a piece of material that is installed on an acoustic guitar to create a specific effect on the instrument. The drawbacks of installing a dead fret are that it can make the guitar sound dull. It also changes the way chords are played and makes it harder to play certain notes.
How does a dead fret on an acoustic guitar work?
A fret is a metal bar that is positioned on the fingerboard of an acoustic guitar. The strings are pressed down onto the fret, which changes the sound of the string.
A dead fret is a fret that has been used for so long that it can’t be played anymore.
How to fix a dead fret on an acoustic guitar?
What is the best way to fix dead guitar frets? Pull the note by plucking the index finger from the smallest string at the first fret. The block of wood should be placed on the next higher fret above the dead fret, just above the smallest string. At the dead fret, resolve the note.
Ways to remove deaf frets on an acoustic guitar?
If you are a guitar player, then you know the frustration of having to deal with dead frets. The solution is more than just replacing the strings that have gone dead. You have to remove the frets and then replace them with new ones.
There are a few techniques for removing frets, but they all require some patience and a steady hand. The first one is using sandpaper to file down the fretboard until it has been removed, but this can take hours because you need to be careful and not file too much at once. The second technique is using a metal scraper like an X-Acto knife or other metal blade that can be used to scrape away at the fretboard until it has been removed.
How much does it cost to fix a dead fret?
The material used to make steel frets is extremely hard, but it is considerably more expensive to replace. It is typical for a guitar refret to cost between $200 and $400. In most cases, fretdresses, which are typically between $50 and $100, can be used without a refret, and will solve most problems without the need for one.