Oftentimes, players may notice that their guitar makes a buzzing or lack of sound when certain notes are played. This can often be caused by a dead fret. What is a dead fret, you may ask? This is a lifeless buzz sound of a note in a specific position on the fingerboard that does not resonate properly. This doesn’t mean that a whole string isn’t sounding right, but just one note.
As far as dead frets go, there is a lot to know about them. Many guitarists have questions along the lines of what causes them, or whether they can be fixed.
In order to know the answers to these questions, you first must understand the basics of your guitar. How it makes the sound, what a fret is and does, how it interacts with your strings, etc. Once you have this preliminary knowledge, you’ll be able to approach fixing the issue of a dead fret.
It’s not something to be left unfixed, as it can seriously hamper not only the sound of your playing, but your ability to play many songs and notes as well. This is why it’s as important as possible to not only get them fixed, but also prevent them from happening as well.
What is a Dead Fret?
So, now that you know how important it is to fix a dead fret, what is it? As mentioned above, it’s a singular fret (the metal strips laid into the wood of your guitar’s neck) that is causing the string to not resonate properly.
A dead fret is not when a whole string isn’t resonating or is buzzing.
For example, if you’re playing the G note that is on the third-fret of your E string, and it isn’t quite resonating the way it usually does, try the next one up, which is the G# on the fourth-fret. If this note also sounds funny, it’s probably an issue with the string, not the fret.
However, if the note on the same fret on a different string, for example, the C on the third of the A-string, is also not working, this is a telltale sign. You may have a dead fret on your hands.
Dead Fret on New Guitar
If you have just taken possession of a new guitar and a string sounds lifeless when fretted, then you need to contact the retailer and get it fixed. A new instrument should never have issues like this and are a possible sign of a bigger issue. Like we mentioned above, there are a few reasons why this might happen.
But if it is a new guitar, then it could have taken damage in shipping that may not be evident. In this case, don’t try and fix it yourself, but take it back to the merchant where it can be properly looked at and resolved.
What Does a Dead Fret Sound Like?
The one way to know if you have a fret issue is when the guitar string sounds dead when fretted. This can be described as:
- Note can’t be heard when played
- Decays very rapidly
- Has a very tinny buzz sound and no sustain
These sounds are very evident and are very frustrating for a guitarist. Once this starts to happen, either a refret is required or a leveling service.
What Causes Dead Frets
There are a number of ways that a dead fret can occur. Make sure to look out for all of these things if you suspect that you have a dead fret on your guitar.
First, you could have uneven or loose frets. A guitar’s string needs to vibrate clearly and without interference. However, if that fret or another one near it is loose and touching the string lightly, it could make it sound muted or buzz badly. This creates the dead fret sound, as the string’s vibration is being interfered with.
Your guitar’s fretboard could also be warped. There could be a hump somewhere along the neck that is interfering with the proper vibration of the string. This, similarly to a loose fret, can cause that awful sound. It is quite common for guitar necks to bow or for fretboards to become arched or humped.
As mentioned above, a bowed neck could be the issue. This isn’t just the fretboard, but the rest of the neck as well. This often means your truss rod (the metal rod inside your guitar’s neck) needs to be adjusted.
Finally, your strings just might be too old! Old strings can be shaped irregularly and sound unclean. This would lead to a similar muted or buzzing on certain guitar frets, causing them to sound dead. This is far and away the easiest issue of all to fix, and should be a part of regular guitar maintenance.
There is another cause of a dead fret that is somewhat rare and strange but worth mentioning, especially if they look good. Sympathetic resonance occurs when a note is played and the vibration from it causes another part of the instrument to vibrate at the same pitch.
When the two parts vibrate together at the same frequency, they cancel each other out by absorbing the energy, causing a lack of sustain, or a dead note sound.
This is more common in acoustic and hollow body guitars, but should be considered when chasing down a dead fret. This is normally caused by loose hardware or bracing, nuts, bridges or the wood the guitar is made with. The humidity levels changing can cause this as the guitar dries out. This can be hard to track down, but there are a few things you can do to see if this is the cause.
Down Tune The String
First thing to try is to down tune the string causing the issue. You want to change the pitch of the string so that it won’t resonate at the same frequency when the note is played. Simply tuning the string down half a step to start is fine. Once you do, play the note at the same fret. If it doesn’t die off or buzz like it did before, you have a sympathetic resonance issue.
If it does die off again like before, tune the string down another step and try again. If it dies off, then it’s a fret, neck relief or action issue that needs to be inspected further. However, if it is full of sustain like you would expect, then you need to find the offending part.
Do Some Maintenance
Doing some proper maintenance can’t hurt, and so you should snug up all steel fasteners and inspect the parts for looseness. If it is loose bracing inside the guitar body, then you may want to get a professional with the right tools involved. Glue joints may also be failing, which will need to be fixed before any further damage results.
You also might want to consider if the wood has dried out, causing the sympathetic resonance issues. Sometimes it can be in the body or even the headstock. You can try to clip a tuner onto the headstock to see if that fixes the problem, as it is common for this to happen here. But you should also check the humidity of your guitar. Start with the environment it is stored in, this will tell you if perhaps it is too dry.
How to Fix Dead Notes
There are ways to fix each of the issues listed above, so worry not if you have a fret that isn’t quite cooperating!
If you think a fret is loose, you must identify which one. Lightly jiggle each one with your fingers until you find the culprit. Then, remove your strings and place a towel under your guitar’s neck to cushion it.
After that, take a plastic, brass, or rubber hammer and lightly knock the loose fret back into its seated position. If it doesn’t go back in snugly, you may have a cracked or warped fretboard to worry about.
If your fretboard is warped, there is the option to file down your frets. You can also get a new neck or fretboard. Reshaping a warped fretboard can be very risky, especially for inexperienced guitar tinkerers. This is often better left to professional luthiers.
If your guitar’s neck is bowed or angled, first take a capo and clamp down on the first fret, then press down the 14th.
Place a card at the 7th fret and see if it touches the strings. If it doesn’t, you have a truss rod to adjust! In order to adjust it, take an Allen wrench and twist right to make it tighter, and left to make it looser.
If your guitar neck is warped or bowed too much (as in the wood itself) it will need to be replaced completely.
Dead fret Summary
It’s important to make sure that you are taking care of dead frets for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s to make sure your guitar can do what it does best, play notes! However, that’s not the only reason.
A dead fret can often be a sign of deeper problems, such as issues with the neck, fretboard, truss rod, and other parts of the guitar. If you can catch these issues early, they will be less expensive to fix, and oftentimes you can save your guitar!
Take dead frets not as a minor inconvenience, but as a sign that something could be wrong with your guitar, and you should try to fix it before it can’t be at all.