What Is A Guitar Fret? How To Use Them

There are a lot of names that are important to know. Some of them are very significant, while others are not as crucial. The fret on a guitar is one of those important parts! But what is a guitar fret?

Guitar frets are the strips of metal you see all across your fingerboard. These are used to change the pitch of your strings and create notes. Using them requires pressing the string against the frets to change the sound they make.

Knowing all about this part can help you tremendously. It takes some practice to use them correctly and to know when they are in rough shape. But when you begin to understand how they work, you will be glad to have this knowledge. In this article, we will explore the fret!

What is a Guitar Fret?

A fret on a guitar is a raised element, normally metal, that is embedded into the fingerboard. They determine the correct pitch of a note when the strings are pressed against them. By segmenting the fingerboard into sections using frets, we are able to play notes precisely without being flat or sharp. This makes playing the guitar much easier.

Finger Board Diagram With Frets

Each one of these sections, or boxes, provides enough room to properly fret chords and notes. This allows the player to produce proper sounds thanks to the increased accuracy. If there were no frets at all, then proper finger placement would be more crucial. Chords might sound out of tune more often.

Each guitar has a scale length that allows for a certain number of frets on each neck. This provides plenty of versatility when it comes to chords or even solos.

There are a number of markers along with the fretboard. They help to determine their number and position. Using them as a reference when getting started can be a great help, so be sure to take advantage of them.

Do You Need Frets on a Guitar?

While the most common types of guitars have frets, they are not completely necessary! We see many guitars in pictures, and they always have them. But as we touched on earlier in the article, there are many models that do not have any.

The fretless guitars increase the range of sounds possible. This can create a more unique sound that is desirable in eastern music.

Here in the west, we primarily use frets as they have some advantages to the types of music we desire. They allow the player to accurately find notes much easier. This allows for better amplification and adds more sustain.

But for those who seek a more eastern music vibe, fret-less guitars might be your instrument. But just keep in mind, they require a greater skill level.

How to Use Guitar Frets

If you are new to the guitar, then learning where to press on the frets will come with time and practice. If you are pressing right on top of them, the sound will not be as clear and will normally lack sustain. When you press too far away, it will require more effort to keep it fretted. Without vibration or buzzing sounds, of course.

You will want to make sure to press right behind the frets to use them properly. This is essentially the sweet spot, and with some practice you will recognize this by sound and feel. Learning where to press on the strings to fret them will need to become second nature.

Use Your Finger Tips

When using frets, it’s very important to press them down with your fingertips. If you are fretting with the pad of your finger, it may interfere with other strings. This can mute parts of the chords, making them sound bad.

Sometimes you will need to use your pad or whole finger for things like barre chords. But if this is not the case, make sure to use your fingertips. This will help you get a clear sound and proper note pitch.

Proper Hand Posture

Another thing to watch for when fretting is hand posture. If you find yourself fretting with your pads, you may need to adjust the resting placement of your hand. It’s important to make sure you don’t develop bad habits in the beginning. Improper hand posture can be one of these.

So make sure to get used to fretting with your fingertips, straight up, elbow away from your body. Otherwise, it will make the playing angle too difficult to stretch your fingers.

Advantages of Frets

Guitar frets have many advantages. This is why most guitars come with frets. It’s very rare to see a guitar without frets, even though they do exist. Here are a few advantages of frets.

Frets Add Precision To Notes

Playing the guitar with no frets would require accuracy in order to play a guitar string note. Otherwise, the note might be flat or sharp.

This can be difficult unless you really get to know the fingerboard of a fretless instrument. This is possible, but takes some practice and has a rather steep learning curve. Is playing a fretless fingerboard less precise?

There are some advantages to playing without them. The range of sounds that are obtainable from a fretless instrument is much greater! In fact, some eastern music is only possible thanks to this instrument.

But to most guitar players, they are part of the appeal and magic of the instrument!

Frets Add Sustain

If you consider a violin or a stand-up bass which have no frets, they use a bow to play the strings. If you were to pluck a string on either of the two, you would notice the sound decay rather quickly. This bow is used to continually excite them and keep them vibrating.

The string pinched between the wooden board and the player’s finger causes the vibration to stop early. Now, if we consider the guitar string being pressed against a hard fret rather than a soft finger, it can vibrate much longer. This allows the note to ring out until it’s inaudible. This is guitar sustain.

To the guitarist, sustain is something we seek diligently! It’s a key element in playing certain styles! Without it, certain melodies that we know and love would not have the same appeal.

Better Playability

Most players don’t consider that frets contribute to how a guitar plays and feels. There are different sizes that can either benefit your play style or hinder it. It’s something that is overlooked when selecting a guitar.

Some are flat and low and require the string to be pressed right down to work properly. This can make it harder to bend as you have to press the string right down to the wooden fretboard. Low, flat frets feel very smooth as you move around the fingerboard.

On hard rock or metal-style guitars, you might find them to be taller. They don’t need you to press as hard. They make contact with the string before you touch the fingerboard. This might also give you a bit of a scalloped feel, but does require a lighter touch.

This in turn may be better for faster playing and great for easy bends. It’s always a good idea to test out a few guitars to get an idea of what you prefer. Every player has a preference, it’s just most of them assume frets are all the same.

Frets on a guitar neck

How Many Frets Does a Guitar Have?

Standard electric guitars will have between 20 and 24 frets, depending on the brand and model. Acoustic and classical models on the other hand have between 18 and 20 frets.

As you can see, the number ranges slightly between model types. Not only that, but even the same types of guitars vary in number slightly. Sometimes, even the same guitar model will have a different amount of frets. The only difference between them is the year of manufacture.

Fender Stratocaster Models

The Fender Stratocaster is one of those guitars that started with 21 initially. As time went on, the model was then made with 22. Today, with all the different Stratocaster types made by Fender and even Squier, you can find them with both 20 and 22 frets

Stratocaster ModelNumber of Frets
Fender American Professional II22
Fender Player22
Fender JV Modified 60s21
Squier Mini Stratocaster20
Squier Affinity Series21

Why Some Guitars Have 21 Frets

Back when Leo Fender began making electric guitars, he had designed them to have 21 frets. This then became the standard for a number of years for Fender guitars. Some people believe that he used 21 because it was easier to assemble.

Others believe it was because it was not necessary to have more. That 21 was more than anyone would ever need. And to some degree it’s true, most players don’t use the higher frets. But we don’t believe this was the reason.

Then there are others who say that he used 21 frets so that the neck pick-up would be in the sweet spot for a warmer tone. And we know that the neck pickup is a crucial part of lead sounds. Leo Fender was also an engineer, one would assume pickup placement was important to him.

Especially knowing the science behind string vibration and sound. Then others say, he simply ran out of neck pocket to place any more on the guitar. Whatever the reason, musicians made great music with those 21 frets! 

Guitars that have 21 frets:

  • Squier by Fender Classic Vibe 60s Stratocaster
  • Fender Vintera ’60s Stratocaster
  • Fender Limited Edition Player Telecaster
  • Squier by Fender Affinity Series Telecaster

Guitars With 22 Frets

Guitar Frets on a Rickenbacker Frying Pan

The very first guitar ever created was called the Rickenbacker Frying Pan. It was designed with 22 frets and every one of them was accessible thanks to the round body shape. As time went on, the electric guitar would change quite a bit. As we mentioned above, the 21 fret guitars Fender made would eventually take on an extra one. But why the change?

Guitars are designed for players. As artists became more advanced in technique, there was a need for the extra fret. And so this quickly became the standard. 22 of them is about as many as you can add before the neck pickup would need to be moved back toward the bridge.

This would affect the tone of the neck pickup, making it less warm sounding. But because the scale length would need to remain the same, the pickup would have to be moved. This would accommodate more frets.

On a guitar like a Fender Stratocaster or a Telecaster, 22 was plenty. And so the 22 frets were used until the 1970s.

Guitars that have 22 frets include:

  • Gibson Les Paul
  • Fender Stratocaster
  • Epiphone Coronet
  • ESP LTD EC-256

Differences Between 22 and 24 Fret Guitars

In the 1970s, the 24 fret guitars started to make more of an appearance. Music had started to change, and players had started to request more frets.

The guitar scale length hovered around 25 inches. 2 extra frets meant that the neck pickup would have to be moved toward the bridge.

The main difference between a 22 and 24 fret guitar is the pickup location. The neck would also be a bit longer on a 24 fret guitar. The longer neck was necessary to accommodate the 2 extra frets. But it came at the price of a slightly less warm tone from the new neck pickup position.

The warm tone is a result of the string vibration being strongest in the middle of the scale length. This lands roughly around the 12th fret. In order to capture this warm tone, the pickup needs to be placed as close to the neck as possible.

But the longer the neck becomes, the brighter your neck pickup tone will be. This is because it has to be moved farther away from the center or strongest point of vibration.

For some players, this didn’t matter, as the new brighter sound was a better fit for them. And it wasn’t a massive difference, at least not enough to radically change the sound. So it was a good trade-off.

Guitars That have 24 include:

  • Schecter Omen Extreme 6
  • Squier Showmaster
  • Charvel DK24
  • PRS Custom 24-08

Acoustic Guitar Frets

Acoustics differ greatly when it comes to the number of frets that are possible to play. An acoustic guitar’s body is much larger than that of an electric one. This makes it hard to reach any frets that are higher up the neck. 18 to 20 frets are pretty much standard on a steel-string acoustic guitar because of the body size.

While some acoustic guitars do have cutaways in the body, this is the limit. After this, the body makes it too hard to play, so any additional frets are just not worth having.

A few examples of some acoustics guitars:

Acoustic GuitarNumber of Frets
Taylor Big Baby20
Washburn R314KK18
Gibson Hummingbird20
Taylor 214ce18
Martin SC-13E20

Guitar Fret Maintenance

Frets, like strings, break down over time. And as this begins to happen, they develop buzz, intonation issues, and discomfort.

This is something that happens over time and can be hard to diagnose if you get used to it. But once they break down, they flatten, develop indents and begin to vibrate.

So it’s always a good idea to inspect them when changing your strings. This will at least give you an indication that they are deteriorating.

Fret wire is commonly made from nickel silver, and players who press hard may go through them quickly. Stainless steel is also an option, which is harder and smoother than nickel silver. They will last longer and should be considered if you press harder than most players.

Some people say that stainless steel frets sound different from nickel silver. So it’s best to test on a guitar equipped with them before changing over. This way, you are not putting your neck in danger by changing them too often.

Conclusion

What is a guitar fret? This is a pretty important little piece of the instrument. Without it, we wouldn’t quite have the same experience as we do today. Some of the most amazing solos and chord progressions are a result of that little fret. And while it isn’t a dynamic piece, it needs to be checked regularly for optimal results.

So test out a few guitars and see what style you like best for your music. Now that you know a bit more about the fret, it could change your experience as a player!

Photo of author

Don East

My name is Don East, I'm the editor for Killer Rig. I've been playing guitar for over 20 years and have designed and manufactured products like guitar amps, effects pedals, and more. Over the years I have played in many bands and have a deep love for quality gear. I am an electrical engineer and have a passion for music gear, and now want to share what I know with the community!