If you are hearing dead spots on your guitar neck e.g. a ‘dead’ note that can’t be heard when the note is fretted, decays rapidly or you only hear a buzzing sound, chances are you have a dead fret. And, while it may sound more dramatic than it actually is, the truth is dead frets can almost always be resurrected. In the following article, we’ll discuss the most common causes of dead frets and show you how to fix them.
What causes dead frets?
Dead frets can have numerous causes. In most cases, it is due to the next highest fret on the guitar’s neck being higher than the fret wire of the note being played. As a result, when fretting a note the guitar string will vibrate against the higher fret and the note being played won’t be heard or results in just a buzzing sound. Other causes include loose frets or insufficient neck relief. Another cause can be the guitar dampening specific frequencies (sympathetic resonance) which can be fixed in some cases by applying weight to the headstock changing the way the neck vibrates.
We’ll cover fret maintenance and common causes of dead frets in more detail below, starting with perhaps the least obvious, sympathetic resonance.
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 the second object responds to the sound waves created by 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 the guitar, a dead fret caused by sympathetic resonance occurs when you play a note and another component of the guitar vibrates at the same frequency, absorbing the energy of the note, and forcing the note 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, 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 a high fret.
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 tuners themselves, 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 and how much it bothers you.
Another cause of dead frets is badly worn frets. This tends to occur on older guitars that have been played extensively. Over time, one fret that sees more action than others, will become worn in comparison to it’s neighbouring frets. In this instance it’s better to replace the fret rather than level the remaing frets to the same height, and compared to a complete refret will be considerably less expensive if you take the guitar to a luthier.
In other cases the the top of the fret (the crown aka the bead) wears down increasing the surface area of the fret wire and creating a larger point of contact for the strings, thus allowing the string to vibrate against the fret wire absorbing much of the energy of the note. This wont neccessarily create a classic ‘dead note’ but it can create additional problems including fret buzz, poor intonation, and cause you to go through guitar strings faster. All things considered, it just makes the guitar less enjoyable to play.
Ideally, your frets will be crowned to reduce the contact area at the top of the fret. Unless you know what you are doing (we’ll publish an article on fret dressing in the future) and own the necessary tools (notched straight edge, fret file and/or levelling beam, crowning file or 3 corner file) you will be best served taking your guitar to a luthier, or at least practicing fret dressing on an older, less valued guitar. Fret dressing is challenging work and not something you should do on a guitar you value if you haven’t done it before.
If you take the guitar to a luthier they can assess the entire neck and let you know if the guitar would benefit from a complete fret dress e.g. levelling all the frets and crowning and polishing which 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 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, taking care not to get any glue on your fretboard by masking the area first.
If you have ruled out sympathetic resonance, don’t believe insufficient neck relief to be the problem, and checked for loose frets then the cause of your dead fret is likely to be an uneven fret due to the frets wearing unevenly, causing one fret to be higher.
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 (you can also use a credit card if you have nothing else available).
Fret rockers are simple tools with three sides, all at different widths. The fret rocker must span three frets on the guitar’s neck. If the fret rocker can move or ‘rock’ back and forth at all, it means the middle fret is higher than the two outside frets. When performing this job, 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 go higher up the neck. Generally, the longer side is used up to the 11th – 12th fret but once past the 12th fret as the frets are 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 it’s 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, and you do run the risk of causing damage, that would otherwise require a 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) and then file the fret down to the same height. Next, taking a 3 corner file or dedicated crowning file begin to crown the fret to reduce the surface area at the point of contact for the strings before polishing the fret using 1200 grit sandpaper, followed by super-fine grade steel wool. Keep in mind, in most cases becoming competent at fretwork requires many, many hours of practice.
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, or if you don’t have one available a credit card or similar item. Once the fret is identified, it’s up to you whether you attempt to repair the fret yourself or take the guitar to a luthier but keep in mind, unless you have experience doing fretwork you can damage the guitar resulting in an expensive refretting job so only tackle if experienced or happen to be working on an old guitar you don’t particularly value.