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The good and bad of vintage size frets

Fender American Vintage 65 Stratocaster

You really have to know what you're in for with this fret size before buying a guitar that has them.

Above is the Fender American Vintage '65 Stratocaster. Its specifications state that its fret size is "vintage-style".

What does that mean? Small frets, just like Fender (along with many other guitar companies) used to make them.

The good and bad of vintage size frets

I'll list the good stuff first and then the bad stuff.

Good: Chorder's choice

Smaller frets make for a very comfortable electric guitar to chord on. Guys and gals who only play cowboy chords and never go past the 5th fret get along just fine with smaller frets.

Good: You can actually feel the fretboard wood

Something vintage size frets does allow for is the fingers to actually feel the fretboard wood; this is especially noticeable with your index finger when holding down barre chords. What you will notice is that on a modern electric with medium jumbo size (or larger) frets, all you feel on the index finger when holding a barre chord is steel from the strings. When holding the same style chord on an electric with vintage size frets, you will be able to actually feel fretboard wood between the strings with your index finger...

...and does that really matter? It does if you chord often, as it can add in an additional level of comfort when playing.

Bad: Fretting out

Vintage size frets are no-bend territory for the most part. And by that I mean string bends beyond 1 semitone. This is the #1 reason why guitar players don't use small frets.

When you buy a vintage-style electric guitar, such as the '65 Strat above, what you get is small frets installed into a really round fretboard. That combination will lead straight to no-bend territory.

Yes, you can set your action low, use string vibrato and so on, but try to go past a 1 semitone bend (especially on the higher frets) and the notes will "squeak" right out. That's just the way it is.

Bad: Fret buzz

This is the #2 reason why many guitar players don't like the vintage fret size.

A perfectly set up vintage reissue Fender like the '65 Strat above will buzz. Expecting a 100% vintage-spec Fender or Gibson electric to be completely buzz-free, while certainly not impossible, is unrealistic; this is something you just have to accept.

Chances are you probably watch guitar video demos on YouTube from time to time. For demos of true vintage or reissue vintage electrics, you'll notice a lot of players won't play "clean" and use overdrive on everything. Why? To specifically avoid fret buzz. Overdrive and distortion hides buzzy sounding frets very easily.

For videos on YouTube that are like that, I squarely blame the player and not the guitar. One who knows how to play on vintage size frets properly can do so with very little fret buzz heard. One who doesn't know will of course grab a pick that's 2mm thick, crank up the overdrive and bang away on the strings like an idiot.

What can you do to get along with vintage size frets better?

1. Use a thinner, flappier pick

I just tried Fender California Clear picks recently, and those are pretty darned good. Nice attack, very flappy. The medium thickness in particular is amazing.

If however your fingers sweat a lot and you need something with better grip, try Dunlop Tortex in the thinner sizes of .50mm (red) and .60mm (orange). The .73mm (yellow) is one you probably already know. That one is too thick. Try something a little thinner when playing a guitar with vintage size frets.

Why bother with thinner, flappier picks? You get good string ring with less string strike, meaning less fret buzz.

2. Use thicker strings

Since you're in no-bend territory, bump up a string size. This will require setting up your guitar again (truss rod adjustment, saddle height adjustment, and so on), but the thicker strings in combination with a thinner pick really does make a difference.

To note: This is not a string buzz cure. But it should give you a little more volume, and that helps when using a thinner pick.

3. Stop soloing and don't fear fret buzz

Here's a tidbit of info that will make you think.

A modern "perfect" guitar is the Ibanez GRX20. I'm not kidding.

That very cheap guitar has a thin neck, big frets, a fretboard with a super-flat 16-inch radius and has a pair of high-output humbuckers that, obviously, don't hum.

The GRX20 is modern electric guitar perfection. Yes, really. No fret buzz, no pickup hum, easy soloing; it's all there, and cheap! The dream has been realized! Right?

Maybe not. The guitar has the same problem with every guitar built for rock or metal. No personality. Sure, you get a guitar that totally works and does the job it's supposed to do, but the instrument doesn't inspire you to play, and neither will any other electric specifically built for rock of metal.

Then there's the Fender '65 AV Strat. Not perfect. Quite imperfect, in fact. And expensive. The pickups aren't "hot". Pickup selector positions 1, 3 and 5 will, of course, have hum noise. And there's the little frets that will buzz...

...but the guitar has loads of personality to it. Or at least it will in the hands of the right player who knows how to wield one.

If you play a '65 AV Strat or any other vintage reissue Fender, yes you will be dealing with a quirky mess of an instrument. That guitar will essentially force you to stop doing crazy soloing and come up with different ways of playing to keep the fret buzz to a minimum. And I honestly don't consider that a bad thing.

Guitars with personality and character are what make you keep playing. If you play one with little vintage size frets on it, yeah, you will have to get used to it...

...but it might end up being the most fun guitar you ever own.

Published 2016 Oct 7

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