Something to Fret About
Frets on Early C. F. Martin Guitars
Early Martin guitars have bar frets, which were made of a simple
straight length of nickel silver with a rectangular cross section.
The top was "crowned" to create a slight curvature to soften the sharp
right angles, while the side facing the fretboard was nicked slightly to
create small burrs that helped to keep them from coming loose.
Martin changed to "T" frets in 1934, at the same time as the
introduction of the steel rod, also in the shape of a "T".
Some folks find the bar frets to be a bit rougher on the fingers, with
their tall squarer profile, than T frets, which have a wide area on
top with a softer, more rounded contour. Those with experience
generally find they adapt to bar frets with time, and appreciate their
more precise fingering and sound.
Early Martins had no fingerboard reinforcement. An ebony rod
was added in the 1920's until the steel "T" rod, similar in
construction to the blade of a snow sled, appeared in 1934.
The "T" bar was replaced by a square tube in 1967.
Luthiers have often unknowingly replaced worn bar frets with T
frets, not knowing that the bar frets, exerting
a sideways pressure when wedged
into the fingerboard,
are a necessary part
of a system
keeps the neck straight without the use of a
In about 1977, Matt Umanov, in New York City,
suggested something innovative - "shimming the
frets" to correct the neck of my 1930 OM-28,
which was not only curved, but "wavy".
Since new bar fret material was no longer
available at the time, it was common for
luthiers to add shims underneath the
frets, to raise them enough to give them a
bit more life when the height of the frets
were worn down. Matt suggested something
different. He explained to me that
by adding extremely thin shims to the
sides of the frets, adding
width to the fret material would exert a pressure on the adjacent
fingerboard which will push the adjacent area of the neck downwards to
selectively affect areas of curvature of the neck.
In the years since, as bar fret material has become
available once again, a number of skilled luthiers have begun to keep
a supply of bar fret material in various widths which they can
carefully select for a "compression re-fret" to correct the curvature
of the neck.
1840's Martin Alternative X Spanish Guitar
T frets are also made of nickel silver, although brass frets were
used at times in 1945 when the wartime effort limited supplies.
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