See that? That’s gross. It looks bad and it can rob your tone. Think about it: frets are the only thing other than your hands that strings touch during play. Of course you don’t want your shiny new strings grinding up on corrosion and rust! That’s nasty!
This isn’t the worst build-up I’ve ever seen, but I should be embarrassed; this was the condition of the frets on my 1973 Fender Precision Bass earlier today. which I set about cleaning up. How could I–a handsome, witty and gainfully-employed guitar technician–let it get that far? Well, Dear Reader, I’ll tell you.
Over the last year, I found myself playing more bass than ever: I was holding down the low end in a female-fronted dance rock outfit, tracking bass for my then-main gig, picking up the occasional bass part in an Alt-Country band when the bass player would switch to Dobro, and I was starting to sit in with a few friends that were performing live and tracking an album. I was pretty busy for a guy that doesn’t call himself a bassist!
During that time, it became clear to me that my bass was due for a fret dressing. Buzzing on my most-used frets became a constant problem, and fretting my low E on the 8th fret nearly choked off the note. I’d used the bass quite a lot, so I wasn’t all that surprised. Trouble was, my friends doing the album tracking needed me in the studio over the weekend, but they didn’t let me know until Tuesday. I wasn’t about to go to a studio with an instrument that frets out, so later in the week I found time to squeeze in a quick fret job.
And I mean quick; if this were a customer’s instrument, I would have taken the time to perfectly crown and polish each fret to a mirror shine, but because I was in a rush I decided I could live with just kissing the tops of the frets and leaving them rough with just a spit-shine for looks. (Not literally) I planned on getting around to finishing, but as life sometimes goes I never found the time. At this point it’s been months since I picked up my bass, so when I opened its case this morning and found the frets in this condition my OCD kicked in immediately. Today was the day.
That’s what it should look like: smoothed-out and round with a mirror shine. Wonderful, right? After I re-rounded few frets, I used Micro-Mesh Soft Touch Finishing Pads, available at Stew-Mac.com. Easier to use than the usual sandpaper steps and cleaner than steel wool, these pads have become a daily staple in my guitar repair diet. I use them on everything from finishes to frets, and they’re great for polishing a freshly-cut bone nut or blending drop fills on finishes. Hate the way your hand sticks to a nitro-finished neck? They’re great for that, too!
I strung the bass back up with the old set (I like ’em worn-in) after I cleaned the strings with some denatured alcohol. Immediately my bass felt better, and notes sounded cleaner with reduced string noise. This made for a more lively playing experience, and I didn’t feel like I had to wash my hands after playing. There’s nothing like smooth, shiny frets. My bass is happy.
This makes an even bigger difference on guitar, where whole note bends and plain strings are the norm. Next time you change strings, take a moment to polish your frets. You’ll be able to bend and gliss to your heart’s content without getting caught up on corrosion and you may even find that your strings last longer.
Caution: If you’re going to use steel wool, make sure to mask off your pickups. Steel wool fibers can easily work their way into your pickups, shorting them out and completely ruining your day.