Frets are one of the most easily overlooked parts of the guitar. As guitarists, we tend to put the focus on guitars, amps, pedals, pick-ups, and strings, but frets can be a very important part of the musical equation. You may be surprised to learn that your fret material actually has a big impact on your playing.
Today, we’ll be talking all about fret material—nickel silver vs stainless steel frets, to be specific—and what advantages and disadvantages come with each, as well as what role different types of strings can play when it comes to your frets. So don’t fret about frets; we have you covered!
Nickel Silver Frets
Nickel silver frets have been the standard for a long time and are still the default for most guitars. While the new stainless frets may catch your eye, don’t overlook what nickel silver frets have to offer.
The main difference between nickel and stainless frets is feel. Nickel frets have more “drag” or resistance, which is especially noticeable when bending or sliding up or down the fretboard. Though this may sound like a disadvantage, it comes down to preference. Many players feel that stainless steel frets are too slick and prefer the slight resistance of nickel frets.
Another advantage of nickel frets is that they are easier on the wallet, at least up front. Nickel frets are cheaper to purchase, and they are also cheaper to repair. Because nickel is on the softer side, it is easier for technicians to work on them. Crowning the frets and removing grooves can be done more quickly, meaning it is less expensive to get done. They are also easier to install and replace, again saving you some money.
Lastly, tying into feel, many players like the feeling of partially worn frets. Since nickel frets are softer and wear quicker (which we’ll get to later), they can be a great choice if you like slightly worn frets. Stainless frets are much harder and wear very slowly, so it could take a very long time to get your frets worn in how you like.
All that said, there’s also a reason that stainless steel frets have gotten so popular, so let’s take a look at the disadvantages of nickel silver frets.
The main disadvantage of nickel silver frets is that they wear more quickly. The materials used in nickel silver frets (nickel, copper, and zinc) make them relatively soft, so they will develop grooves and divots more quickly. Though some players prefer that feel (as mentioned above), most players seem to prefer fresh frets without much wear. Depending on how hard you are on your frets, you may find yourself needing to get your nickel silver frets dressed more than you’d like.
Since they wear more quickly, that also means more trips to the guitar shop, which means more money. We all know how fast guitar repair bills can add up, and nickel silver frets don’t help with that. Over a long period of time, nickel frets can actually end up being more expensive despite the cheaper upfront cost.
Bringing up feel again, many players do not like the feel of nickel silver frets. When compared to stainless frets, nickel frets have more resistance and drag. Some prefer this, and some don’t. Depending on your personal preferences, this could be a huge disadvantage of nickel silver frets.
Stainless Steel Frets
Stainless steel frets are the new face on the block, and they have quickly gained popularity. A significant number of higher end guitars now come with them, so let’s try to see what all the fuss is about with stainless steel frets.
The biggest advantage of stainless steel frets is that they are more durable than nickel silver frets. Because stainless steel is a much tougher material, it takes noticeably longer for them to wear down and develop divots and grooves. Stainless frets can be played heavily for a long period of time without requiring any maintenance. Besides being more convenient, that saves you money in the long run as well.
The other main advantage has to do with feel. Stainless frets are described as being more smooth, silk, and effortless than nickel frets. Bending and sliding are both much easier and require less effort since the frets provide less resistance than nickel frets. Though some players may not like that slick feeling, a lot of players love the way stainless steel frets feel. They can actually change your playing as well. Since bending and sliding are easier, you may find yourself trying new things and playing a bit differently than you would with nickel silver frets.
Though stainless steel frets can be more costly at first, they can also save you money in the long run. They’re actually similar to LED lightbulbs—you may pay more for them at first, but the savings adds up over time. Since stainless frets require significantly less maintenance and upkeep, you will avoid countless trips to the repair shop. If you can afford the cost up front, you’ll save later on.
While that all may make stainless steel frets sound like a no brainer, they do come with some disadvantages as well.
The first downside of stainless steel frets is that they are more difficult (and therefore more costly) to work on. Since stainless is a harder material, they require different tools to properly work on them. They also make tools wear more quickly, which means your tech will likely charge more. Refrets and repairs are more expensive, though that is balanced out by needing fewer repairs. Still, it is a disadvantage that they are more difficult and costly to repair or replace.
Another disadvantage, though based on preference, is the feel. As discussed before, stainless frets can feel slick and slippery. Though many prefer this, many players do not like the feeling at all and want to stick with nickel silver frets. It all depends on your personal preference, but it is still something to keep in mind.
This last point is one of much debate, but it should still be mentioned regardless. Many claim that stainless steel frets wear out strings more quickly. Logically, it does make sense; stainless is a harder metal than nickel silver, so the strings should wear out sooner. That said, many also say they have noticed no difference in their strings’ lifespan when switching to stainless frets. Another counterpoint is that most players change their strings due to corrosion and loss of tone long before they would be worn out from the frets. Regardless, it is still an ongoing debate that deserves to be mentioned here.
It also relates to the next topic of discussion—how string type can impact fret wear on both nickel silver and stainless steel strings.
String Type and Fret Wear
Just like frets, strings are made from different materials as well. As you’d expect, those different strings types can wear your frets more or less depending on their hardness and the hardness of the fret. Let’s quickly cover the main types of strings and how they impact fret wear for both nickel and stainless frets.
80/20 and Phosphor Bronze
These are the two main types of acoustic guitar strings, and they both have a similar impact on fret wear, regardless of fret type—minimal. Both are made from metals that are on the softer side, so they don’t wear down your frets that much. Given a long enough period of time they can cause wear, but it’s minimal when compared to other string types.
Nickel strings also have a relatively small impact on fret wear, though more so than 80/20 or phosphor bronze strings. When it comes to nickel frets, nickel strings will wear them down. They are the same material and level of hardness, so wear is inevitable. With stainless steel frets though, the wear is reduced. Stainless is much harder than nickel, so it will take longer for the strings to actually wear the frets.
As you’d expect, stainless steel strings cause the most amount of wear to your frets. Since nickel is significantly softer than stainless, nickel frets can get worn down very quickly by stainless steel strings. With stainless steel frets however, there is less wear. They are the same hardness, so they will wear but at a slower rate than if you had nickel frets.
Though fret material may be the last thing on your mind when trying to improve your set-up, they can have a big impact. Stainless steel frets are more costly upfront, but they last longer and can save you money in the long run. They also provide a slick and smooth feeling that players either love or hate. Nickel silver frets are cheaper at first but wear quickly, resulting in more repair bills. However, many players prefer the feel of nickel silver frets.
Like nearly everything we talk about here, it ultimately comes down to your preference. If you want long lasting and minimal maintenance frets that feel slick, stainless is the way to go. And if you like slightly worn frets or prefer some resistance when bending and sliding, nickel silver frets are for you. We recommend going to your local guitar shop and trying out some guitars with both to see what you prefer. And as always, string up your guitar with some Stringjoy strings for the best tone and feel possible!
I have nickel frets on my guitar. For some reason I am CONSTANTLY having to have my high E and B frets dressed, as opposed to my lower register frets which I think would be the more common repair. I am getting a bad buzz on my high E in A LOT of spots across the fretboard and some in the high B. I’m having to get them dressed every 6 months or so.