Pitting of fretwires, also referred to as formation of divots, is as common a wear-and-tear problem as the disappearance of tread from your car’s tyres.
Irrespective of how much or how little you play, sooner or later, divots will form on the fretwires and it is pretty normal. Interestingly, you would have noticed that pitting takes place primarily on the thinner three strings. Why? Try cutting an apple with a knife and then try cutting it with a butter knife. The thinner the point of contact, the easier it is to cut through. The same principle applies to guitar (acoustic and electric) treble strings and fretwires.
Of those three strings, you will invariably find that the ‘B’ string makes the deepest and quickest divots. That is due to the nature of the ‘B’ string: plain steel and comparatively thick (in comparison to the ‘e’). And after the ‘B’ string, you’re most likely to find divots along the path of the ‘e’ string, and then the ‘G’ string.
The phenomenon is hastened on due to the quality of fretwire used (in India). It is the softest, and thus, the most vulnerable to pitting. Basically, fretwire, the world over, is available in three varieties: stainless steel, right at the top, cupro-nickel at the other end, and Evo Gold coming in between.
With stainless steel fretwire, one can go for a decade or even more before divots start appearing. However, the interesting bit is that stainless steel is so tough as fretwire that luthiers pass it on for other options. It is expensive too. It is a well documented fact that luthiers complain that putting in stainless steel frets on just one guitar, renders their tools useless! In its favour, you can really shine up stainless steel frets.
On the other end of the spectrum is cupro-nickel fretwire (majorly used in India). It is soft and cheap, and thus, a favourite among guitar manufacturers in India and most parts of the world.
Evo Gold is a gold-coloured fretwire and in terms of hardness and cost, falls in between stainless steel and cupro-nickel fretwire.
All this long-winding introduction to let you know that the all-steel ‘B’ string easily bites into cupro-nickel fretwire, leaving divots all along the fretboard, wherever you play most. It’s very simple actually. You play less, you’ll see divots on your fretwires much later down the line. You play a lot, you will see them much earlier.
How harmful are divots on fretwire?
They are and they aren’t! If you do a lot of bends, pitted fretwires can hamper your playing big time. Also, if you like to create that vibrato effect just with finger pressure, that too is bound to suffer with pitted frets. On the other hand, if you just play cowboy chords, I don’t think that the divots will hamper you too much, though some players can feel inhibited by them.
In any case, my understanding of the issue is that once the tread disappears from your car’s tyres, you either get them re-treaded or you buy new tyres! And why should fretwire be any different?
However, while replacing bald tyres with new ones makes complete sense from the safety point-of-view, pitted fretwire is not a life-and-death situation. You do not have to get fretwires replaced at the first sign of pits appearing. In fact, you only replace fretwire which has been worked on half-a-dozen times and the fretwire has been ground almost to the fretboard. You can easily go to an ‘experienced‘ (can’t emphasise that word enough) tech and have the divots removed.
Removing the divots – the process
Unless if the divots are in the process of being formed, working on fretwires is a slow and tedious process demanding lots of concentration.
You first work with a flat file to bring all the fretwires to the same level.
The file that I use is actually T-shaped hardened steel, very straight and very flat, on the face of which I put sandpaper.
Once you know that all the fretwires have been levelled, then comes time to put the radius back into the fretwires.
And that is done with a block of wood (called radius block) that has the same radius as that of the fretboard.
Yes! The saddle, the fretboard and the nut should have the same radius for your (acoustic) guitar to respond to a feather touch. And so, depending upon the radius of your fretboard you choose the corresponding radius block, throw on sandpaper and give it a few passes.
Once these steps have been completed you will see the fretwires are pretty flat on the top. A little crowning file remedies that
Once the frets get crowned, the hard work begins. All these files and blocks were to remove the pits and make the fretwires uniform.
If you look closely at unfinished fretwires you will notice the gravely look to them very easily. Unless each fretwire is worked on individually (that is the operative word) with various grits of sandpaper you can never get each fretwire polished properly.
Once that is through the cutting and polishing compounds take over, giving that much-talked-about glass-like feel to the fretwires that makes strings really slide over them.
It is a very satisfying feeling to have a customer go “Wow”, just looking at the fretwires, but then, it does create a hole in the pocket!