[NOTE: We no longer use the neck jig, and have moved on to using a PLEK machine for all of our fretwork. Read about it here: strangeguitarworks.com/plek]
Today I did some fretwork on a Gene Simmons Punisher bass. I am told that there were only 1500 of these made, individually signed and numbered by Gene Simmons himself, and sold exclusively through Hot Topic (where all the non-conformists shop!).
This bass guitar had been, well… punished over the years, by an obviously enthusiastic player. The action was uneven all over the neck, it was fretting out on some notes, and had some problems with the electronics. Your intrepid guitar tech recommended leveling the frets, and with the go ahead from the client, it was time to get to work.
For the purposes of this particular blog post, I’m going to focus on the fretwork aspect of this job. First, it’s important to understand that an instrument is only as good as it’s fretwork, and if the frets aren’t perfectly level all the way up and down the neck, it’s simply not going to play it’s best. The frets need to be even to a tolerance of about .01mm in order to play clean, and one simply can’t just guess that the work is good enough – accurate measurements are necessary.
I do all my fretwork on my custom neck jig I built. This contraption allows me to work on the neck under actual playing conditions – here’s how it works: First, after all initial measurements are taken, I remove the strings, wax the fretboard, and wick water thin super glue under the frets. This is done to make sure the frets stay put during the fret level, and guarantees that they’re not going to lift out later.
The guitar is then strung back up to pitch, and then it’s strapped in to the neck jig. It’s rotated into playing position, and the neck is adjusted using the truss rod to get it as straight as possible. I check for straightness against a Starret straightedge, and then zero out the dial indicators which read the neck in six different places.
Then I flip the bass back to working position, remove all the strings, and then using a scissor jack and the neck supports, I reposition the neck back to the exact shape it was in in playing position, referring back to the dial indicators zero point. This guarantees accurate fretwork – guitar necks do strange things when the strings are removed, and the neck jig eliminates any variables.
Now I use a full length leveling beam, with some abrasive on one side, and slowly and carefully sweep it across the frets, which levels them all down to the same height.
You can see in this picture that the leveling beam has hit the two adjacent frets evenly, but is missing a section of the middle fret. This was a problem area, and was buzzing like crazy – the middle fret was too low, and was causing the string to fret out on the next fret.
After all the fret tops are touched by the beam, it’s time to recrown them back to their proper round shape. I use a diamond coated fret file for this, which makes the work deceptively simple – I have to be very careful to crown them evenly without ruining the previous work done leveling the frets.
Once the frets are properly crowned, I polish the frets with increasingly fine grits of sandpaper, then steel wool, and finally with a buffing wheel. It not only makes them look nice, but polished frets are easier to play and bend strings on.
With the frets perfectly leveled, I can do a no-compromises setup. Impossibly low action becomes possible – each note speaks cleanly, and string bends don’t fret out. Even if you think your guitar is perfect, chances are it could use some degree of fretwork. Give it a shot – you might not even know what you’re missing.
Man, this bass plays great. I would totally rock this at my next blues gig…