Big frets vs smaller frets (influence on playability)

I have been playing a Fender MIM 2015 Strat for the past few years (bought new). I am very happy with the setup and the playability. When I play it I don’t think about things “being in the way”; you know, the feeling when you pick a guitar that is very different than what you are used to.

Recently I bought a Fender American Performer Strat (the one in my profile pic), because I liked the sound and the tonal capabilities (humbucker to single-coil switch, Yosemite pickups and greasebucket tone circuit).

However, at the moment of buying it I didn’t realize it had (very) big frets on it; I thought most modern Strats have very similar fret wire so I didn’t expect it to be different for this one.

I played it before buying it and although I struggled when I tried playing faster, I thought it was a matter of setup. Turns out it wasn’t. It was clearly the frets.

My MIM Strat supposedly has medium-jumbo frets, but the names mean different things for different manufacturers. To be sure I measured the frets and found that my MIM Strat has actually JUMBO frets (according to the Warmoth sizes) and the American Performer has frets almost the size of 6100, sort of mega-jumbo.

I tried to get used to them, but they feel day and night compared to the MIM Strat.

My question is:

  1. Did anyone else notice a big decrease in playability (speed and comfort) when playing the biggest frets?

Personally I find it a weird feeling that I can’t feel the fretboard with my fingers when I press down and also the tension is higher because the strings are a bigger distance from the fretboard.

  1. What would you do to change this?
    Refret with smaller frets?
    Put another neck on it?
    Buy a different guitar?

Thx in advance

1 Like

I don’t personally feel that any fret size is detrimental to my playing speed, however, small frets are massively detrimental to my playing in other ways, particularly when it comes to bending and vibrato techniques. I hate feeling the fretboard underneath my fingertips. I’ve considered scalloping my guitars several times, but I have the 6100 fret wire on most of my guitars and that’s high enough for me.

3 Likes

The amount of wood that your fingers touch can be impacted by fret height or scallops. I don’t think that this impacts speed, but there is a trade-off between (a) stable chords and difficulty bending [lots of wood], and (b) unstable chords and easy bending [no wood].

By “unstable” I mean that it’s easy for the chord to go out of tune and sound bad. I have scalloped guitars and I think that no jazz person would be able to use one, as they would be really annoyed by how easy it is to make chords go out of tune (by accidental bending of strings).

2 Likes

I think my guitar needs at least a few new frets as the have become worn out. What I find is that there isn’t enough fret to get a convincing note when playing legato as it feels like there isn’t enough tension in the string that fights between the fret and your finger. To me, smaller frets are worse than larger frets. It could also be that my left hand needs some work!

I love very high frets. It makes bending so much easier, and it gives the guitars a pseudo scalloped feel.

One of my first guitars was 24.25" inch scale with textbook “jumbo” frets. I don’t have particularly huge hands, but it felt very awkward trying to fret anything around the 15th fret and above: the wide frets that high on the fretboard just seemed too close together to feel like I had any kind of fretting accuracy.

1 Like

I prefer taller frets cause i really do not like feeling any fret board wood when I play. it definitely imo makes bending easier cause you can dig in a little better with taller frets. It also makes you start out being more aware of how hard your pressing down to get the note to sound. I remember playing an older fender with smaller vintage style frets and the strings almost slip when i’m bending cause i cant dig in as much. I prefer stainless as well since to me they are smooth as a bell. I must say though if you start using the taller frets and get used to it it’ll be hard to go back to smaller frets and like them.

2 Likes

I’ve got a Warmoth strat with 6100 Jumbo frets and Scalloped board (compound 10-16’ radius). It’s like playing on air - the strings become more sensitive to vibrato and bends are like butter smooth. Its so slippery it can be hard to play in tune - you need to be more accurate - that may be why its harder to play faster.

But, I don’t think it really makes as much difference as just being used to something different. Many players like Jumbo wire and some like lower or more narrow wire. I think variety is always a good thing - you should be ready to play on different gear as a pro and not fall apart.

3 Likes

Thx everyone for replying. It’s true that I haven’t put in playing hours on the jumbo frets yet. I lowered the action a bit (just before buzzing) and that seems to help a bit.

The difference in string tension is still noticeable and it’s like I have make a bigger effort to make legato lines happen. With the bigger frets also comes more fret noise. The positives are: enormous sustain and screaming bends.

I decided that before I do anything that I might regret (refrets etc), I’m going to give the 6100s the benefit of the doubt (they are actually .055” instead of .058” like the 6100s) and just put in a decent amount playing hours.

And it’s true, it’s good to be able to hold your own on different feeling guitars, although I really want to have one “main” guitar so I don’t have to think about the technicalities too much. When pick up my MIM I just play, with the Performer I am sort of fighting the frets.

1 Like

My experience is the same as @Tom_Gilroy 's in that I’ve noticed no difference in playing speed at all, but rather a large difference in my ability to execute things like vibrato or bends, and larger frets are very beneficial to that.

I’ve also noticed no increase in effort for legato lines, nor an increase in fret noise. Between the two of these, I kind of suspect the issue here isn’t the size of the frets, it’s the quality of the fretjob and you either have a high fret(s) somewhere or poorly leveled frets. The feel “harder” not because they’re bigger, but because the fretwork isn’t as clean so you’re forced to run higher action. Can you confirm this by measuring the difference in action from guitar to guitar, to the top of the fret?

There’s a difference in feel, for sure, and with larger frets you tend to feel less and less of the fretboard, so that’s definitely a matter of taste. But larger frets, provided they’re level and well crowned, shouldn’t increase the amount of fretnoise or make it harder to play - you figure the strings can’t “see” how far below the top of the fret the fretboard is, you know?

The MIM with the smaller frets has the maple neck and fretboard. The Performer with the 6100 frets has the rosewood fretboard.

The action on the MIM (distance between 12th fret at top of the fret and underside of string is ~2.0mm for all strings.

The action on the Performer is ~1.7mm on the low E and ~1.5mm on the high E, so effectively a lower action.

I still feel more tension and a subjectively higher action - I think the extra tension comes from the bigger distance of the strings to the fretboard at equal action (because you have to add the height difference of the frets).

I played a different Performer Strat yesterday in the store and the frets were different on top-less round and more flat. This made the neck (for me) feel slightly more familiar to what I’m used to.

I added pics so you can get an idea of the height of the frets. It’s a pretty big difference in height.

Hmm, strange - actually the rosewood neck does look, subjectively, like the action is higher from the top of the fret to the string, but not materially so. Tough to say for sure though - you have a little bit of an angle to your ruler in that first picture.

String tension, assuming equivalent setup, should be unrelated to fretsize. Do both guitars have the same gauge string, and same tuning? Do both guitars have the same, or at least same style, bridge? Are both bridges floating or flat to the body? I’m trying to figure out what else could explain the difference, but fret height should be completely unrelated to tension, so I’m wondering if something else is causing the tension to be higher and that’s the real issue here.

1 Like

Hi Drew, I have taken the measurements accurately myself, the ruler in the pics is just to have an idea.

The setup is identical, both decked bridge, identical vintage bridge, identical strings (Ernie Ball slinky’s 9-42), identical tuning (standard E). Both necks are practically straight.

It’s kind of a mystery to me also, the only thing I can think of is the nut. The MIM has a very low nut, plus very low distance from low-E to first fret.

The Performer has a higher nut, plus, due to the fret size, the distance between the strings and the first fret has to be higher.

Imagine if you had a nut that would be 1 or 2 inches tall (say an imaginary slide guitar). The tension of the string at the nut would be higher because of the steeper angle which would make the tension higher in general. Same happens to Gibson Les Pauls where the strings are wrapped around on TOP of the bridge instead of threading the strings through the holes. The string tension drops significantly.

It is still a mystery for me too how it can have such a big difference in feel, but it’s literally like day and night.

To give you some perspective: Today I played a Squier with a Player neck (with regular medium-jumbo frets). The strings were 10-46, tuned to E-flat, with pretty high action. It played like butter for me, even though it’s a different guitar.

Action at the nut is hugely important to feel and playability. I’m guessing this is the real problem.

2 Likes

A too-high nut definitely could be a factor - you don’t need much clearance between the nut and the first fret for notes to ring out, so if there’s a big difference there, that COULD be a culprit. Does the perceived tension get “lighter” as you go towards the top of the neck, and is it hardest tto play in the first few frets?

2 Likes

regarding speed on different fret sizes, I would Imagine that if there is a difference, it would probably favour the larger frets. reason being that when your finger tip pushes down there is an amount of ‘finger flesh’ that needs to compress before you are able to hold the note down hard enough to sound it properly.

if you push down on small frets, some of your finger touches the fretboard, which must push back against your fretting action and delay the correct pressure to fret the note.

on larger frets, less, if any, of your finger tip compresses against the fretboard.

small difference maybe, but I’d guess it would still be there.

One of my favorite topics.

It’s personal taste but there are some rules to follow (which have been mentioned by other fine folks above)

I’ll add that I dislike disproportionately narrow frets considering their tall height. This means true 6105 feel unnecessarily speed bumpy compared to a 6100.

In general the higher the more expressive your bends/vibrato but once it’s tall enough to negate board friction it’s tall enough.

I like 0.047 x 0.104 and 0.050 x 0.100 (jescar/stewmac)

6105 is too narrow for how tall it is, 6100 is needlessly big, anything below 0.047 is too low and wider than 0.100 is a good place to start.

1 Like

It’s interesting for sure.

You have someone like Yngwie ripping on a scalloped fretboard with jumbo frets, where he can’t feel the wood at all. Of course, he uses .08 and is also tuned down a half step which makes his string tension (at the higher strings, because he plays a mixed set) very low.

Then you have Eric Johnson ripping on medium-jumbos, .10s, in standard tuning, with action around 2mm at the 12th fret, which is pretty standard.

Then you have Ben Eunson, reaching ridiculous speeds with legato playing, with medium jumbo frets and the action so low that the strings are practically sitting on the frets.

String tension and action are key to playability (when high speeds are the goal and not so much “tone”, although if you put Yngwie with .08s beside SRV with 12s/13s you would not immediately guess that Yngwie is playing on superthin strings, since the amp also plays a very big role in that).

I will have to keep playing the Performer alongside my other guitars and redo all possible measurements, experiment with tuning down etc to draw any kind of “objective” conclusion.

All input from you guys is more than welcome.

The story continues, took measurements again:

MIM, 9s, E-standard:
low E at 12th fret: 2.0mm
hi E: 2.0mm
bottom low E to fretboard at 1st fret: 1.5mm

highest ease of playing

Squier with Player neck, 10s, Eb
low E: 1.9mm
hi E: 1.6mm
at nut: 1.9mm

slighty wider string spacing, very easy to get used to, action somehow feels higher than MIM, but ease of playing is high

Performer, 9s, E-standard
low E: 1.9mm
hi E: 1.5mm
at nut: 1.7mm

trading licks between the guitars I noticed that the thing that trips me up at the moment is that the frets are so big, that my fingers have less space to land between frets. So my whole point of reference is gone, because now with fast passages I land on the frets instead of behind them, causing a dull/pingy note.

Also, I noticed that I use the fretboard as a trampoline of sorts so that my fingers bounce back as soon as I feel the wood.

With the big frets I don’t have that reference point and out of a sort of subliminal fear of going sharp I come down less hard on the frets.

Also, when I anchor my first finger when the second and third are doing “their thing” in the 12th position, I am used to feeling wood, but with the big frets my finger is sort of hovering on the string.

So what I found is (like some people already pointed out) that it’s not so much the string tension or the action to frets that trips me up, but the fact that my reference points are gone and I have to relearn new ones. It’s a pain in the ass for me, I notice immediately that playing on the lower frets feels much more natural for me for some reason.

To be continued…

1 Like

The Squier with Player neck, the MIM, the Performer and the American Pro next to each other.

I wanted to be completely sure about playability and sound before I spend my money, so I mail ordered an American Pro yesterday to compare it to the others (don’t worry, I have a 60 days return policy :wink: )

I measured the frets of all guitars. They are:

Squier: 0.103-0.045 / 2.62mm-1.14mm
MIM: the exact same, which makes sense
these are the supposed Fender medium-jumbo dimensions, although some say that the actual medium jumbo size should be 0.036 tall instead of .045.
Perfomer: .110-.055 / 2.81mm - 1.41mm
Pro: .095-.0.055 / 2.40mm-1.41mm

So the squier and the MIM have the exact same frets (Fender medium jumbo). The Performer and Pro have jumbo and narrow-tall. They have the same height, but the Pro has narrow frets.

To make things even more irritating, Fender has given the Pro a “deep C” neck which is slightly thicker (for me too noticeable) than the modern C of the other three guitars.

I played them while constantly changing them, playing the same kind of leads on them.

Ironically the Squier/Player is the most comfortable to play.

The worst is still the Performer with the huge frets.

Funnily enough the Pro has the same fret height as the Perfomer, but because the frets are narrower it feels much closer to the MIM and the Player in feel. I could reach almost the same level of speed/comfort, although the thicker neck is a bit annoying for me.

The Pro neck and frets is something I could pretty easily adapt to, but the Performer keeps feeling weird.

Conclusion for now:

The height wasn’t as much the problem as the height and width combined. It gives me less space between the frets and also lack of stability with my fingers.

On a side note, soundwise the Pro is amazing. The Performer pickups have a bit of that piercing glassy quality (like the noiseless pickups have) that I dislike.

The Pro sounds very balanced in every pickup position and it has that super bell-like modern Strat sound.

So soundwise it’s the Pro hands down. The Squier has very piercing pickups and the MIM sounds Stratty, but with less bell-like tone. I actually prefer the MIM to the Performer soundwise.

Because I can only afford 1 high-end Strat, my plan is to return the Performer, and either find a Strat with a modern C neck and medium-jumbo frets that can hold its own soundwise vs the Pro, or buy a Pro (with the same finish as the performer) and get used to the neck, which I think I can do.

I really don’t get why Fender is mixing up all those specs unless is to give people like me headaches. They should either offer different neck options per model (like they do with woods) or make replacement necks way more affordable, because now the prices are ridiculous.

I don’t want anything exotic, weird or difficult: I just want an American Pro Strat with a modern C neck and medium-jumbo frets. Apparently that’s too much to ask :man_shrugging:t2: