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Fret Leveling

Q: I saw your nice site while looking for some info and thought I'd give a shout to you. I recently bought a new Epi LesPaul Classic that I thought with the right upgrades and setup work might make a pretty nice quality paul. Well I know that these mass prod. factory models have mostly assembly line production methods so wasn't surprised when I found the Low E to be rather Buzzy/Rattley most of the way up, And ONE semi-dead fret (D string /11th fret). The rattley E doesn't bother me too much as it's not going to be very audible when amped and with the proper combo of relief and bridge height may be knocked out. HOWEVER the partially dead fret is another issue.

      I don't want to have to do any sort of leveling/dressing on a NEW instrument, although It's surely not too unusual to want or need to with an instrument of this intermediate quality. Since it's not a complete high (or otherwise bad) fret affecting more than one or all strings, I paused on sending it back for a replacement,etc. . and looked closer at the clearance between 12th fret and Vibrating D-string (fretting at the 11th) to find that there IS definitely just bit of physical contact occuring there, anywhere between the G and A lengthwise w/ the fret when plucking/bending the D at 11th fret. Aside from the low E a bit rattley, there is no buzz at all on any other fret and good clearance can be observed between vibrating string and fret.

      My question is (and I do have intermediate inst. repair skills and a fairly good luthiery knowledge base, prob is I always STOPPED short of any significant Fretwork!) could it be risky to adequately crown/level ONLY that offending section of the 12th fret. Using a proper size Rounding file and sharpie-ing the fret area to be lowered? Or would it be too difficult (for me) to blend just that portion of that fret with the non problem ends of the same fret. ? I DO realize that taking too much off and therefore causing a low fret could wreak havoc and end me up with a heck of alot more than ONE problem fret. !!! However from what I can visibley see there is just eversoslightly too much height to only that area of that fret which is causing this 'dead-ness' to the 11th fret.

      Any advice is much appreciated! Of all my literature and source material I just don't find too much about a partial level/dress of just one single fret. So thought it may be a good question for you to answer.

thanks so much,


A: It is not the least bit rare for a new guitar to need the frets leveled. Get yourself a good fret leveling tool. For years I used a 12 inch bastard file. It was hard on the fingers and gave me funny caluses, but it worked great. Now I have a 12" by 2" board with a handle on top and a 1/4" plate glass foot. I put sticky backed 180 grit sand paper on the glass foot. Stew-Mac has lots of fancy fret levelers. I find that there is never any point in trying to deal with one out of line fret. The fret must work with the surrounding frets. The best thing is to level them all.

      Tune the guitar to pitch using the guage of strings that you will be using. Sight down both edges of the fingerboard. Adjust the truss rod to make the neck as straight as it will go. Notice any high frets or warps or twists in the fingerboard. Now take off the strings. The neck will arch backward without the string tension holding it straight. Loosen the truss until the neck is once again straight.

      Now file/sand the frets into line. Focus on the high frets. Generally start at the body end and work up to the peghead end. Remember that the neck is very floppy. If you lay it on the bench, with only the body and the peghead touching the bench, the neck will droop between these two points. It will droop more as you push a tool along the frets. I put the body on the bench and let the peghead hang off the edge of the bench. Sometimes I cradle the neck with my hand right behind the tool. The technique is less important than that you understand the phenominon and compensate.

      The most common job in any repair shop is the "action set. " The action is a function of the straightness of the neck, the levelness of the frets, the roundness of the frets, the hight of the nut and saddle and the angle of the string behind the contact points on the nut and saddle. If you change one thing everything else must recompensate. Don't try to mess with one fret. You must deal with the whole function. The whole action. It is my experience that you get good at setting actions by practicing.

      In most guitar stores an action set consists of playing with the truss rod and adjusting the saddle up and down. All true action sets involve fret filing. Go for it.

      I just go done dealing with a very odd dead note. The frets were perfectly leveled and rounded. The 10th and 11th and 13th frets on the high E sounded clean and strong but the12th fret was totally dead. It turned out that the 12th fret was poorly seated so that when you played it it pushed down, letting the string buzz out on the fret above. When you took the presure off it sprang back into line.

Steve Mason