Ask a Luthier Codabows Instruments Links Pi Guitar String Band Contact
Return to questions listing:

Multi-Scale and Fanned Frets

Hi there,
I'm not sure if you get questions regarding this subject, but I'm finding it difficult to comprehend one thing about Fanned Frets and the whole multi-scale business. Anyway, from my understanding, multi-scale guitars have fanned frets which allows more clarity for any of the strings. Now what I don't understand is, why can't you just have the multi-scale on the guitar and just have normal frets instead of fanned frets?

You can raise the pitch of a string by shortening it, or by tightening it, or by making it lighter. The major tone difference between a Fender and a Gibson has little to do with the pickups and wiring. The scale length is the distance from the nut to the saddle. A Fender has a 25.5" scale length and a Gibson has a 24.75" scale. A .010 high E string on a Gibson has about the same tension as a .009 high E on a Fender. So, how long the strings are, what they are made of/how thick they are, and how tight they are, do a lot to control the tone produced. For example, basses sound best with high tension and heavy strings on a 30" to 34" scale.

So, you have chosen a scale length that floats your boat, let's say 25.5". Now you divide your scale length by 17.817 to find the distance from the nut to the first fret, 1.43". Then you divide the distance from the first fret to the saddle (24.07") by 17.817 to get the distance from the first fret to the second fret (1.35"). And then divide the distance from the second fret to the saddle (22.72"), by 17.817 to get the distance from the second fret to the third (1.275"). Suffice it to say that your frets get closer together as they go up and the string plays all the notes in tune because of math/science/magic.

Now you decide that you love a 24.75" scale length for your high E string, but you love a 26" scale length for your low E string. You mark the fret placement for the 24.75" scale on your finger board blank under where the high E string will be and then mark the fret placement (which will be wider) for the 26" scale under where the low E string will be. Now, with a .020" fret saw, you cut a fret slot connecting the marks giving you fan shaped frets. With a proportionally fanned nut and saddle, all the notes on all the strings will play in tune. Your brain has no problem switching to the fan system because there is still only one first fret, one 5th fret etc. It would be possible to figure the fret placement on all of the different strings and inlay short, one string wide frets. That would give you "normal frets" but they wouldn't go all the way across the fingerboard.

Bluegrass players prefer heavy strings and long scales for clarity and power. Finger pickers prefer a looser string, shorter and lighter, to produce a richer tone. Someone who wanted power and clarity in the treble and a sweeter bass should fan the strings with the long scale on the top and the short scale on the bottom. All of the fanned guitars that I have played put the short strings on the top.

To recap: Fret placement is proportional to the length of the string. Hence, fret placement is different for the different scale lengths. Using the same fret placements for multiple string lengths would not play in tune. Getting silly: You could use longer and shorter scales on all the strings to have twisting frets that would make words or symbols on the fingerboard instead of fans. You could use the same scale for the high and low E strings and then make the inner strings longer or shorter to make happy face or sad face frets.

Steve Mason