Acquiring a Microtonal Fretboard
Microtonal guitars are like any guitars: they can be as expensive as you wish. For those who desire a professional-level instrument, the reasonable choice is to go to a luthier. Several luthiers specialize in microtonal guitars:
Michael Kudirka produces interchangeable fretboards, so multiple tuning systems can be implemented on a single instrument.
Tolgahan Çoğulu invented a system of movable frets which gives a player the same flexibility.
Ron Sword, John Starrett, and Jon Catler produce microtonal guitars and replacement fretted necks for various microtonal systems.
Your Local Luthier – and a Fret Position Calculator
Depending on your relationship with your own luthier, they may be interested in experimenting with a microtonal conversion. The least you can do is ask. However, it may help to be very informed about what you are asking. That’s where FretFind2D comes in. This tool allows the user to generate a fret layout for any tuning system, when provided with the dimensions of the guitar. Either you or your local luthier can use FretFind2D to make the calculation stage trivial.
Guitars are practically a commodity, produced in huge numbers and available cheaply from any number of places. This provides an excellent basis for experimentation. In addition, there is a wealth of information on the open internet about how to fret (or refret) a guitar as a DIY project. Much of this information, like the internet itself, is garbage. However, the resources below have been curated for reliability.
The simplest DIY method is to begin with a fretless guitar and simply adhere flat frets (or portions of frets) to the fingerboard—called “fretlets.” John Schneider offers fretlets designed for this specific purpose at https://fretlet.com/.
Tied Frets and Cable Ties
If the difference in tone is no issue, some players may prefer to tie gut or nylon frets, as lute and saz players do. This link demonstrates the lute method, along with a video. This method may easily be adapted to nylon frets rather than gut.
For more of a “brute force” method, plastic cable ties (a.k.a. zip ties) may be used. This method has been a part of the microtonal community for decades, and it is unclear who invented it, although Chris Vaisvil and Kite Giedraitis have been prominent proponents. There is no link to a resource because it’s as simple as tightening the cable tie around the neck and positioning it appropriately. Two details must be observed: 1) the string action must be high enough to accommodate the height of the cable ties. And 2) it is easier to get the cable ties to sit flat on the fingerboard, if the ties are kinked or nicked at the exact locations where they wrap around the corners.
Unorthodox Metal Frets
Dante Rosati, a classical guitarist whose music is forthcoming on Edition Zalzal, has refretted several of his own guitars, simply by gluing round wire to the fingerboard with epoxy after removing the original frets. He describes his experience here. Although the guitars look very unorthodox, they sound quite sweet and pure; the refret had little to no audible effect on the timbre.
In a similar spirit, Dennis Havlena created elevated, curved frets in the style of a sitar (or rather, an esraj) out of coat-hanger wire. These function perfectly, and demonstrate that it is not the material, but rather the builder’s attention to detail, that determines the success of a fretting project.
It is worth noting the case of the Hungarian “citera,” an instrument similar to a lap dulcimer. The frets on a citera are quite literally staples. The traditional method of construction requires drilling holes to accept the staple legs. However, this instrument sets a precedent. A sufficiently large staple gun could easily be contemplated for a prototype experimental instrument.
Traditional Metal Frets - DIY
For those without luthiery training, the Cigar Box Guitar hobbyist community is a wonderful resource. They are devoted amateurs and tend to be quite supportive; and most importantly, their kits and instructional materials are geared toward non-specialists (if not beginners). If you are moderately handy, you may find success building a Cigar Box Guitar, and it may in turn give confidence about experimenting with a full-sized guitar. This link is an excellent step-by-step guide, specifically about fretting a Cigar Box Guitar.
Finally, John Starrett wrote the classic text for microtonalists on refretting a guitar in the traditional way. It can be daunting to begin with this text, and that is why it is last on the list. However, for the particularly devoted hobbyist or the particularly handy person, a reasonably professional job can be accomplished using John’s method, albeit with much swearing.
Fret Buzz, Action, and Flatness
There are a few simple principles to keep in mind when fretting or refretting a guitar.
- Uneven fret height causes string buzzing. If a string is pressed down on a fret, and the next higher fret (in pitch) is physically taller, then the string will contact that fret and will produce a buzz. To avoid this, frets are typically leveled to a high degree of accuracy across the whole fretboard, and then crowned and polished.
- High action provides more room for the string to vibrate. If a string with high action is pressed down on a fret, it will be physically more distant from the frets above it in pitch. This can mask uneven fret height, by allowing the string to remain clear of the next fret.
This means that if you are not capable of perfectly flattening the frets you install—one of the most difficult parts of a professional job—higher action may make this acceptable!
Playing in high positions, or professional situations, may require a lower action. However, guitars were not designed for a very low action until well into the 20th century. For most of its history, the guitar’s action was considerably higher than the professional-level action of today.
All of this is to conclude: the most difficult part of refretting is eliminating fret buzz while maintaining “sufficiently” low action. This headache can be ignored: higher action is not a terrible concession to make.
Yours in experimentation,