What’s the deal with fanned frets? I see only a few guitarists using them.
Fanned fret guitars are characterized by a multi-scale fingerboard and “off set” frets, that is, frets that extend from the neck of the guitar at an angle, in contrast to the standard perpendicular frets. Claimed benefits include better comfort, ergonomics, intonation, and string tension control across the fretboard.
Let’s look at what they are and how they work. I’ll also discuss some of the pros and cons of fanned fret guitars.
How Fanned Frets Work
Fanned frets are a unique feature of some guitars that have been around for over a century. The idea behind fanned frets is to create a more ergonomic and efficient instrument that can produce a wider range of tones. The basic concept is simple: the frets are angled so that the distance between each fret is different, with the lower frets being closer together and the higher frets being farther apart. This allows for a longer scale length on the bass strings and a shorter scale length on the treble strings.
The Effects of Fanned Frets on Tone and Playability
One critical influence on the tone of a fanned fret guitar is the angle of the frets. Ralph Novak, the father of modern fanned frets, described in a technical lecture how the angle of the frets can affect the harmonic structure and clarity of each note. The angle can also distinguish which notes dominate and which are more mellow or clear.
The construction of a fanned fret guitar is also distinctly different from a normal guitar. The frets are not straight, but rather follow a curve that matches the angle of the fretboard. The bridge and nut are also angled to match the frets, and the strings are attached to the bridge at different points to maintain proper intonation.
The Advantages and Disadvantages of Fanned Frets
- Improved ergonomics and playability
- Wider range of tones
- More accurate intonation
- Distinctive look
- Higher cost due to the more complex construction
- More difficult to find replacement parts
- Some players may find the angled frets harder to play at first
Choosing a Fanned Fret Guitar
If you’re wanting to find a fanned fret guitar (best ones reviewed here) that meets your exact needs, there are a couple of things to consider:
- What type of music do you play? Some genres, like metal, may benefit more from the wider range of tones that fanned frets offer.
- Do you want a headless or traditional design? Headless guitars are becoming more popular in the fanned fret niche area.
- Have you played a fanned fret guitar before? If not, it may be worth checking one out before committing to a purchase.
- What is your budget? Fanned fret guitars can range from affordable to major investments, with some of the major manufacturers producing them in a row.
Scale Length & Guitar Tone
When it comes to determining the tone of a guitar, the scale length is a commonly overlooked element of guitar engineering that is responsible for regulating the initial input of vibration energy into the entire guitar. The scale length is the distance between the nut and the bridge, measured in inches or millimeters. This distance sets the entire length of the vibrating string, which is then filtered and added to by a myriad of variables, both individual to the guitar and to the way it is played.
Why Scale Length is Important
The scale length is one of the main factors that determine the tone of a guitar. It is a convention that has been published in quarterly guild magazines for constructing guitars, and it is a fascinating thing to consider the way that scale length can completely revolutionize the way a guitar sounds. By enhancing refinement and inspiring a stimulating approach to guitar building, the results of checking and fine-tuning scale length can be great.
What Makers and Builders Think About Scale Length
In an informal poll of guitar makers and builders, many thought that scale length was a big part of the picture when it comes to determining how guitars fit into the musical landscape. Some got answers that were specifically short and appropriate, while others had a small set of adhering type jigs that they used for making guitars with relative scale lengths.
Commercially Available Fanned Fret Guitars and Scale Length
In commercially available fanned fret guitars, the scale length is precisely set for each model. The Ibex and other fanned fret guitar makers have liked the sound of their guitars for good reasons. The aspects of scale length and its precedence in achieving distinct guitar tones are primarily considered when constructing these guitars.
Exploring the Importance of String Tension & Mass in Fanned Fret Guitars
When it comes to fanned fret guitars, the string gauge and tension are crucial factors that affect the overall sound and playability of the instrument. The premise is simple: the thicker the string, the higher the tension required to bring it to the desired pitch. Conversely, the thinner the string, the lower the tension required.
The Mathematics of String Tension
Establishing the correct tension for each string requires some mathematics. The frequency of a string is directly proportional to its length, tension, and mass per unit length. Therefore, increasing the tension of a string will increase its frequency, resulting in higher notes.
The Added Complexity of Fanned Frets
Fanned frets add an extra layer of complexity to this phenomenon. The longer scale length on the bass side means that thicker strings are required to achieve the same pitch as the thinner strings on the treble side. This causes the tension and mass of the strings to vary across the fretboard, resulting in a unique sonic fingerprint.
The Importance of String Wrapping
String wrapping is a great idea to try when exploring the effects of string tension and mass. Wrapping the core wire with a larger diameter wrap wire increases the mass of the string, resulting in increased tension and volume. However, this also brings added complexity to the overtones and nodes, which can be perceived as a good or bad thing depending on the player’s preference.
String Thickness & Overtones
When it comes to fanned fret guitars, string thickness plays an important role in determining the overall tone and sound of the instrument. Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Thicker strings tend to produce a more robust and full-bodied sound, while thinner strings can sound brighter and more articulate.
- The thickness of the strings can also affect the tension and feel of the instrument, making it easier or harder to play depending on your preferences.
- It’s important to choose a string thickness that fits the scale length of your fanned fret guitar, as this will help ensure proper intonation and tuning.
Understanding Overtones in Fanned Fret Guitars
In order to understand the role of overtones in fanned fret guitars, it helps to start with a quick analogy. Imagine laying a regular cloth on a table and folding it in half several times. Each time you fold it, the resulting piece of cloth becomes thinner and more resistant to vibrating. This is akin to what happens with the bracing and thicknessing of the fretboard on a fanned fret guitar.
- The result of this variable thicknessing is that each section of the fretboard has a slightly different overtone series, which can affect the tonal and harmonic balance of the instrument.
- This helps to create a unique sonic fingerprint for each fanned fret guitar, as the changes in overtone series can be subtle but significant.
- Experimenting with different string thicknesses can also help to change the overtone series and sonic fingerprint of the instrument, giving you more control over the overall tone and sound.
Do Fanned Frets Make a Difference?
Fanned frets are an extreme departure from the traditional straight frets found on most stringed instruments. They may look strange at first glance, but they serve a purpose: to improve the musical experience for the player. Here are some ways fanned frets can make a difference:
- Greater string tension and mass on the lowest strings, resulting in a punchier sound
- Smoother string bending due to the longer scale length on the highest strings
- More accurate intonation across the entire fretboard
- A more ergonomic playing experience, reducing strain on the hand and wrist
The Long Answer: It Depends
While fanned frets can clearly affect the sound and feel of a guitar, the extent of the difference depends on several factors:
- The degree of the fanned frets: A slight fan may not make as significant a difference as a more extreme fan.
- The material of the nut/nuta and bridge: These components support the strings and can affect the sound and sustain of the guitar.
- The closest fret to the headstock: This fret can affect the length of the vibrating string and therefore the overall tone of the guitar.
- The tuning and style of music played: Fanned frets may benefit certain tunings and playing styles more than others.
Common Misinformation About Fanned Frets
There are some popular misconceptions about fanned frets that need to be addressed:
- Fanned frets are not necessarily harder to play than straight frets. In fact, many people find them more comfortable.
- Fanned frets do not require a different way of playing or a different set of skills. They simply feel different.
- Fanned frets do not make chords or hand positions more awkward. Depending on the degree of the fan, some people may actually prefer the feel of fanned frets for certain chords.
Personal Experience with Fanned Frets
As a guitarist who has tried both straight and fanned frets, I can say that the difference is not just hype. Here are some things I noticed when I picked up a fanned fret guitar for the first time:
- The extra length on the high strings felt nice and tight, making it easier to play fast runs and arpeggios.
- The punchier sound on the low strings was immediately noticeable and blew me away.
- The intonation was noticeably more accurate across the entire fretboard.
- I laughed at how ridiculously small the fan looked, but it made a significant difference in how the guitar played and felt.
If you’re considering a fanned fret guitar, do your research and check out some demos to learn more about the differences in sound and feel. It may not be suitable for every style of music or playing preference, but for some people, the improvement in tone and playability is worth the investment.
Exploring the Playability of Fanned Fret Guitars
The answer to this question is not a straightforward yes or no. Some guitarists find fanned frets hard to play, while others actually prefer playing guitars with fanned frets. It all comes down to personal preference and the way your fingers naturally follow the frets.
Why Some Guitarists Find Fanned Frets Hard to Play
- Having played a couple of normal guitars, you may want to find a headless guitar with fanned frets.
- The angle of the frets can be different from what you’re used to, making it hard to adjust at first.
- It may take some time to get used to the different scale length and string tension.
- The difference in tone can be a bit jarring at first, especially if you’re used to a certain sound.
The Ergonomics of Fanned Fret Guitars
When it comes to playing guitar, comfort and playability are critical points to consider. The way a guitar is designed can make or break the playing experience. Fanned fret guitars have a unique shape that is contoured and chambered, which provides a substantial reduction in weight compared to traditional guitars. This means that they are exceptionally light and flexible, making them ideal for players who suffer from nerve or lower wrist strain.
The Unique Shape of Fanned Fret Guitars
The shape of a fanned fret guitar is one of its most noticeable features. The frets themselves are angled, with the lines perpendicular to the strings on the lower frets and parallel to the strings on the higher frets. This design resembles the shape of a classical guitar, but with a modern twist. The contoured body and chambered design add to the overall comfort of the guitar, making it a joy to play for extended periods.
In conclusion, fanned fret guitars offer a unique and ergonomic playing experience that is highly sought after by players who want to take their playing to the next level. The benefits of this design are substantial, meaning that players who suffer from wrist or nerve strain will find relief in the comfortable and lightweight design.
Frequently Asked Questions About Fanned Fret Guitars
Fanned frets are placed at an angle on the guitar neck, which creates a longer scale length for the bass strings and a shorter scale length for the treble strings. This allows for a more even tension across all strings and improves intonation.
What are some common problems that fanned frets can fix?
Fanned frets can overcome the limitations of having long, wide necks on guitars, which can create issues with string tension and intonation. They also allow for an extended range, with some models having up to seven strings.
Are there any limitations or noticeable differences when playing a fanned fret guitar?
While some players may find the difference in fret spacing and angle to be fairly noticeable, others may not have any issues adjusting. Preferences for playing style and tone may also be limited by the unique features of fanned fret guitars.
How do I tune a fanned fret guitar?
Tuning a fanned fret guitar is similar to tuning a regular guitar, but it’s important to avoid leaving too much slack in the strings. It’s also nice to have a tight hold on the key when tuning to ensure optimal tuning.
Do I need to adjust my playing style for a fanned fret guitar?
While some players may need to adjust their playing style slightly, most find that playing a fanned fret guitar feels comfortable and natural.
What are some popular fanned fret guitar models and brands?
Some popular fanned fret guitar models and brands include Ibanez, Ultimate Gear, and Steve Vai’s signature models.
How do fanned frets compare to other guitar parts and features?
Fanned frets are just one of many features and parts that can affect a guitar’s tone and playability. Other important parts to consider include the bridge, truss rod, and pickups.
Can fanned frets be used on acoustic guitars?
Yes, fanned frets can be used on acoustic guitars, although they are more commonly found on electric guitars.
Do fanned frets affect the tone of the guitar?
While fanned frets may not completely change the tone of a guitar, they can improve the overall sound and feel of the instrument.
Do fanned frets work with effects pedals?
Yes, fanned frets work with effects pedals just like any other guitar. However, some players may need to adjust their pedal settings slightly to accommodate for the unique features of a fanned fret guitar.
Is it possible to trash the tone of a fanned fret guitar?
While it’s always possible to create a horrible tone on any guitar, fanned frets themselves do not inherently create a bad sound. It’s up to the player to decide what sounds good and what doesn’t.
Fanned frets are a great way to improve the ergonomics and playability of the guitar, and they can also produce a wider range of tones.
If you’re looking for a new guitar, you should consider a fanned fret model now that you know all the ins and outs.
I'm Joost Nusselder, the founder of Neaera and a content marketer, dad, and love trying out new equipment with guitar at the heart of my passion, and together with my team, I've been creating in-depth blog articles since 2020 to help loyal readers with recording and guitar tips.
Check me out on Youtube where I try out all of this gear:Subscribe