Stainless steel is a popular alternative to nickel silver fretwire currently and with good reason. A good stainless fret job will last many more years than a traditional nickel fret job. Here we will get into some things to consider when choosing your fret material.
Does stainless sound different than nickel? That is a question that comes up frequently around discussions of fret material. On an electric guitar in particular, we at Righteous have personally not been able to tell any differences in tone. There have been many tests by reputable builders and repair shops including John Suhr of Suhr guitars and Joe Glazer of Glazer instruments to name a couple. The overwhelming result seems to be that when refretting a guitar with half stainless and half nickel, that the tone difference is negligible. In my opinion, tone is not a deciding factor on fret material. There are other things to consider though....like does it feel different?
Does it feel different?
Yes. Yes it does. Stainless is smoother feeling with less drag. This is even more evident on larger frets where you are not touching the fingerboard with your fingers. This can mean easier bends and a "glassier" smoothness overall. Many people love the feel. It is something to think about. Some people do prefer the traditional "drag" of nickel silver.
What about acoustics?
My personal opinion is that the tone may be a little brighter on an acoustic instrument, but not much. With all the other factors involved with a refret (nut material, glue used - or not, general setup, string choice) the fret plays a small part in the tone of the guitar, but it is not a deal breaker for me.
Why isn't it offered as an option by my local repair shop?
Here at Righteous we offer many fret materials on our refrets. We have tooling to work with stainless steel and that is key. Many rumors of inferior tone have been spread by repair shops that simply do not want the extra work involved and wear on their tools. In reality, like any other job, if you have the right tools and experience stainless is not an issue.
Choosing fretwire material is a big decision as is any major modification to your guitar. That being said, the audible difference in the same size wire where one is stainless and one is not is small. Changing fret size will have an impact for sure as will changing nut material. The setup is also crucial for great playing and great sounding guitars.
If you are considering a refret and are thinking about stainless, come by the shop! We have many examples you can feel to get an idea of what is the best size fretwire and the best material for your playing style. Contact us at the shop for more information!