Why do guitars have frets? There are three main reasons why guitars have frets. First, the frets function as indicators where each note is, allowing you to play it easier. Secondly, the frets provide a sustained effect on the strings to prolong the notes. Thirdly, the frets set a specific area where a note should begin and end.
Of all the string instruments we have in the world, the one thing that makes a guitar relatively easy to identify is its frets. Yes, those squares created by a series of metals, characterized by the presence or absence of dots in the center, are often the easiest way to distinguish a guitar from other instruments.
However, what we don’t always know is what these frets are for. How do these things help us play the instrument? Are there other functions to them? What would happen if a guitar did not have frets?
Well, let’s find out!
How Strings Produce Sounds
For us to realize the importance of frets in a guitar, we must first understand how the strings produce sounds. Frets and strings work hand in hand to create music. Ergo, it only fits that we discuss the science behind the strings first.
We all know that sound is created through vibration. Therefore, any musical instrument requires a certain component to move in repeated, predictable motions to produce sounds. The component in guitars that does this is the string.
To apply motion to the strings, you need to create tension. This is done by plucking or strumming on them. So, by pulling the strings upwards or downwards, you create tension, and by releasing them, you create motion.
This motion is what allows the strings to produce sounds.
The Change in Pitch
Now, your strings are capable of producing sounds through the method above. However, that’s pretty much all they can do yet. So, how do guitarists change the pitch of the sound without having to adjust the tension through the tuning pegs?
Well, you do that by shortening the length of vibration on the strings. Shorter vibrations produce higher frequencies leading to higher pitches. On the other hand, longer vibrations produce lower frequencies leading to lower pitches.
To shorten or lengthen the vibration of the strings, guitarists have to press on the string they wish to pluck. By doing so, the vibration will only occur between the bridge of the guitar and the player’s finger pressed on the string.
Here’s a video with a good explanation:
The Importance of the Frets
If you take a look at cellos or violins, you will notice that none of them have frets. This makes them relatively more challenging to play. That’s because you have to rely on your muscle memory to remember which area on the fingerboard will produce a certain note.
On the other hand, guitars solve this problem by compartmentalizing the fingerboard into different sections called frets. The frets have three major functions, and we’ll talk about all of them below.
The first major function of the frets is to indicate where the notes are. By dividing the fingerboard into different sections, you can quickly identify where you should place your finger to play a certain note.
For example, by pressing your finger onto the 3rd fret of the lower E string, you are playing a G note. On the other hand, pressing your finger onto the 5th fret of the A string is a D note. This convenience is something you don’t regularly experience in violins or cellos, especially if you’re a beginner.
The next major function of the frets is to sustain the notes. In violins and cellos, the player needs to continuously drive the bow across and against the strings to prolong the ringing of the note. However, this is not the case with guitars, especially when you consider the fact that guitars don’t require bows.
If you notice, the guitar will independently sustain the note upon plucking the string. That’s because there’s tension already between the bridge and the headstock. So, by pressing the string, the metal frets function as sustainers to prolong the note.
Think of it as though you’re simply reducing the length of the fingerboard by shortening the distance between the bridge and the other end of the string with your fingers. Without the metal frets, the notes wouldn’t sustain as long as they usually do.
The final major function of the frets is to set a certain area where a note begins and ends. When you’re playing the violin, moving your finger half an inch further will significantly affect the intonation of the note. That’s because there’s nothing that separates one note from the next.
On the other hand, this is something you wouldn’t encounter with a guitar. Even if you move your finger half an inch forward or backward, as long as it’s within the fret, the note will stay the same.
What Happens if a Guitar Does Not Have Frets?
Believe it or not, there are actually guitars that don’t have frets. They’re called fretless guitars. However, they are significantly harder to play than traditional ones. The first major problem is the lack of guidance as to where the notes are. This means that you wouldn’t be able to easily identify where to place your fingers to play a certain note.
The next major problem is the difficulty of sustaining the notes. As we have mentioned, frets allow the player to prolong the notes with ease. Without them, a guitarist would have to resort to other techniques such as sliding, hammering, or playing vibratos to sustain a note.
The beauty and genius that came with the development of the guitar are things we often take for granted. Although that’s not at all surprising, since there are a lot of techniques and lessons we would rather learn about this instrument to play it properly.
However, understanding how the guitar works can actually make it easier for us to grow our skills in playing it. By understanding the importance of frets, how they work, and why we have them, we can maximize our guitars’ potential and improve how we make music.
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.