Zero Frets

Yes kids, that's a fret right next to the bridge.

Yes kids, that’s a fret right next to the nut.

I often complain that after decades and decades, we’ve made so little progress with improving some of the basic faults that guitars (and most fretted/stringed instruments) inherit.

Some of those problems include:

  • Intonation – Strings aren’t supposed to be exactly the same length, nor are frets supposed to be the same distance apart.  We’ve attempted to solve this with individually adjustable bridge sections, the Buzz Feiten system, and to a lesser degree, non-traditional fret layouts.
  • Action – necks play best with a little curve to them.  Nuts, frets and bridge saddles aren’t all at the same height.  We end up with action that is higher than we’d like, or buzzing and fret-out problems.
  • Tonality – Play an open A minor chord.  Play a G barre chord.  These two chords fit together in lots of songs, but they sound kind of terrible.  Not in a harmonic sense, but a dynamic one.  Strings resonate way differently when fretted vs unfretted, which makes for a real inconsistent sound in your playing.1
  • Nut Slots – A typical guitar will have a nut that supports your standard .009-.010 gauge strings.  That’s great for most people, but if you’re into jazz or big meaty chords, you might want .011-.012.  Then you’re filing your nut slots.  That creates all sorts of other issues if you want to change string gauges from time to time.

Well guess what?  A zero fret solves all those problems.  So why doesn’t every guitar have one?  There’s no paying licensing to any company to install them (like you do with BFTS).  They aren’t complicated or expensive (like most options to fix the above).  They don’t fundamentally change the way the guitar plays or looks (like fanned frets).

My only explanation is that guitarists are a stubborn bunch and don’t like change.  Any time I see the topic come up on a major forum, one or two people say how they have them and love them.  Several others will talk about how they’d like to try it out.  That’s about it.  There’s no topic outside of boobs that is more universally accepted on guitar forums.  Sure, once upon a time it was controversial, but that seems to be in the past.

But yet, people aren’t making a point of buying guitars with this option.  They aren’t getting their existing guitars modified.2 Everyone just keeps buying the same guitars with the same flaws.

Find a guitar with a zero fret.  There’s not too many electric options, but acoustics are somewhat easier to find.  Play an open D chord, notice how nicely in tune it is.  Notice how low the action is without sending you to buzz land.  And try to find a serious drawback.

  1. I realize this is a highly debatable “problem” and I happen to love the sound of open chords.  But, it creates such a different sound that it can be an annoyance for a lot of songs.  I think we’re just conditioned to live with it more than anything.
  2. Most shops would tell you there is no way to modify a guitar to add a zero fret.  Really it’s not practical at all, but money can make it happen.
  • Hi,
    To my opinion you are completely right in your argumenting for the 0th fret, If Buzz Feiten had had a decent guitar – and not a standard Strat – with a 0th fret he wouldn’t have discovered any problems. One of the few in the past using this was Gretsch on Chet Atkins and some of the other models from this periode -it was introduced on his demand. Gretsch made other strange and foolish things during this periode, but basically it was an advantage. They now use it only on the reissues of the 62-models, but don’t use it on the newer series. It is a step bacwards.
    The headless models as Steinberger and a few others have it in general.
    It is possible on the internet to find digrams showing the tunig problems without the 0th fret and the advatage of using it. It is very evident from these diagrams, that the G string problem is the most pronounced, but most of the other strings give problems too, especially in the first 5-6 positions.

    • I just noticed these guys offer a nut replacement w/ zero fret. http://www.zeroglide.com – Doesn’t appear to be any more work than a typical nut replacement. I’m tempted to try one, but my main guitar has an earvana nut (which addresses about half the problems discussed in this post) and I can’t recall how much modification to the nut slot happened to fit that thing. I’ll probably try one out on another guitar unless I read a bunch of horrible reviews somewhere.

  • Henning, Denmark

    I have seen how the Earvana or other similar items has been used and really get rid of some intonation errors, but to me it is like crossing the river for water – – Don’t make new errors to compensate for basic errors !! Correct the basic errors instead !!
    The reason for intonation error is partly due to “American style” in fretting with just the nut as the end of the fretboard. This has the disadvantage of “vising” the strings (clamped like in a vise) and certainly doesn’t let the strings swing freely, and furthermore the nut can be too high. It is a delicate operation to file it reasonably, and factories don’t spend much time here. I have no experience as to the Zeroglide system, one of my playing mates has bought a couple for his Fenders, but hasn’t installed them yet, he has intonation problems on both his Strat end his Tele. The advantage depends of where the fretboard is ended, if it is ended, where the 0th fret should have been installed, the first position is too short by ½ a fretslot.
    In general : don’t count on that the factories supply you with a “ready-to-play” guitar, you must finish it yourself !!
    By the way : even Gibson use a sort of 0th fret on their new Les Paul model, but it is a combination of a nut and 0th fret and height adjustable -as they tell : for better intonation !!
    Who would have belived that ??