How guitar frets evolved and changed the course of guitar-playing history

Fretboard of a Fender electric guitar
(Image credit: Future)

Looking back many hundreds of years, early lutes were fretless, but they began getting frets from the late 16th century. These frets subdivide a fretboard so a string can be pressed anywhere between two frets and the note will have the desired pitch. Without them, extreme accuracy is needed for intonation.

Lute builders, aka luthiers, tied lengths of gut or nylon around a neck with the knot placed at the top edge of the fretboard. In addition to making it easier for players to pitch notes correctly, these frets made it possible for multiple notes to be used simultaneously. This also allowed for chords as well as single notes – and frets soon became commonplace on guitar-like instruments. 

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Huw Price

Huw started out in recording studios, working as a sound engineer and producer for David Bowie, Primal Scream, Ian Dury, Fad Gadget, My Bloody Valentine, Cardinal Black and many others. His book, Recording Guitar & Bass, was published in 2002 and a freelance career in journalism soon followed. He has written reviews, interviews, workshop and technical articles for Guitarist, Guitar Magazine, Guitar Player, Acoustic Magazine, Guitar Buyer and Music Tech. He has also contributed to several books, including The Tube Amp Book by Aspen Pittman. Huw builds and maintains guitars and amplifiers for clients, and specializes in vintage restoration. He provides consultancy services for equipment manufacturers and can, occasionally, be lured back into the studio.