The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #106618 Message #2204088
Posted By: JohnInKansas
28-Nov-07 - 02:58 PM
Thread Name: Tech: Zero Frets
Subject: RE: Tech: Zero Frets
As with almost everything about guitar making, the zero fret is a "compromise" that partially achieves "something" but gives up "something else."
When a string is fretted, there is significant "mushiness" in the longitudinal restraint of the string on the other side of the fret, because guitarists have "flabby fingers" (compared to a nice solid block of wood). This gives a fretted note a slightly different "tonality" than an open string on a typical instrument.
Most people are aware of the slightly "richer(?)" tone of the "open notes" and especially those players of the "chord-whanger" persuasion seek to play "mostly open" chords - using as many unfretted strings as possible - for the "fuller sound." For those people, the zero fret spoils the enjoyment, especially of their favorite "power chords."
The zero fret is - at least for some makers - an attempt to make the open string have (as nearly as possible) the same "tonality" as a fretted one, so that open notes mixed in with fretted ones don't have so much "difference."
Any guitar can have a zero fret by using a capo and renumbering the frets from zero at the capo. (Those who especially like the "open chord" sound are frequently the ones who object most to using a capo(?) although they often cite different imaginary(?) reasons.)
If one is building for the "power hungry" - as does Martin et. al. - the first fret would of course lose part of the "charm of the instrument" at least to some small degree.
If one is building for players of "melodic music" and/or "complex" chords, the first fret may at least partly improve the tonality - the evenness of tone - of the instrument - if implemented effectively so that it works. (Casual observation is that flamenco guitars are somewhat more prone to use a first fret; but I've made no formal surveys of the usage.)
Both these idealized extremes are of course somewhat compromised by builders who do things "because the saw it once and it looked good" or for other reasons - real and imagined - known only to the individual luthier(s). Sometimes an instrument sounds good even if all the good features were used for all the wrong reasons. Sometimes an instrument with "unusual features" sounds good because the imaginary theory was so far off that the feature didn't work, so the instrument "just happens" to be okay. Sometimes a skillful luthier turns out a good one on purpose too.