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Fret Wire Choices

Fret Wire Choices

Fret wire is the piece of metal, generally silver- or gold-colored, that runs perpendicular to the long edge of your dulcimer's fretboard. When you depress the string, the string makes contact with the fret wire, changing the pitch of the note.

Folkcraft Instruments offers three fret wire (aka fret wire) alloys, and two different sizes, for a total of six confusing choices. What should you choose? Let's see if we can help with that!

There's no real difference in tone between any of them. The fret wire doesn't vibrate, or generate tone, so the only reasons to choose one over the other would be cost, appearance, or durability.

Fret Wire Type

Cost

Appearance

Durability

Nickel Silver

Lowest

Silver color

Good

EVO

Medium

Gold color

Very good

Stainless Steel

Highest

Silver color

Excellent

 

Nickel Silver: For many years, the only real name in town was "German silver", also known as "nickel silver". Neither is a great name - there's no actual silver metal in this fret wire. But it is "silver" colored, so perhaps that's where the name came from. This fret wire is the standard, going back decades. The wire consists of copper, nickel, and zinc. 90 percent of the guitars and dulcimers that you see in use, have nickel silver frets. 

Benefits: ease of installation and adjustment (filing, sanding, and grinding). As the frets wear out and develop string grooves, it is easy to "crown" the frets, and remove the wear spots. Disadvantages: softer metal, will wear more quickly than EVO or stainless steel.

EVO: Pronounced as 3 distinct letters, "E", "V", "O", this is a metal originally developed for use in making eyeglass frames. It is non-tarnishing (unlike nickel silver), pretty (gold-colored), and durable. This fret wire is an alloy of copper, tin, iron, and titanium. EVO is roughly 50 percent more durable than nickel silver fret wire. Some people have an allergy to nickel, and since this wire is nickel-free, it is a good choice for them.

Benefits: appearance, durability, longer life. Disadvantages: more expensive than nickel silver, more difficult to work with, non-traditional appearance (gold color).

Stainless Steel: This is the most durable of the fret wire choices. The alloy contains nickel, chromium, sulfur, manganese, silicon, and carbon. Typical dulcimer strings are made of steel, with either a tin plating (the plain strings) or with a brass/bronze alloy wrapped around the steel core (the wound strings). Plain steel, tin, and brass/bronze windings are all much softer than stainless steel, so it is unlikely that you'll see much if any wear, even over many years. Stainless steel is roughly twice as hard as nickel silver fret wire.

Benefits: very long life, traditional appearance. Stainless steel fret wire isn't quite as shiny as nickel silver, but it doesn't tarnish with use, so it holds its looks over time. Disadvantages: cost, difficult to work with - stainless steel fret wire is HARD on luthier tools!

Standard Size Fret Wire versus Jumbo Size Fret Wire: What you'll feel is that the jumbo fret wire, both taller and wider than standard frets, feels like it is easier to play. We all know that the "correct" way to play a fretted instrument is to "push the string down until it makes contact with the fret". And most of us "push the string down until we feel the fretboard/wood", which is not an ideal technique, but something we learned early on as beginner players. With the tall fret wire, it is much easier to develop a perfect technique. Many of the "top" players prefer the jumbo fret wire. If you're getting a radiused fretboard, we definitely recommend the jumbo wire - it feels great underneath the fingers, and works well. 

There are definitely benefits of harder fret wire, but for most of us, the additional cost makes the benefits marginal. It is up to you on this one - there's no "wrong" choice here.

Decision time - it doesn't really matter. All of Folkcraft owner Richard Ash's personal instruments are nickel silver. The various Folkcraft endorsing artists? Nearly all nickel silver, with two exceptions: John Keane likes EVO, in standard size, and Dave Haas likes nickel silver, but in jumbo size.