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The questions are in the title, picture is below, but here are the (TL/DR) details.

About 9 months ago, I bought an electric guitar "kit" and assembled it (fun, highly recommended). This included fret leveling, crowning, and polishing. A guitarist friend of mine acted like I might as well go over Einstein's Theory of Relativity and see if I could find some mistakes—it's that difficult! But it went well, in my opinion.

I got the intonation pretty close at the 12th fret through normal saddle adjustment, but ran out of travel on the 2nd and 3rd strings, and had to reverse the individual saddles to get them spot-on. The only problem I still have is the intonation on the first few frets, not so much on strings 4-6, but it's pretty bad on G(3rd), somewhat bad on B(2nd) and merely noticeable on E(1st). They sound sharp, bad on the 1st fret, better as you go up until about the 5th fret is again spot-on. Google tells me that this is pretty common (though I have no explanation as to why G is an especially fickle string!).

I've come to appreciate that if you squeeze the crap out of (example) the G string on second fret that this causes A to become really sharp, and if you just barely touch the fret, it's not so bad, but even when I'm barely touching the fret, which is not gonna happen in normal play, it's still almost 25 cents sharp.

Some of the advice on the internet tells me to flatten the entire string slightly so that the G is slightly flat and the A is only slightly sharp, but, like, I mean, what the hell???? Other advice I've seen is that I'm probably being too critical; nobody else will hear the difference. Trouble is, I don't believe it. Barre chords sound fine, and when I'm playing at or above 5th fret, even perfect. In this case, every string is fretted, and any slight sharpness due to squeezing the string against the fret is equal across the board, probably unnoticeable. But, when playing open chords (especially, for instance, "D", as 1st - 3rd strings all are fretted at 2nd or 3rd fret, yet 4th string is open), it sounds bad. Even open chord "E" has a big problem of the G string fretted at 1st fret (worst string, worst fret, followed by two open strings).

I've been considering trying to shape the individual frets under 3rd string frets 1-3 slightly back (toward the nut), but this seems really scary (worse than the Einstein thing!), especially seeing as how I'm pretty close now.

THEN!
(cue dramatic orchestra hit)

I was changing the strings on my Ibanez Acoustic I've had for about a year and a half. While cleaning the fretboard, the light caught the frets in such a way that I could see slight dents(?) under the 1st, 2nd and 3rd strings. Heaviest (dark red circles) on the 1st fret and getting lighter on higher frets until they seemed to completely dissapear on the 6th fret (green circles):

enter image description here
(click to enlarge)

The flash obscured the similar dents under the 3rd string, but they're there.

Now the wheels are turning again: Are those indentations there on purpose for intonation? Can I apply this same technique to my electric, relatively* easily? Any other thoughts/methods I could try to help this?

Or is it more likely that I am completely, irreversibly insane?

* thanks, Einstein!

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  • There are squiggly fret guitars that correct the intonation problems you're describing (look up "true temperament fretting"). That'll show you how far the frets have to be moved to achieve equal temperament, much more than these little dents. – bjb568 May 14 at 20:58
15

That's fret wear. The strings have slowly eroded away some of the fret material, leaving those dents. Over a long enough time, they become deep enough to cause problems.

When the fret wear is bad enough, you can have your frets "leveled", which means sanding down the tops of the frets so that the dents are sanded out. Then the frets a re-crowned and dressed and polished and they will be good for a while. Eventually frets wear enough that they have to be replaced, which is called a "refret".

All guitars have compromises on intonation - it's a consequence of the construction and mechanics of the guitar. One thing you can investigate is a compensating nut, which is a nut which has tiny extensions so that the nut side of the strings has intonation adjustments made kind of like the saddle side of an adjustable saddle bridge.

Another factor in the intonation of guitars is the ideal placement of the frets, adjustment of the saddles, and the overall action.

Personally, I do like your friend suggested and I deliberately tune the open strings of my guitars slightly off from where the tuner would have me tune them in order to make a tradeoff for better intonation around the 7th - 9th frets, where I like to play the most. I don't do this on my acoustic guitars, but I do it on my electrics.

Another thing I agree with is that mainly listeners don't notice the intonation quirks of guitars, but in some ways they do but it doesn't matter because that's a part of how guitars sound. It's one of the little details that synths and sample libraries don't quite get right when they try to imitate guitars.

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  • 1
    I considered this being fret wear, but it's only on the first three string positions, which I've only used nylon strings on. The 4th through 6th strings are brass-wound nylon (or something)—wouldn't they wear the same or faster? They don't show any wear at all! – Chowzen May 14 at 1:42
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    @Chowzen - is that Ibanez a second-hand guitar that someone may have used steel strings on previously? Just about all the second-hand guitars I've seen with fret wear have it in 2nd fret, 4th string worst. – Tim May 14 at 6:11
  • @Tim Hmmm... could be. Got it as a Christmas present and it seemed pretty pretty new to me. I'm just skeptical at the coincidence of the "wear" being under the three most troublesome strings in the most troublesome areas (frets 1-5) and not anywhere else. It seemed to fit my dilemma on the electric so well! – Chowzen May 14 at 9:47
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    @Chowzen It's not surprising that only the first few frets are affected, since they're by far the most commonly used by most players. It's also not surprising to see it on the higher-pitched strings since they generally are a bit tighter than the others, thus requiring more force to hold them down. Also, if they're steel (which they might've been in the past), they're thinner wire, which effectively makes them sharper, much like the blade of a kitchen knife is thinner on the cutting edge than on the back. – Darrel Hoffman May 14 at 13:19
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    Someone please tell me there's a guitar shop that doesn't do repairs somewhere with a big sign saying 'NO REFRETS' – dbmag9 May 14 at 14:07
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Those fret indentations are wear caused by playing. No manufactures would put them in on purpose.

My first move would be to consider that the neck is actually too close to the bridge. Maybe it could be moved, making it longer, by a few millimetres. Measure the distance between nut and 12th fret. It should be, give or take a couple of mm, the same as 12th fret to saddle on the 3rd/4th string. If that is short, then 'elongating' the neck should improve things, and the saddles can be adjusted accordingly.

I can't see how changing the nut will improve matters - all that will do is make the 1st fret longer, not adjust the neck or other frets.

If the action is high, then pressing the strings down will effectively sharpen them too much.

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None of that is on purpose. Your frets are worn down and need to be filed (dressed) or replaced if they are too deep.

You, or the previous owner, might be squeezing too hard. There are a slew of other factors that contribute to fret damage. You'll need to take it to a shop and see what a luthier says. A fret dressing and set up in the US can run about $120 on average new frets would be more expensive.

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  • The question wasn't really about how to fix the frets on the acoustic shown, but was it done on purpose (which you answered) and can this (or something else) fix the intonation on the electric. The acoustic (with the "wear spots" sounds fine. – Chowzen May 14 at 13:22
  • This will never be a fix for anything. If your acoustic sounds fine you are lucky or you are not listening with a fine ear. Typically the wear will be different at different places and you'll get dead spots. This will be worse on an electric if you bend strings. – ggcg May 14 at 15:41
  • Wow, so many down votes and no constructive criticism – ggcg May 16 at 20:48
  • I thought I gave constructive criticism. You didn't really fully answer the questions, which were "Are these indentations on the frets of my Acoustic for intonation? Can I apply this to the frets of my Electric?" You said that the indentations were wear marks and this is how they got there, this is how you fix them: take them to a luthier. I'm not trying to fix the acoustic, I'm trying to improve the intonation on the electric that I more recently built from a kit. Does that help? – Chowzen May 17 at 3:37
  • You weren't the only down vote. More importantly a red herring does not deserve an answer. . You present the question are these dents for intonation. I'm telling you what they actually are and is the same thing as telling you what they are not. – ggcg May 17 at 10:43

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