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zero fret

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Total Posts: 51
i'm nowhere near to this step, but i'm trying to plan the build of my 000 12 fret fingerstyle guitar and i keep coming back to a zero fret. i've never played a zero fret guitar, but the idea of a zero fret is sensible to me in regard to a setup that follows the fingerboard contour and setting up the string height. anyone have experience with a zero fret as a builder or player? i'd like to hear what you think.

Jan 14, 08 | 5:21 pm

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This page has a discussion that covers what I've heard about it.

Jan 14, 08 | 6:22 pm
Dennis Weatherly

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Total Posts: 651
I had an MTD electric bass with a zero fret for a couple of years. All of my other basses have had a traditional nut. To be honest, I never really noticed the "consistent tone" advantage that is often mentioned for a zero fret. As far as setup and intonation goes, it was no more or less difficult to tweak and maintain than any other bass. I guess if I had needed to cut a new nut for it, that would have been more simple because nut slot depth isn't really an issue.

I have seen comments online that a zero fret will wear out faster than a traditional nut, requiring removal and replacement of the zero fret. I never saw that problem on my bass.

I have no experience with a zero fret on a guitar.

Jan 14, 08 | 9:42 pm
Bill Cory

Total Topics: 158
Total Posts: 3584
The zero fret concept gets batted around a lot. In Europe, zero frets are used pretty regularly, more than here in the USA. Some people feel that the intonation can be more accurate with a zero fret, but if it is placed exactly where the nut would be in the normal spacing of frets, it would only affect intonation because it might not be as high as a nut slot and therefore wouldn't cause as much string stretch for fretted notes. However, the nut or zero fret must be higher than the other frets, at least by a few thousandths (.005 to .009 depending on how accurate your fret levelling and neck are), because there is more extrusion of the string vibration when played open.

I've used a simulated zero fret to cure an intonation problem, years before I started building. A picture of it appears in this thread on photo posting. What is shown is an aftermarket device called an "E-nut," but it's essentially a zero fret. Its height is necessarily higher than the other frets on the Seagull guitar shown.

You will find that the sound of a zero fret when played open is different than the sound of a nut. In an article in the Guild of American Luthery by Mike Doolin, he makes note of this and guesses at the reason for it. It's a fact, but not easily explained.

Lots of info is available, but it boils down to whether you want to do it or not. It's your guitar!


Jan 15, 08 | 6:25 am

Total Topics: 11
Total Posts: 94
Ken Cierp has a "zero fret" method for making a nut on his site.

Jan 15, 08 | 11:41 am
Bill Cory

Total Topics: 158
Total Posts: 3584
Fred, Chris, et al -- Ken's Zero Fret nut is just a shortened nut. It is really no different from a regular nut, just much shorter in its overall height. If a nut is correctly made, it is basically exactly what ken is showing on that link.

Jan 15, 08 | 11:59 am

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Total Posts: 19
I've got a zero fret gypsy jazz copy and I think I owned another zero fret electric many many years ago.

No big deal. You have to file the fret to get your string height correct, you have to file the slots in a nut to do same.

I don't accept the intonation thing. The gap between the first fret and the anchor is the same, the amplitude of vibration of the string is the same, therefore the height above the 1st and on frets is the same. This is a setup issue, not an anchore choice issue.

As for a change in sound, there is one. Anchoring the end on steel rather than bone or whatever changes things. But it doesn't sound exactly like a fretted string. For one thing the tension against the anchore is fixed by the back angle. The tension by your finger is variable, also the length between fret and finger is shorter than from anchor to tuning machine.

Meh. Do what you want...

Jan 16, 08 | 5:16 pm
Bill Cory

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Damian -- Sorry, but I have to mildly disagree with your statement on intonation. The intonation of the guitar with open strings vs. its intonation on fretted strings does have everything to do with setup, as you said. Part of that setup can be the distance from the nut to the first fret.

Mike Doolin (, an accepted authority on intonation and setup issues, told me that he used to shorten the nut to first fret distance by about 1/64 to 1/32 inch. Here's why: The reason for compensation at the *saddle* is to account for string stretch in fretted notes. You may have noticed, on most factory guitars, you can tune open, or to an open "E" chord, and then try to play a C,A, or D, and they are out of tune. in fact, you can tune the "E" chord perfectly, and then fret the A on your G string (2nd fret) and find that it's about 14 cents sharp of a true A -- and that's on a well set-up guitar. (If your ear isn't sensitive enough to tone, check them with a chromatic tuner.) Saddle compensation attempts to correct this, and is often successful enough that we don't notice intonation problems. However, on some guitars, with a narrow saddle, their shaping can't be enough to compensate for fretted intonation problems. That's where the shortening of the first fret comes in. When you fret a string, you stretch it out of tune; compensation of the saddle, and sometimes the nut, is necessary to offset it. There is no question among luthiers that this measure can help in some cases -- not all. It certainly helped in the case of the Seagull guitar shown in the thread referenced above. I have shortened the first fret on a couple of guitars by 1/32" and found that the intonation was definitely improved, even when the action was down to where the nut slot is only .006" above the height of the first fret on treble strings, and more like .008" on the 5th and 6th strings.

The zero fret issue is different. You are right -- there is a slight difference in sound, and the aero fret open string doesn't have the same character as a fretted string. It also doesn't have the same character as an open string tensioned over a solid nut. There are many theories as to why this is so. My own thought on it has to do wth the fact that a nut has at least two large areas of firm contact with the neck -- both of them with much more area than a zero-fret has. To me, this has to make some sort of a difference in tone. In addition to that, there is also the difference in materials.


Jan 17, 08 | 4:36 am

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Total Posts: 19
I think I ahve not made myself clear, so to start I don't disagree with anything you said. I was saying something different and I'll try to explain better.

Your talking about intonation and geometry. I was talking about zero fret vs nut.

If your making a guitar you decide where the strings are going to meet your anchor (be it fret or nut and at the other end saddle) in the horizontal plane or the scale of the guitar. You decide how high the strings need to be at each point along the scale ie above each fret. You apply compensation at saddle and as you say optionally the neck end anchor, you apply relief in the fretboard and you apply an overall action height. The order you do all this is variable, and of course you might go for more height etc than is absolutely necessary.


Assuming you build one guitar with a zero fet and another with a nut, and you set each action/compensation/relief etc exactly the same on both then the distance from the neck anchor to the 1st fret and the height of the strings over the 1st fret and 12th fret etc is the same. Therefore the use of a zero fret or a nut isn't affecting your intonation.

If your using a zero fret to get a lower string height or change the distance from 1st fret to anchor that's a different matter, but both those things can be done with a nut, the latter by changing the length of the fretboard and repositioning the nut (or even using a second nut- pretty nutty :).

So there is a physical limit to how low you can position your strings before they buzz, and that limit can be found with both anchors.

Is that ok ? or do you disagree with what I just said ?

No stress by the way. I'm quite happy to believe I don't understand something here, and very happy to be educated :)

Jan 17, 08 | 5:15 pm
Bill Cory

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Total Posts: 3584
Not at all Damian. I disagreed with your, "I don't accept the intonation thing." Pretty broad statement.

Beyond that, I don't see any disagreement here.

Jan 18, 08 | 3:32 pm

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Total Posts: 19
It was intended to be within the narrower context of the comment that preceded it, but as happens often my wording was clumsy and incomplete.

Just as an aside, you know that the "tune" of a guitar is always a compromise don't you ? I assume if you've read up on intonation you know about Pythagoras etc.

Here's a bit of fun reading:

Nothing particularly ground breaking but sometimes reading the same theory presented differently can help us understand. I've found better websites on both those topics, but don't have time right now to look.

Anyway..:) long as we're all having fun..

Jan 19, 08 | 11:03 pm
Bill Cory

Total Topics: 158
Total Posts: 3584
Damian -- the best explanation you will find to help you with intonatin, tuning and guitar is this:

Mike (Doolin) also has a lengthy and very clear article in the current GAL quarterly.

Jan 20, 08 | 4:24 am

Total Topics: 1
Total Posts: 81
Just had a thought rereading this thread. When you use a capo you are essentially creating a zero fret and it works fine without the fret being higher than the other frets. This realization agrees with some of the comments on another forum (gasp) where a builder was looking for bigger fret wire to do a zero fret and others suggested that is was not necessary. That said, I don't care for the sound of a zero fret much.

Jan 21, 08 | 1:18 pm
Bill Cory

Total Topics: 158
Total Posts: 3584
The odd thing I've read about and experienced is that the open string needs more vibration room than a fretted string does. Mike Doolin mentions that in the GAL article -- I've forgoten the term he used, but he made it a definite point. So, a zero fret would still have to be the standard .005 or more higher than the numbered frets.

Jan 21, 08 | 4:58 pm

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