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DIY: How to File Down Your Guitar Frets

Getting started

In this article I’m going to share with you how to file down those annoying high frets on your guitar to get rid of those pesky dead zones. I’m going to start by saying that I am not a professional luthier; I simply learned how to do the following by trial and error. I am nothing more than a guitar hobbyist. I recorded my notes of everything I did to find what worked from what didn’t. Before we get started there are a few items we need to complete this task:

  • 1. Credit card- Anything small flat and square. Make sure that the card is even because you will use this to balance on the fret to tell if they are even.
  • 2. Fret file- You can buy the luthier version but they are very expensive. Instead I used the Nicholson 6″ black diamond taper file for about $4.21 at Home Depot. The Nicholson file had three sides and no handle; it will get the job done perfectly.
  • 3. Steel wool- I actually found the dollar store stuff will do just fine.
  • 4. Black marker- You will use this to know how much you file down.
  • 5. Duct tape- Masking tape will work too.

My Pyle-Pro PGAKT39 Acoustic guitar has pretty much become my project fixer-upper guitar, if there is something I want to learn I use that guitar to test it out on. I suggest that if you are learning how to do luthier work you should also use a cheap guitar before testing this out on the real thing. The 13th and 14th frets were a bit too high and I needed to file them down so that the notes would ring out clearly. It was really annoying because if I played anything near the 12th fret I would get string buzz, so here is how I fixed the problem.

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Prepping your guitar

The first thing you will need to do is loosen and remove all of the strings on your guitar. If you keep them on you may risk filing the strings and sawing them clean off.

After the strings are off of your guitar, take your tape and place two strips on the fretboard where you will be working so that the file doesn’t take a chunk out of the wood. The tape should cover the wood but not the frets themselves, leave a space so that you can work on the fret. Take a look at the second picture to see how I put the tape on. The tape on the fretboard actually came off while I was filing the frets and I hit the guitar with the file which created a small gash in the wood, don’t make the same mistake I did so make sure you put at least two to three layers of tape so that the file never touches the fretboard.

If you are doing this to your real guitar go ahead and put something on the guitar’s body as well to protect the finish from being scratched. You will now use your credit card and balance it across your frets. If it stays level your frets are fine, if it rocks than you know one fret is too high. Play around with the credit card for a bit to make sure you know which fret is the highest.

Filing down the frets

After you removed the strings, taped the fretboard, and found the high fret, take your marker and draw a thick line across the top of the fret. This will be your guide to let you know how much you take off.

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Now you can use your file to take the fret down. Be careful here because you don’t want to take too much off. I got a good grip with my file by holding it with my middle, ring and pinky fingers at the bottom of the file and my index finger and thumb extended at the top to support the file. Be careful not to hit your fingers because you can file skin off too. I slightly tilted the file to the side and did two passes on the right side of the fret and than two more passes on the left side, making sure I did both in full even strokes. You should see the marker line start to fade away as you work. If you file directly on the top of the fret it will become flat, so make sure to work with the file at a slight angle to recrown the fret so that it has a nice round top. I didn’t use any extra tools to do this; I used the same Nicholson file for everything.

After I did about six passes over the fret I used my credit card again to see if it still rocked on the uneven fret. Sometimes you only need to take off a little so work slowly and take your time so that you don’t file off too much. If you have a crowning tool that will help make the fret nice and smooth.

Finishing touches

After the fret was even and the credit card no longer rocked, I carefully ran my finger across the top of the fret to see if it was sharp, you don’t want sharp edges. If you find one just do a couple of small passes with your file to remove the sharp edge. My frets were fine, so I moved on to rubbing the fret down with steel wool to remove scuff marks and to make the fret nice and shiny.

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The last step is to put the strings back on the guitar and play a couple of notes to see if the notes ring out clearly. I actually had to retouch the fret about three times before I got it perfect, so don’t expect the fret buzz to be cured right away. Any type of Luthier work takes time, so don’t rush it.

If you need to take off a little more just repeat the steps until you get it right.

After I got my frets nice and even, I then went to work in adjusting the action on my guitar to finish the setup. After that the guitar played perfectly.

Good luck!