Despite anything you might have heard, German silver AKA nickel silver actually contains no silver, and never did. It is an alloy of copper with a percentage of nickel added for durability, as well as the silvery color. The most common alloy for good traditional fretwire is about 18% nickel, 80% copper, and the rest traces of various other dreadful things such as zinc, lead and cadmium. Jescar's NS formula is 62% copper, 18% nickel, and 20% zinc.
The "gold" wire referred to below as EVO wire is Jescar's proprietary nickel-free hypoallergenic alloy originally devised to make eyeglass frames for folks with nickel allergies. It contains no gold either, of course, and makes wonderful fretwire. I wish it was available in more sizes. As acceptance of this wire grows among players, I'm sure other sizes will be added.
SS indicates Jescar's stainless steel wire. SS eats normal tools fairly fast, which means you have to buy diamond stuff if you work with it very often. I was once told by a gentleman at Jescar that it's not as durable as EVO, but he's backpedaled, now saying it outperforms nickel but not stainless. I did enough stainless to know what it did to my tool budget, and saw that the frets still wore out pretty fast, and so I've stopped using it. YMMV. I'll stick with nickel or—when I can—with EVO, which is a dream to install. It's the most durable fretwire I know of.
I have posted more of my thoughts about frets and fretwire below the chart. I have rendered these charts in inches, to simplify comparisons, and have skipped most wires with nickel content lower than 18%.
These charts range from large to small, more or less. Tang widths are to be double-checked, as different mfrs have different ways of measuring them. Some include beading, some don't. For some strange reason, Stew-Mac lists tang heights, and simply says "Our tang is sized to fit a 0.023" (0.58mm) fret slot width." This is one aspect of fretwire measurement that is hardly standardized. I don't think tang measurement is very important, and am tempted to remove the entire column from this chart.
|No.||Material||Crown width||Crown height
||18% NS - SS - EVO||.110
||18% NS - SS - EVO||.090||.055
|Stew-Mac||150||18% NS||.110||.053||.074 high*
|Stew-Mac||154||18% NS||.100||.050||.060 high*|
|Jescar||47104||18% NS - SS - EVO||.104||.047||.020|
|Jescar||47095||18% NS - SS||.095||.047||.021
||18% NS||.084||.039||.029||See Stew-Mac's 148 below
||18% NS||.084||.039||.055 high*||Their most common guitar wire and Huber banjo wire|
||18% NS||.080||.050||.048 high*||Superb medium-large wire
||12% NS||.079||.035||.024||modern banjo/mandolin|
||18% NS - SS - EVO||.080||.037||many tang widths now;
||for vintage Martin restoration— check website for
||18% NS||.080||.040||.062 high||Really good "old time" "banjo" wire or Gibson
'30's guitar wire
||.055 high||Their most common guitar wire and Huber
||18% NS - SS - EVO||.080||.043
||In EVO, a great wire for mandolins and on up
|Dunlop||6230*||18% NS||.078||.043||.035||Classic Martin guitar wire, highly regarded for
||No longer made, darn it, but a very good mandolin wire
||Material||Crown width||Crown height|| Tang width
NS - EVO
||18% SS - only
||Wish this came in EVO
|Dunlop||6280 *||18% NS||.076||.044||No longer made, but a very good mandolin wire|
|Dunlop||6230 *||18% NS||.078||.043||Classic Martin guitar wire, highly regarded for
||18% NS - EVO||.053
||A modest but very effective mandolin
|Jescar||43080||18% NS - SS - EVO||.080||.043||Great wide
wire for mandolins and on up; compare Dunlop 6230
|Stew-Mac||147||18% NS||.080||.040||Really good "old time" "banjo" wire or Gibson '30's guitar wire|
|Stew-Mac||155||18% NS||.080||.050||Superb medium-large wire, never tried
it on a mandolin
|Jescar||39040||18% SS - only||.040||.039||Great vintage-y size, but I detest stainless—wish this came in EVO|
Some thoughts about frets
Fretwire size has no real effect on intonation, but it has everything to do with playability. Taller frets make it easier to get clear notes: less finger pressure is required, a fact that some people don't notice, but which makes a life-and-death difference to others. Some folks really like teeny frets, but more and more makers, following the lead of the players who showcase their instruments, are going for larger frets than Gibson has ever used.
Taller frets also last longer as well because you don't have to press so hard to get a clear note. Again, some folks have to adjust their touch to take advantage of this. But you don’t need to press your finger to wood to get a clear note.
I keep about 20 different wires for different applications, but for mandolins I have used mostly the old Dunlop 6280 or the Dunlop 6230 mentioned above. I'm keeping my old 6280 for partials now, and am moving to Jescar's 43080 and 37053 (in EVO). Stew-Mac's 147 and 148 wires are also hard to beat.
The typical vintage Gibson mandolin fret, at .034” wide and .032” tall when new is, to me, absurdly small. Most (though not all) of the serious pro players in my mandolin clientčle prefer much heftier ones, such as the Dunlop 6230 or the lamentably extinct Dunlap 6280 (it was really close to 1930's Gibson guitar frets). The old Dunlop 6280 was .076” wide by .044” tall. I wish it was still available, I like that size better. Both are about the same height, but the 6230 is a tad wider and feels different. Jescar makes a wire that seems to have all the answers though, their 39040 (in either 18% NS or stainless), it’s .039” tall by .040” wide. That’s practically half-round. For folks who prefer really narrow wire, as in the days of yore, I use Dunlop 6310.
Stew-Mac wires are made in Japan and are a bit harder than the Dunlop wire. And some by Jescar, made in Germany, are different than anything offered by the other people. With the exception of stainless, which I don't care for at all, the bigger and/or harder the wire, the more trouble it is to install, but the longer it will last. I believe it's worth the effort.
My standard wires for my serious guitar clients are, at the very least, Dunlop 6230 *, at .043” tall and .078” wide or Jescar 's 43080 EVO wire which is nearly identical. Going a little larger, Stew-Mac's #155, a very fine 18%+ nickel wire which is .080" wide and .050" tall. These are fairly narrow wires, not like "jumbo" or electric bass frets anyway, but quite tall. They seem to frame the industry standard for guitars.
A number of folks, particularly in the gypsy guitar world, are turning to the Jescar 57110, .050” tall by .110” wide, which comes in nickel, stainless or EVO gold, which is hands-down the most durable wire on the market, better than stainless, and infinitely easier to work with. My experience with this wire over the last few years has been a real revelation.
There are so many different sizes of available fretwire—not to mention what has been used historically and how the various sizes and types are used these days—that the term "banjo wire" means next to nothing. It's like talking about "rosewood" - another vague and extremely subjective term. I prefer more precise descriptions instead: the crown height and width, the alloy makeup, and to some extent the work-hardness.
Some players want narrow, others want wider and taller. I deal with a couple of these each week, week in and week out, and I do what folks ask for. The skinny frets seem to be favored by players who, for one reason or another, are reluctant to break with the old look. Often, once they've really tried wider and taller frets however, they see they're easier to get around on and last longer, and then they make the jump.
Speaking of which...
These are Lloyd Loar's "Fairy Frets" which were used on his Viva-Tone guitars. It's the notion that 'a higher fret is easier to play because getting clarity requires less finger pressure' carried to an extreme! I have only played on these a couple of times. I suppose I could adjust to them, but doubt I'd really want to try. I'd have loved to hear Lloyd Loar play them though!
Another factor in regarding fretwire is how people's playing touch can change over time. Years ago I refretted a mandolin for a guy who had bought his mandolin new in 1955 or so. By 1985 he needed a refret real bad. I did it with fairly similar wire (medium height and width) and within six months he was getting real anxious about how the new wire was so soft and showing wear already. I explained that the wire I used was 18% nickel, the hardest available. Dubious, he said “It must be made of lead solder!” To prove his point, he took one of his original frets and some of the new stuff I'd used and had them assayed at a lab. The original was 11% nickel and the stuff I used actually came in at over 19%. What had changed was that the guy was older and his touch had changed. I've found that older players generally squeeze harder. Squeezing harder causes more/quicker fret wear. (I guess I'll have to be more careful, now that I'm heading into those final laps myself!)
Another little anecdote. My main playing partner for many years was a wonderful Sicilian mandolinist named Tony Flores, who burned through two sets of frets a year. Every year. He had two identical mandolins, and he played hours and hours every day, and he managed to wear divots in every fret from 1 to 11 under all four courses that were so deep that milling was simply not an option. These were standard old Dunlop 6280 frets: hard, 18% nickel. Imagine a "partial refret of the first 11 frets every six months. It's a good thing he knew me! Other players using these frets (myself included) get way more use out of them because of how they/we play.
Milling and dressing
You need to mill and dress frets when they're freshly installed to get rid of minor buzzes and so forth, to make them feel smooth under your fingertips, but not to make cosmetic divots go away.
Fret milling as a routine maintenance procedure is so, um, Sixties. When you do it, you lower all the frets to the lowest point of the most worn fret, and in most instances, that’s just a few frets. All you accomplish in milling old frets is a look, at the expense of a lot of fret life and increase playing difficulty, for no good reason. I'd like to think the state of the art has advanced some since then.
If one or two (or a typical situation where frets 1-5) are so worn they are causing audible or physical playing problems, I replace only the bad ones. In other words, if you notice that the frets are wearing in spots only because you can see the wear (but you can't feel or hear it), keep playing and save your money for getting it done when it really needs to be done. Replace them when they’re not working right anymore.
Jescar Enterprises, Inc. (They say they will make any wire in any alloy for a reasonable minimum order)
Nanuet, New York
800-848-2273 9am-6pm EST, M-F
Dunlop Manufacturing, Inc.
P.O. Box 846 Benicia, CA 94510
Warmoth Guitar Products Inc.
West Coast USA
This is not intended to be an endorsement of anyone. There are other good wires available, but these are the main ones I know of and deal with in the US. These are not the entire offerings of the suppliers noted above, merely what I thought was important.
If you have comments, or corrections, please drop me a line.
Here's a simplified old Dunlop chart. Their sizes have changed a bit, though I have never found their specs to be
very reliable, even within a single roll.