Best of all worlds?
Like everything in popular culture, the guitar is occasionally subjected to fads. These ripples in the hype machine crop up and for a while, people begin questioning if what they thought they knew was true. We’ve seen it with modelling amps, tiny effect pedals and lunchbox heads.
Even more occasionally, the so-called fads break through to the mainstream and become part of the norm. The aforementioned lunchbox heads is a perfect example. Before the Orange Tiny Terror series, amps were either huge or practice sized. The Terror series showed that there was another way. Now, most large amp manufacturers have some sort of 15w scaled down valve head for practice and small gigs.
The reason we’re bringing these fads up is that, at the moment, there’s a pretty big buzz around fanned frets on guitars and basses. The concept is pretty simple; be placing the guitar’s nut at an angle, it allows the instrument to effectively be two different scale lengths at the same time. But what exactly are they, and what is the point? Let’s take a look at fanned frets and why you might consider using them.
We’ll start with the basics. Every guitar or bass has what’s called a scale length. This is the distance, in inches, from the bridge to the nut on the instrument’s headstock. Clearly a bass guitar is longer than a regular six-string, right? That’s because the longer scale allows the thicker strings to enunciate lower frequency noises more clearly.
If you’ve ever tried to down-tune a six-string and noticed that the sound just becomes too muddy after a certain while, that’ll be down to the scale length. Put simply, standard 24 -25.5″ scale guitar necks aren’t especially well suited to being tuned much below C. It can be done, and with decent equipment you’ll get some clarity, but on the whole it’s not what they were designed for.
Baritone guitars, on the other hand, allow the user to access far lower frequencies (i.e. MORE BASS) due to the longer scale length. Only problem is, they’re not so hot on the higher strings. Bends, for example, are tricky on account of the thicker strings used by a baritone.
Often, playing an instrument – particularly guitar – is about compromises. If you play a range of styles of music, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to find one guitar which can comfortably handle any genre. Hence we guitarists stockpile ever more instruments so we have the right tool for the job. And if it’s substantial low-end you require, along with the ability to shred away on the high strings, well…it’s not ideal. Unless, that is, you open your mind to the idea of fanned frets…
Why go fan?
So what are the benefits of using a guitar or bass with fanned frets? A lot of it has to do with string tension. The angled nut allows the guitar to reduce the string tension on the higher strings, thus making bends easier, while also putting more tension on the lower strings so you can use thicker strings which provide a more weighty low-end tone.
You’ll also notice a much smoother sound on the higher strings, while also experiencing a much tighter sound on the low-end. Those staccato Meshuggah style riffs will seem so much clearer, while not sacrificing the option of shredding away at the higher strings. The frets themselves are likely to offer better intonation across the board too, meaning you’ll not lose any tuning accuracy despite the odd angles everything seems to be at.
Realistically, a lot of it comes down to personal preference though. Some players find it a much more versatile and comfortable experience playing both lead and rhythm on a fanned fret guitar, while any worries about holding down barre chords don’t seem to have put people off so far. And, while some brands are offering strings designed specifically for fanned frets, a standard 9 gauge set will work just as well on account of the increased tension which helps balance them out.
Who uses them?
Predominantly we’re seeing fanned frets used a lot by metal players. Misha Mansoor, of Periphery, is known for using them, but there’s also examples of jazz and classical players using multi-scale guitars. The extended capabilities offered by having an extended range give players the opportunity to push the boundaries of their playing which, if you’ve got the talent, is always an exciting prospect.
Bass players too; the combination of a more assertive low-end and a clearer, chimier high end are giving bass players access to a tonal palette that wouldn’t be possible under normal circumstances.
If fanned frets sound interesting to you, we have a few examples we would like to share. Ibanez have a monopoly on this here at Dawsons; guitarists will want to check out the Ibanez RGIM7BC which is a seven-string monster featuring slight fanning of the frets to accommodate a stupendous low end tone. And for the bassists, check out the Ibanez SRFF800, which has a scale length running from 33.5″ to 34.5″.