You don’t always get what you pay for.

There are lots of guitar manufacturers out there who have a custom shop division, supposedly making guitars with an attention to detail that isn’t available in their more mass produced guitars.  They can get really, really expensive… but are they really worth it?  For a custom guitar that can cost upwards of $4000 and more, you’d expect perfection, right?  That’s not always the case…

This week we had a Fender Custom Shop Strat come in to the shop.  It was a brand-new 50’s style Strat that had been heavily “reliced” to look like it had been played hard for 50 years.  We were told that this guitar cost around $4000 – it should have been perfect, right?  Wrong.

This Strat exhibited the same problem that we see on almost every guitar that comes into the shop: uneven frets.  A poor fret job will cause a guitar to buzz and fret out all over the neck, even if the frets are only a few thousandths of an inch off.  Think about it: if the next adjacent fret is higher than the one you’re on, the string will buzz against the higher fret if you have anywhere close to a low action.  The problem is made even more apparent when you bend a note, especially on a neck with a “vintage” fretboard radius (7.25″ like most Strats and Teles).  The note will simply choke out if the frets are uneven.  There are only two ways to fix this problem: raise the action or level the frets.  Since raising the action isn’t the best course of action for most people, fretwork is the only option.

We do all our fretwork on our Fretty 5000 neck jig, which simulates string tension on a neck with the strings removed.  This way we can level the frets under real world playing conditions.  Fretty has 5 dial indicators that are accurate to 1/1000 of an inch – so we know EXACTLY what is going on:

Once we have the neck perfectly straight, we level the frets with a precision leveling beam.  Since the neck is dead straight, and the leveling beam is dead straight, then it stands to reason that the frets would all be straight, right?  Well, as they say, the proof is in the pudding:

Take a close look (click on the picture for an extreme close up).  You can see fret dust gathering around the frets that have been hit by the leveling beam – the 1st through 9th frets, then 17th through 21st frets.  Yet the frets around the 11th through 15th haven’t even been touched.  Doing fretwork takes a huge amount of patience and skill, and we don’t expect it to be perfect on a mass produced guitar.  Yet this guitar is a $4000 custom shop instrument, supposedly made by the best of the best.  How does this kind of thing happen?  Well, it just does and that’s why we’re here…

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