As a guitarist, I know that frets help me determine where to place my fingers to play specific chords. So, I wanted to know if other string instruments have frets. Here’s what I found.
What Is a Fret?
A fret is a raised strip placed on the neck of string instruments. The frets divide the neck into segments to produce different notes.
For example, the frets on the guitar divide an octave into 12 semitones.
Frets offer advantages and disadvantages. Due to the different needs of each instrument and musical style, some string instruments have frets while others do not.
String instruments make sounds through vibrations. When the player plucks, strums, or moves a bow across the string, it vibrates. The vibration is picked up by the bridge.
The vibrations are transferred from the bridge to the soundbox, which amplifies the sound. The pitch of the sound is mostly determined by the length, weight, and tightness of the strings.
The main advantage of frets is that they provide a fixed pitch. The design of the fret is simple. By pressing a string against a fret, the player reduces the length of the string and changes its tone.
A long string vibrates slowly and makes a low-frequency sound. A short string vibrates faster, producing a high-frequency sound.
By placing frets on the neck of the early guitars, guitarists could easily determine where to place their fingers to produce specific notes. This allowed them to play chords more accurately.
Frets soon appeared on other string instruments. Along with guitars, frets are commonly found on mandolins, banjos, ukuleles, and lutes. All these string instruments are typically played by picking or strumming the strings.
Frets also provide the advantage of increasing the sustain of notes. High sustain allows a note to last longer and carry across a greater distance after a string is plucked or strummed.
The first frets were made with catgut (gut), which is a type of cord made from fibers taken from animal intestines. Despite the name “catgut,” cat intestines were not used. The cords were typically made from intestines taken from sheep, goats, and cattle.
The cord was wrapped around the neck of the instrument to create a fret. The gut cords would eventually wear and deteriorate, which impacts the pitch of the strings. Ivory soon became the preferred material for frets.
When ivory was banned in many parts of the world, frets were soon made of metal, such as nickel. Almost all modern guitars now have metal frets.
Do Violins Have Frets?
Violins do not have frets for several reasons, including pitch control and tuning. Placing frets on the neck increases the accuracy of the pitch. However, violins have very delicate strings.
The violin is more susceptible to slight variations. The fixed pitch limits the ability of the player to achieve a wider range of intonations.
Modern violins do not have frets, but an early version of the instrument did. The viol, which is an ancestor of the violin, had frets made of guts. As the guts were prone to stretching and breaking, violists began playing without frets.
The increased flexibility of playing without frets allowed early violinists to add more expression and nuance to their performances. By the 18th century, it was uncommon to find frets on violins and cellos.
Early guitars also had frets made from guts. However, instead of eliminating the frets, guitarists switched to metal frets. Fretting allows a guitarist to sustain a note longer when plucking or strumming.
Violinists did not need frets to sustain notes, as the bow produces a continuous sound. Not including frets also allows players to compensate when a string is slightly out of tune. With a slight change in the position of the bow, a violinist can maintain the right pitch.
Do Cellos Have Frets?
As with violins, cellos do not have frets. The fluidity provided by a fretless design is essential for achieving the tonal qualities that people associate with the cello. Adding frets would limit the range of the instruments.
The double bass and viola are also fretless string instruments. However, the double bass is partially based on the design of the viola da gamba (viol), which has frets.
“Da gamba” is Italian for “from the leg.” As with the double bass and cello, the original viol is played upright, with the instrument held between the legs. It was closer in size to the cello but sustained the bass notes longer.
The early versions of the viol had movable frets. The frets frequently moved and deteriorated quickly, making it difficult to keep the instrument tuned. The double bass came from a need to produce a full, bass sound with the fretless design found on the violin.
So, do violins have frets? Violins and cellos do not have frets, as frets limit the ability of the player to control the intonation of the pitch. Frets also allow players to sustain notes longer, which is not necessary when playing with a bow. As guitars are typically strung or plucked, the frets allow guitarists to hold notes longer.
In the end, the fretless design of violins and cellos give violinists and cellists greater range. If you have any questions about frets, please feel free to leave a comment below.