why use a zero fret ?

Discussion in 'Luthier's Corner' started by Blues Daddy, Sep 2, 2020.

  1. Blues Daddy

    Blues Daddy

    Jul 1, 2016
    So, I'm curious about an instrument with a 'zero fret'. I've seen them for years and more often on non-bass instruments (acoustic guitars and mandolins . . . in fact, I have a very playable mando hanging on my wall with a zero fret that's a full 6mm from the nut)


    I've always assumed that the purpose for using a zero fret was because for some reason the design of the fretboard and placement of the nut was not accurate for the actual proper scale of the instrument (string length to the bridge) ... and/or it was easier to make the scale accurate by adding a zero fret where the nut would otherwise be (???). Not being a luthier myself, I recognize that my "guess" may be missing the mark (so to speak) about how and when a zero fret is built into the design of an instrument. In my own observations/experience it has appeared mostly on 'off brand' instruments and not seen typically on big name brands.

    I saw an add for a bass on CL that included the following line in the description: "Neck is straight as an arrow, low action with no buzz, and has perfect intonation due to the zero fret design." So, I'm wondering if there is a distinct advantage to using a zero fret (to achieve consistent perfect intonation) verses a build design that relies instead on the nut-to-bridge string length like all of my Fender, Gibson, Epiphone, and G&L instruments do?

    The zero fret on this bass appears to be touching the nut and may actually be lower in height than the nut (?) Here are some pics and specs (and an audio link! - pretty good ad):


    Built by Sabi Guitars. This is a prototype model design of the bass featuring some of the best woods and hardware from around the world! This bass was inspired by some of my favorite basses I’ve played over the years. This bass is truly a one of a kind beast that nails all kinds of different tones. Musicman, Pbass, Jazz Bass, it can do it all!
    Weight: 7.94 lbs
    Body Material: Ultra Light Weight Swamp Ash
    Body Finish: 2k Polyurethane
    Body Shape: Custom
    Neck Material: Roasted Maple
    Fingerboard Material: Roasted Maple
    Neck Finish: True Oil
    Neck Shape: Standard Jazz Bass .872-.975
    Scale Length: 34inch
    String Spacing: 19mm
    Fingerboard Radius: 9.5" (24.13cm)
    Number of Frets: 21
    Fret Size: Stainless 6230
    Nut Material: Bone with Zero Fret
    Nut Width: 38mm Jazz Bass
    Position Inlays: Black dots
    Truss Rod: Standard with 2 stiffening bars
    Bridge Pickup: Aguilar 4M
    Neck Pickup: Aguilar 4j-HC
    Preamp: Bass Mods Mini Pre
    Controls: Master Volume (Push/Pull for Active/Passive), Blend, Mids (Pull for bright), Bass/Treble, Side Jack Mount.
    Bridge: Fender Deluxe bridge with saddle grooves
    Hardware Finish: Chrome
    Tuning Machines: Grover mini 20:1 ratio
    Pickguard: 3mm black acrylic
    Control Knobs: Tele Dome Style
    $850 OBO
    Audio Link:

    So, please share your thoughts and knowledge about zero frets, I'm curious. Thanks.
    dkelley likes this.
  2. This is a highly debated subject. I suggest checking out this -

    And this -

    ....and then deciding for yourself.
    Gilmourisgod and Ruknrole like this.
  3. two fingers

    two fingers Opinionated blowhard. But not mad about it. Gold Supporting Member

    Feb 7, 2005
    Eastern NC USA
    I always though that it was so the open strings'notes don't sound any different from fingered/fretted notes.
  4. 5tring


    Sep 16, 2018
    That’s what I’ve always assumed
    Charlzm likes this.
  5. Bruce Johnson

    Bruce Johnson Commercial User

    Feb 4, 2011
    Fillmore, CA
    Professional Luthier
    There are a lot of old threads here on TalkBass about zero frets; why use them, what they do, how they should be trimmed, etc.

    Here's a quick post of mine on one of those threads from 2018:

    Yep. I use zero frets in all the fretted basses that I build, for the reasons mentioned above. They even out the tone between open and fretted notes, and it's a little easier to get the string height just right. I use a taller size fretwire for the zero fret, and then trim it down to 0.010" higher than the other frets. The reasons why it needs to be taller than the others have been argued out ad nauseum on some other threads.

    On my fretless basses, I use an ebony "zero block". It's a block of cross-grain ebony that's also cut to 0.010" higher than the surface of the fingerboard. Same reasons.

    Why don't the big manufacturers use zero frets? Because 1.) Leo didn't use them, so they can't be any good; 2.) It would cost more; and 3.) Most customers wouldn't notice the difference unless you pointed it out to them.?

    From many years of building basses with zero frets, I've found that trimming the zero fret to about 0.010" above the other frets works best. It's the same as you'd cut the slots in a conventional nut. And that number works for any gauge or string type. If you take it lower than 0.010", the "buzz threshold" on the first fret is lower. You would have to leave the overall action higher to avoid buzzing against the first fret when playing the open note. Leaving the zero fret higher than 0.010" makes the first position feel stiffer when pushing the string down.

    On any thread about zero frets, someone will jump in and argue that the zero fret should be exactly level with the other frets. After all, it's just another fret, right? Why should it need to be higher? And, likewise, why should the bottoms of the conventional nut slots be higher than the other frets?

    The reason is because of the curvature of the neck. To get the lowest possible action without buzzing, the neck needs to have a slight relief curve. With the strings under tension, the truss rod is adjusted to allow the neck to bend into this slight upward curve. The ideal shape for this relief curve isn't a constant curve; it's actually one quarter of a long shallow ellipse. This ideal curve is nearly flat at the heel, and the radius gets smaller as it gets closer to the nut. It curves up at an increasing rate as it gets closer to the nut. Necks are designed to do that. Under string tension, as you loosen the truss rod, the neck should form into that curve.

    The problem is that most necks flare out and get thicker right around the nut area, to transition in shape to the headstock. The wood is quite a bit stiffer right there between the nut and the 1st fret. If the nut or zero fret were cut exactly level with the other frets, when the neck pulls up into that relief curve, that area around the nut won't bend as much. The relief curve would have a slight kink in it, effectively a lump at the first fret.

    So, that's why the nut or zero fret is cut slightly higher than the other frets. It mechanically creates that tail end of the relief curve to compensate for the neck being too stiff in that area.​
  6. equill


    Nov 25, 2010
    From the Basslab FAQ:
    "We use them on all our instruments because the open strings will sound exactly like the rest and also, because a well positioned fret gives you the most accurate heigth and low action. And finally, you don´t have to file nut slots, because you want to use a different string gauge."

    That second sentence sounds like a good argument, to me.

    Personally, I don't have a strong opinion either way. I have instruments with and without, and I couldn't tell you with a straight face that I notice any difference according to whether it has one.
  7. Beej


    Feb 10, 2007
    Vancouver Island
    I use a zero fret in everything I build for pretty much the same reasons other builders do. Consistency in tone between open and fretted notes, easier to get string height exact, easy swappability with other string gauges, nut becomes a string guide only and does not affect tone, so widens the choices of materials to use, and it's overall easier to get critical dimensions accurate. I don't measure mine to the exact level that Bruce mentions above, but I don't dress the zero fret when I level and dress the rest of them, so it works out to being similarly higher than the rest of them.

    For what it's worth, on a bass, there is much less tuning and bending (and tremolo) movement than on a guitar, so the "extra wear" is effectively a moot point.
  8. JeezyMcNuggles


    Feb 23, 2018
    Santa Maria, CA
    I suck, but nobody really notices
    Haven't you ever noticed that open strings sound wonky compared to fretted notes? That's what the zero fret is for. To ring open notes strong and true.
    Hercules likes this.
  9. bassdude51

    bassdude51 "You never even called me by my name." Supporting Member

    Nov 1, 2008
    Central Ohio
    Why use a zero fret? I don't really know. But, ya don't see 'em all that much and especially on bass guitars. That alone makes us suspicious.

    And now, Ernie Ball Musicman and perhaps some others are now using compensated nuts. A whole different topic for discussion.

    Now, with a standard nut, plastic, bone or whatever, normally the E, A, D and G slots are actually cut at different depths, ehmm should be cut at different depths. To simplify, the E slot is cut a bit higher than the G slot. Or the G string is cut lower in the nut than the E string. I'm not going to give measurements.

    With a zero nut, all the strings will be exactly the same clearance and by the way, the zero fret is taller than the rest of the frets on the instrument because there has to be clearance or there will be open string buzzing on fret #1.

    Anyway, there seems to be an advantage with a nut over a zero fret because the slots in the nut can be cut in depth according to each string

    Advantages? Disadvantages? I don't really know.

    Are E A D G played open gonna sound more like a fretted note with a zero fret? I don't really know. Although in my opinion, I doubt it and if there is a difference, I doubt if it is noticeable.

    Who am I? Nobody. But, I've built over 20 basses and 4 electric guitars.

    Kind of a tangent. Is there a difference between a plastic nut, bone nut, bleached bone nut, unbleached bone nut, synthetic material nut for an open string? If there is, you're not gonna hear it.

    I think that if there was an advantage to a zero fret, we's see more of them. We don't.

  10. Beej


    Feb 10, 2007
    Vancouver Island
    @bassdude51 do you mean you have assembled over 20 parts basses, or do you mean you have scratch built 20 basses and 4 guitars from lumber?

    I'm not sure where the conclusion that not seeing them more often somehow equates to a lack of advantages? Honestly, I think the reason we see so many fender style instruments being manufactured is due to sentiment more than advantageous design. :D
    JIO, maxschrek, james condino and 7 others like this.
  11. bassdude51

    bassdude51 "You never even called me by my name." Supporting Member

    Nov 1, 2008
    Central Ohio
    Good question. I've assembled (from parts) over 20 basses and I've cut over 30 nuts.

    I'm not gonna recommend zero fret or standard nut. They both are going to work or do the job. But once again, the G slot in a nut should be shallower than the slot for the E. With a zero nut, that's not possible.

    I personally wouldn't get too hung up on this and I'm not saying that you are. It's actually pretty trivial.
    Rabidhamster and 31HZ like this.
  12. MovinTarget

    MovinTarget Supporting Member

    Jan 30, 2018
    Maryland, USA
    It seems, and this would be preference here, that the biggest difference between a metal nut vs a Zero fret (to mitigate the tone difference) is that a nut is cut so that the tops of the strings are basically level or at least the centerpoint of the cores are basically level to one another, where a zero fret would not compensate for the differences in string thickness.

    This is absolutely splitting hairs because I can't imagine it be a deal-breaker that the thicker strings "feel" taller toward the headstock of the guitar..
    mikewalker likes this.
  13. True, McDonalds hamburgers aren’t the best just because they sell so many :roflmao:
    rojo412, Rabidhamster, Loring and 4 others like this.
  14. JimmyM


    Apr 11, 2005
    Apopka, FL
    Endorsing: Yamaha, Ampeg, Line 6, EMG
    Some folks like to build stuff with zero frets, some like to just use a nut. Makes zero difference to me.
  15. Beej


    Feb 10, 2007
    Vancouver Island
    A nut should be cut so that the bottom of the string (side facing the fretboard) is at a consistent height across the fretboard, otherwise, you'll get uneven intonation across the first few frets. One would not use a variety of fret heights across a single fret for the same reason - saying that the string heights should be at different heights between the E and the G is saying the same thing. Using a zero fret makes that consistency in height off the fretboard more predictable than relying on one's skills to cut nut slots. :)
  16. We see what you did there.:ninja::D
    reverendrally, Engle, JimmyM and 2 others like this.
  17. As had already been covered the reason is to make the material more consistent between fretted notes and open notes.

    Some folks have used other techniques to solve the problem, like brass, metallic and other materials including Corian and other natural and man made materials.

    One challenge of course comes to fret leveling, you don't want to level your 0 at the same time for sure.
    But you probably already figured that one out.

    Here's a question for other 0 fret users, did you score the string path behind the 0 fret?
    I've tried it both ways free on the fret letting the string be able to move slightly, to grooved deep enough to absolutely hold it in place.

    I'm still not sure which I prefer. Bass seems to hold consistently, however guitar feels better to me free moving.

    Sorry to jump onto the thread, but it seemed relevant.


    p.s. and that was a good one JimmyM
  18. Zero frets are cheap & effective. Anything to shave a few cents off of production costs.
    MovinTarget likes this.
  19. Ric5

    Ric5 Supporting Member

    Jan 29, 2008
    I disclose nothing
    I have a guitar with a zero fret .... I love the zero fret ...

    Hofner basses have a zero fret

  20. So does Rickenbacker 4001c64s

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    Primary TB Assistant

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