Foster van der Merwe, owner of Foster Guitar Works in Parow, Cape Town, is one of the humblest people I know. The fact that he is often cited by professionals and amateurs alike as “one of the best guitar setup and repair persons around” has not affected his ego in the slightest. He is still as focused on making his clients happy as the day he started the workshop. Apart from setup and repairs Foster is also a luthier and has built several acoustic guitars for clients locally and abroad. As I enter the workshop I am greeted by a Gibson semi and a Fender Telecaster belonging to Die Heuwels Fantasties that have been treated to some TLC. Against one wall are photos of Karen Zoid, Robin Gallagher (Fender’s boss in SA), Loki Rothman, Elvis Blue, Albert Frost, Francois van Coke and Basson Laubscher – all happy clients. On the bench is a guitar from Basson Laubscher getting a re-fret. And re-frets and fret-dressing are what Foster is really known for. We sat down for a quick chat on guitar re-fret and fret-dressing.
MP: What causes the most fret wear? Is it in your fingers, how hard you press, string gauge, the fret material or all of these?
Foster: All of it has an impact. An interesting observation I’ve made over the years is that higher frets wear down quicker than lower frets. Maybe it’s because sub-consciously most players want to feel the wood of the fretboard under their fingers. With higher frets they might tend to press down harder to feel that connection. It puts more pressure and wear on the fret. I have seen very old Taylor’s and Martin’s with low frets that were played constantly and never required a fret job. On the other hand, I have seen brand new guitars with high frets made from good quality materials that needed a fret-dress within a short time. Obviously playing time, how hard the person plays, and all these things have an impact. This is just an observation. After so many years of doing countless fret- jobs I am still learning every time. A good fret job can make an old beaten up guitar feel brand new under your fingers.
MP: What is the latest trend in terms of fret size? Do players generally prefer bigger or smaller?
Foster: Over the past few years many electric guitar players seem to prefer taller frets for easier string bending and easy vibrato. Acoustic guitarists however still preferred the smaller traditional frets, but that has also changed recently. I see more and more requests from acoustic players for bigger frets on acoustic guitars as well.
One big benefit from higher frets is that you do not have to replace them so quickly. Depending on the level of wear you can just do a fret-dress to level them again. It does however make the fret lower as you file off some of the fret to level them. It can impact the feel under your fingers.
MP: Please explain the term “fret-dress”.
Foster: Over time dents or divots form in the frets where you play most often. Depending on the playing style entire frets can be worn down in relation to the other frets. With a fret-dress you start by filing the frets down to an equal height. This will usually be determined by the height of the lowest divot in the worst worn fret. After that you crown each fret. This is the rounding of the top of the fret that meets the string. It can be a challenging job and sometimes a guitar re-fret is much easier.
MP: Are there any specific fret brands that you prefer to work with?
Foster: Not really, as long as the quality of the material is good. I find Stewmac’s frets to be good quality overall and I have also used Dunlop and Jescar. I have found a few inconsistencies with Dunlop recently. That was hopefully only one bad batch.
MP: It seems as if stainless-steel frets are the new craze. Does it really last longer?
Foster: I have never replaced stainless-steel frets, so I cannot tell you how long they will last! It seems to be longer than non-stainless-steel frets. If you have a trained eye you can spot stainless-steel frets on a guitar – it has a more greyish hue than other materials. A stainless-steel fret job is more expensive primarily due to the additional wear and tear on the luthier’s tools. It is a lot harder than other fret materials, so the useful life of the files and other tools are much shorter when you work with stainless-steel.
MP: For me as a player the fret-ends are very important. I want it to be as smooth as possible when my hand is sliding up and down the fret board.
Foster: I find that players differ in how sensitive they are for that. When I do a guitar re-fret, I string up the two E- strings on either side of the fretboard to see how close they are running to the fret-board edges. That gives me an indication of the angle at which I can round-off the fret-ends. Also keep in mind that some guitar manufacturers spray their final fret-board coats after the frets have been installed. The finish then tends to seat around the frets a bit which adds to the sleek feel under your fingers.
MP: Let’s talk about compression fretting. Is it something you employ often?
Foster: Yes. I worked on a vintage Martin a while ago that had no adjustable truss rod – this was before Martin installed them. In those days Martin used frets with bigger tangs to manipulate the straightness of the neck under string pressure. I had to do the same to get the correct neck relief. I also worked on an old Gibson J45 where I had to employ compression fretting to counter the forward bow. You can either use a fret with bigger tangs or bigger barbs. You do not do it with all the frets though. I will choose a few key positions on the neck depending on the problem and only install 4 or 5 frets with bigger tangs or barbs. I install them first and check each time what the impact is on the neck. It is trial and error. Once I am happy I install the remainder if the frets with normal sized tangs and barbs.
MP: You also build acoustic guitars. The assumption is that knowing how to build something will also make you very adept at fixing it when something goes wrong.
Foster: Yes, the one informs the other. Sometimes the repair job is so substantial that it is almost impossible to charge what it will take to fix. The cost just is not worth it, especially when the guitar is not worth much to begin with. Recently a client requested me to change the radius on his Telecaster’s fretboard. It was in such bad condition that I had to route and replace a whole section of the board before I could do a re-fret. This was an expensive job, but the client loved the guitar so much that he was willing to pay for it.