A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Frets

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FRETS (Fr. Les tone; Ital. Tasto; Ger. Bunde, Bünde, Tonbunde, Bänder, Griffe, Bundsteg). On stringed instruments that have fingerboards, like the lute or guitar, the small pieces of wood or other material fixed transversely on the fingerboard at regular intervals are called frets. The object they serve is to mark off the length of string required to produce a given note. Pressure upon a string immediately above a fret makes at the point of contact of string and fret a temporary 'nut,' and the string, set in motion as far as the bridge on the soundboard by plucking with plectrum or finger, or bowing, gives a higher note in proportion to the shortening of the string. Frets therefore correspond in their use with the holes in the tube of a wind instrument.

The use of frets to give certainty to the fingers in stopping the notes required is of great antiquity, the Chinese in a remote age having had moveable frets for the strings of their Ché. The Hindu Vina, a fingerboard instrument with nineteen frets, is of divine and therefore remote origin. And the Egyptians, as may be seen in the British Museum, depicted by themselves about the time of Moses, had either frets or coloured lines serving a like purpose on the fingerboards of their lutes. In the present day the Balaika [App. p.642 "Balalaïka" of the Russian country people has coloured lines that serve for frets. It is most likely that the use of frets came into Europe through Spain and Southern France from the Arabs. In the Middle Ages bow instruments had them, as well as those played with plectrum or finger. The Rebec, the Viols da gamba, da braccio, d'amore, the Italian Lire, Lirone, all had them. But the French Gique of the 12th–14th centuries, like our modern fiddles, had none. In the modern highly-developed technic they would be an impediment, and the feeling for temperament has only been satisfied by their rejection. In lutes, guitars, and zithers, however, they are retained. In performance the end of the finger must be placed immediately above the fret, and not upon it, as vibration would be interfered with; while if too much above, the string would jar upon the fret.

The fingerboard has been differently divided in different epochs and countries according to the scale-system prevailing. In Persia and Arabia there would be smaller division than our chromatic, third tones as well as half. [App. p.642 "although the third of a tone is almost a chromatic semitone, it does not appear that either Persian or Arab lutenists have used equal thirds of a tone. The Arabic (and Egyptian) division has been proved to be a succession of three intervals, smaller than an equal semitone, which are known as 'limmas' or 'commas.'"] To mark off the hemitonic division, the eighteenth part of the length of the string to the bridge must be measured off from the nut or ledge at the top of the fingerboard over which the strings pass—in Italian capo tasto, 'head fret.' [Capo Tasto.] This gives the place to fix the first fret. Another eighteenth from this fret to the bridge gives the place of the second, and so on until the division is complete. The method implies a nearly equal temperament and uniform tension, but in practice there is room for some modification by the finger. High frets demand a greater finger pressure, and slightly sharpen the pitch of the notes. To correct this the frets must be shifted towards the nut. The Hindu uses finger pressure, or in other words, greater tension, to get his half-tones [App. p.642 "quarter-tones"] from a diatonic [App. p.642 "chromatic"] fret system. To the instrument maker the disposition of the frets is a difficult task, requiring nice adjustment. On the side that the strings are thicker the frets should be higher, and the fingerboard must be concave in the direction of its length to allow the thicker strings to vibrate. The frets are gradually lowered as they descend towards the bridge, the chanterelle, or melody-string, having often a longer series extending only partly across the fingerboard. The personal peculiarity of the hand or touch finally modifies the adaptation of the frets.

Narrow slips of wood are generally glued up the sides of the fingerboard to prevent the frets projecting. The convex fingerboards of bow instruments requiring convex frets, fretted viols had catgut bound round the fingerboard and neck at the stopping distances. Hence the German 'Bunde'—binds. (See the cut of Gamba.) The French 'ton' indicates the note produced; the Italian 'tasto' the touch producing it. The English 'fret' perhaps implies the rubbing or friction of the string at the point of contact, but the derivation of the word is doubtful. Some take the original meaning of 'fret' to have been a note, and thence the stop by which the note was produced. Shakspeare puns upon the word in Hamlet, 'though you can fret me you cannot play upon me.' The writer has been much assisted by the exhaustive article of Herr Max Albert on 'Bunde' in Mendel's 'Lexicon.'

[ A. J. H. ]