Does Fret Number Matter? [Playability, Tone, and Scale]

Guitars are not standardized tools designed to solve a problem in just one way.

They are instruments prepared to create art, and in my opinion, guitars are actual pieces of art by themselves.

Given that art is free, manufacturers over the years have taken different directions in terms of some parts that make the core of the instruments.

Frets are what we will talk about in this post.

Does fret number matter? Here is a short answer:

Fret number does have an impact on tone, only for 24 fret instruments where the neck pickup needs to be shifted towards the bridge and loses warmth. In any other aspect, apart from the availability of extra pitches, fret number is not influential on a guitar, and scale length is not necessarily defined by it.

For those who want a deeper dive into this topic, in this article, I will talk about how different numbers of frets on a guitar will affect their tone, playability, and scale.

After that, I will try to answer some of the most frequent questions about these different configurations.

Finally, I will give you my conclusions and recommendations about how you should approach the process of picking a new guitar, based on its number of frets.

Are you ready to get started?

Let’s go!

Does fret number affect a guitar’s playability?

Fret number is not a defining factor for playability. There is no difference in overall feel between instruments with 21, 22, or 24 frets. Extra frets give just a bit more range, that some players might enjoy having and many other would ignore. 24 fret necks can cause neck dives with some guitar body shapes.

Does fret number affect a guitar’s tone?

The number of frets in a guitar can have a noticeable effect on tone. Particularly, when going over 22, to make room for the extra frets, the neck pickup is usually shifted slightly towards the bridge. This change in position subtracts some of its warmth and gives it a particular sound, common to PRS guitars.

21 and 22 fret guitars due to their shorter necks, don’t have the need to move any component from their “normal” positions, and their tone is unaffected.

Since 24 fret guitars are less common than the ones with fewer frets, these are the ones that are considered to sound different, while 21 and 22 fretted instruments still are the industry standard.

Does fret number define a guitar’s scale?

Fret number does not define a guitar’s scale. Scale is determined by measuring the distance from the nut to the bridge saddle. As long as the 12th fret is located equidistantly from these 2 points, the guitar will intonate correctly. This is why pickups are shifted towards the bridge in 24 fret guitars.

Adding or taking frets from a guitar’s neck does not necessarily mean a change in scale. Other components such as pickups are usually the adjustment variable to keep the 12th fret centered under a defined scale length.

Most common guitar fret configurations and their effects on tone and feel

Most guitars come with either 21, 22, or 24 frets. Each of these configurations has its own quirks, but, in the end, fret number is not that important.

Except from the implications in tone 24 fret necks have, most differences lay in just the player’s preference.

Here are the most common fret numbers explained:

21 frets

Many Fender-style guitars have just 21 frets, and I think that’s just enough. How many times do you even go that high on the fretboard?

In terms of tone, 21 frets fit alright in every common scale length so no component shift is required.

In terms of feel and playability, unless you require any of the notes that this fretboard can’t offer you, you will be just fine. 

Remember you can always bend ½ tone from the 21st fret to reach the 22nd fret’s pitch, a whole tone for fret 23, and a tone and a half to achieve that sweet 24th fret note.

22 frets

Many Fender and Gibson guitars have 22 frets. This is kind of the industry standard.

In terms of tone, 22 frets, just as 21 fit into any common scale length without the need for any modifications.

In terms of feel and playability, 22 frets might give you that extra half step you always needed to bend for.

If you need higher pitches, you can bend ½ tone to achieve the pitch of fret 23, and a whole tone to get the 24th fret.

24 frets

24 frets are usually associated with PRS Custom 24 guitars, and instruments from Ibanez, Jackson, Shecter, among many others.

In terms of tone, 24 frets usually require the neck pickup to be shifted towards the bridge to allow for the 12th fret to be centered within the defined scale length. This takes some warmth from the pickup’s tone and gives it a particular slightly snappier sound.

In terms of feel and playability, 24 frets will allow you to play on a very high register and bend over what’s usually possible for a guitar.

Finally, it’s important to note that some guitar body shapes tend to have stronger nose dive issues on their 24 fret configurations.

Are 24 frets necks better than 22 fret ones?

24 fret necks are not strictly better than 22 fret ones unless you compare them over their available pitch range. These 2 kinds of necks offer different sounds due to the change in position of the neck pickup to allow for 24 frets. 22 fret guitars have warmer neck pickups while 24 fret ones sound snappier.

Conclusions and recommendations

Whether you are looking for a new guitar or planning on building or having one built, getting to know, at least at a high level how fret numbers work is, in my opinion, something that will help you make a better informed final decision.

However, here in GearAficionado, I always say that you should try out every instrument before buying it if you have the chance.

I don’t think anyone can really understand the sound and feel of all these different fret configurations without getting to play them live. You should try at least the ones that you think might work out better for you.

If it’s within your reach, try to get to play completely different guitars to clearly understand where the variation lies, and then start checking out ones closer to the one you preferred the most.

Finally, don’t forget to have fun. Technicalities for some people get the joy out of getting a new piece of gear. You don’t have to know it all about something that makes you smile. Just go and play the instrument that feels best to you.