How to Replace the Gut frets on a Rennaissance Lute

I have seen sites on the Internet, and pictures in lute books, explaining how to tie the knot when replacing frets on Rennaissance luts. None of the directions I've seen are complete enough to follow, and step-by-step directions with photographs would be very useful. Since Michael Peterson (the Bay Area lute evangelist [tm]) kindly came to my house and taught me how to easily replace lute frets, I decided to make this web page to show anyone how to do it.

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Tools Needed

a) 15 to 30 watt soldering iron (such as the inexpensive ones sold at Radio Shack). A higher wattage soldering "gun" will work, but will take more time since you need to wait for it to heat each time you need to use it. Best are the expensive "tunable" soldering irons, with a knob that lets you set the exact wattage: you want to melt the gut into a bulb, but not burn it. The 30 watt soldering gun will tend to burn the gut end, but not too severely to cause a problem. An alternative to a soldering gun is to heat a wood-handled knife on an open flame, pressing the hot knife against the gut to melt it.

b) fret gut assortment, such as those sold by Ask their advice for fret gut gauges if you're unsure what to buy (their recommendation to me were fret gut strings at gauges of: 100, 95, 95, 90, 90, 85, 80, 75). If you are replacing gut frets that were properly done on your lute, you should strive to purchase new fret gut of the same gauges. To do this, you'll need to purchase a metric micrometer, measure each of your frets, and order those specific gauges.

c) a fingernail clipper

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The Steps

Before you begin, mark the position of your current frets. I do this with a fine pencil, tracing lines above and below each string.

Melt the end of the fret gut with the warm soldering gun (or a hot knife). This will create an enlarged bubble at the tip, which will later be used to keep the knot from slipping undone.

Form a simple knot near the bubble.

Slip the fret gut under the strings and back around. Note how in this picture I have slid up all the existing frets out of the way. I cut the old frets as I go, but you can cut them ahead of time if you prefer. If you're wondering why this lute appears to have strings missing: it is an 8 course lute currently strung as a 6 course lute.

Slip the other end of the fret gut through the knot, taking care to slip it the same direction that the knot was made in the first place. If you're unsure what this means, consult the photograph above.

Position the fret gut 2 frets positions away from where you want the new fret you're tying to eventually land. Then, tighten the knot as best you can.

Make sure that the final tightened knot is toward the top of the neck, near the "bend" in the neck to the fretboard.

Use the nail clipper to cut the fret gut near the knot.

Melt the cut end of the fret gut with the soldering iron so that it melts all the way into the knot.

The final knot should look like this.

Slide the fret down the 2 fret positions into the place where you previously marked (with a pencil) the former fret's position.

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Correcting the Intonation

You will now likely need to find the perfect location for each fret so that each fretted note is in tune (this is called intonation). To do this, you will need an instrument tuner, and most likely a pickup (a clip-on will work) or microphone to get a clean bright sound.

1) Tune your lute so that all the open strings are in tune. Take particular care to ensure that the highest and lowest strings are perfectly in tune.

2) With your finger fret the highest string on the first fret.

3) The tuner will show you whether the fretted note is in tune at a half-step higher, or slightly out of tune.

4) If the fretted note is flat, move the fret slightly toward the bridge (shortening the string length). If the note is sharp, move the fret away from the bridge, elongating the string length.

5) Repeat this process for the lowest string on the same fret, as the position may be slightly different than for the highest string.

6) Finally, repeat this process for every fret.

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Questions & Answers

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Kevin Scala asks:
Getting the frets tight on the upper positions are not a problem because you can start to tie them two fret postitions down and slide up, but what about that first position? I'm not able to slide it down too far because I'm already close to the headstock! I'm only allowed one fret space to slide down and it does not tighten very much. Do you have any suggetions?

John responds:
You should tighten the fret as close as you can to the end of the neck. I can usually get the fret fairly tight by holding the fret gut loop in place on the other side of the next (eg, by the 1st course) and tightening the entire loop by pulling down hard toward the ground. Also, using a soldering iron on the completed knot, I melt the knot down a fair amount more in order for the fret gut to swell, which also tightens the knot. Also, bear in mind that the fret gut doesn't have to incredibly tight: you want it tight enough to hold in place and not buzz, but not so tight that you can't move it when you need to improve the intonation.

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Recommended: David van Edwards "Tying Fret Knots" page, which also includes instructions on tying double-frets:

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Other Lute pages at this site:

- The Lute Beginner web home page

- Lute beginner music and exercises: free tablature downloads to learn by.

- lute pickup FAQ: inside or outside the lute? Is amplifying the lute an abomination?

- How to improve a bargain lute: tips for the lutenist on a tight budget.

- Lute related web sites