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Fanning out

Confessions of a luthier

(First published in Guitarist magazine, issue #468)

Alone again in the workshop for lockdown 2.0, Alex ponders the wonky world of multi-scale guitars.

The job of the small-scale luthier - as I see it - is not just to hand build great sounding guitars, but also to probe around at the very edges of guitar design. We are getting used to seeing side soundports, arm bevels and scoop-shaped cutaways, but in my experience nothing grabs the attention of a casual passerby like a fanned fret guitar.

When confronted with such an instrument for the first time, most people (whether they be guitarists or not) tend to stare at the fingerboard for a moment with a look of uncertainty, trying to comprehend whether such an instrument could ever actually work. Eventually, bewilderment gives way to curiosity as I am asked why I - as a luthier - have undertaken the task of building such a heretical instrument.

For the uninitiated, fanned frets are best described as an arrangement of frets that appear to radiate from an imaginary centre point some distance away from the fingerboard. The nut is normally angled away from the player on the bass side, with the bridge slanted in the opposite direction. Sometimes the visual impact is subtle, and other times it is quite striking. It is regularly assumed that contorting the frets in this way has something to do with intonation or tuning, but this is not the case.

In order to understand the purpose behind such a design, we must first appreciate that fanned frets go back to the 16th Century with the invention of the orpharion, a type of English lute. Back then string technology was much more limited, and it was impossible to add enough mass to a string to make it resonate at the lowest desired pitches. If the note was detuned (in the same way that we might go into ‘drop D’ tuning for example) the string would become too slack. Instead, the scale length of the instrument had to become longer on the bass side. The result is a multi-scale instrument, capable of covering a broader range of notes than equivalent straight-fretted lutes could handle.

Given that today’s guitarist is spoiled for choice with almost every kind of guitar string imaginable, one might ask: what is the point of fanned fret guitars now? Well, firstly we can say that for the same set of strings, we are experiencing different tensions. Most notably, the longer scale length on the bass strings will produce a more robust tone because they are more taut, but the trebles will retain a sweetness from staying slacker. Secondly, there is the ergonomic case. Despite their intimidating appearance, fanned frets are surprisingly comfortable to play on. Whilst the degree of fanning varies between guitars, most players seem to agree that slanted frets better suit the natural resting position of the left hand than the parallel frets of a ‘normal’ guitar.

For me, the repercussions of choosing fanned frets go a little deeper than this, however. By skewing the bridge, there is a change in the distribution of tensile stresses in the top, so bracing design has to be reassessed to counter this. My first fanned fret guitar had slanted ladder bracing radiating away from the bridge, roughly in line with the frets on the fingerboard. The result was a soundboard that was excessively stiff in particular areas on the treble side, and more opened up on the bass side. The tone of this instrument was pleasingly distinct from it’s parallel-fretted siblings. I recall that it had a focussed bottom end, an extra-pronounced midrange, and a more delicate upper register.

I have since evolved my ideas of a ladder-braced fanned fret guitar. I realised it would also be possible to avoid the problem of redesigning bracing patterns by skewing the grain of the soundboard so that it runs perpendicular to the angle of the bridge, rather than parallel with the centreline. This way, all horizontal braces can run pretty much parallel to one another. The result is (rather ironically) a fanned fret guitar that sounds much closer to what I would expect from a guitar that doesn’t have fanned frets. Sometimes, when you are trying hard to push the envelope, you have to tell yourself that there is no shame in going full-circle, and simply ending up right back where you started.

Copyright (c) Future Publishing Ltd

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