Introduction: Defretting a Bass Guitar

About: I work in TV/broadcast and film, but I like to do some welding and woodworking in my "free time." Check out my blog for more camera-specific things:

What's the point of an Instructable? The answer varies, but one overlooked point is that sometimes, you need inspiration. You need to see that someone else has attempted something and succeeded, and shown not only the steps and process, but also documented the mistakes. I hope you get the inspiration you need from this one.

13 years ago (two years after I started playing), I saved up and bought this Brice 6-string, to add to my Squier P-Bass. $300 brand new from Rondo Music's eBay store; passive electronics, nothing fancy, but I mostly wanted those extra two strings. It's been my bass for a long time.

Recently, my work with in the Army Band has resulted in finally getting some other instruments. I've since played a Warwick Thumb 6 and, currently, an Ibanez BTB 6-string, which is probably my favorite so far. Bartolini pickups, great preamp--it just sounds good. But I found that I wasn't playing my Brice anymore, because given the choice between two fretted 6-strings, I was going to pick the one that sounded better, ten times out of ten.

So to differentiate my instruments, and to give myself an option I'd never had before, I decided to pull the frets out of my old axe. After a little bit of research, I decided to replace the frets with thin strips of wood, because I still need visual references (yes, I can and do play true fretless--on my upright. Electric's different.)

What follows is my fairly successful attempt at major reconstructive work on my bass.

Step 1: Tools and Supplies

There were a few guitar-specific things I bought for this project, all sourced from I'm also providing links to other tools, not as endorsements, but just for clarification (if you don't know what I'm talking about.)

The biggest choice to make is what you're going to replace the frets with. I have read about people using epoxy, which I'll probably reference a couple of times, but I wanted to maintain the semi-appearance of frets--I know this instrument well, but I still need visual reference. To that end, I went with:

  • Purfling (very thin strips of maple)
    • I bought the "natural" color, to offset my rosewood neck. If you have a natural neck, the black maple would probably look good.

I knew the purfling would be ".020 thick, and not knowing what the tang of the old frets was, I bought a:

  • Refret saw
    • They're limited here to ".015, ".020, and ".025, none of which are terribly big.

On StewMac's website, I found this helpful post that guided my work a little. The main suggestion I pulled from it was opting to buy:

  • Super glue
    • I have no idea how this compares to store-bought, off-the-shelf super glue, but (a) I trust that StewMac has luthier work in mind, and (b) I know this will be thin enough for what I need.

The rest of the tools and supplies are as follows:

  • End-cutters
    • I had a pair on hand, but you'll see what happened. Something like the link would be better than what I had, and StewMac does have a "fret cutter" that would work, but I didn't want to spend $28 on a tool I'd possibly only use once.
  • Side-cutters (flush-cut)
    • I used these to clean the sides of the fretboard. If you're doing the epoxy thing, you won't need these.
  • Razor blade
  • Soldering iron
    • I have the linked iron, and had it on setting 2 out of 5. So a 15- or 10-watt iron would do the trick.
    • If you followed that link earlier, you might see that Dan Erlewine of StewMac did it a little differently. I'm just going to let his words speak for themselves--suffice it to say, I'm not a luthier with a nice shop. This job was done in my living room.
  • Polyurethane
    • Mine was "Clear Semi-Gloss" which I didn't even think about. Satin might be a better look.
  • Foam brush
    • I used 2", and had to do two passes to overlap for my 6-string. If you've got a 4-string, 2" will probably do the whole thing in one pass.
  • Sandpaper
    • I had 80-grit up to 400-grit on-hand, and used all of them.
  • Chisel
    • Be sure it's sharp. This is also a decision to use because I had the maple purfling. Epoxy, or a different substance filling, might require different tools to smooth.
  • Tape
    • I used white gaff tape to cover the finished parts of my bass that I didn't want damaged. Specifically the heel of the neck.

Something else I should mention, in regards to sanding: all necks have a slight "radius" to them (they curve up toward the middle.) If you know what the radius of your neck is, you can search StewMac for their radiused sanding blocks, which will help keep things precise. I didn't know what the radius of my bass neck was, so I didn't bother with it--just let the sandpaper contour to the neck.

Step 2: Destring & Defret

Don't stand on ceremony here--just go for it.

Obviously, you have to remove the strings. No way around that.

Don't worry about cleaning the fretboard at this point. There's plenty of stuff between here and the end.

The first fret for me came out very easily with the end-cutters, but subsequent frets were much more difficult. I ended up using a razor blade to slide under the fret, and heating the fret with my soldering iron. Gentle pressure upwards with my thumb and forefinger, combined with the heat, would get the end of the fret up just a couple of millimeters from the rosewood, and then I'd use the end-cutters to pry it out the rest of the way.

Don't let the soldering iron sit for very long--you don't want to burn your fretboard. I did have a couple of little burned-looking spots, but they came off after sanding.

Very simply, just be gentle, and work slowly. I think, in most "budget instrument" cases, there will be little to no glue used, so there shouldn't be much cosmetic damage.

Step 3: Clean the Slots

Whatever you decided the fill the slots with, you'll need to clean them out, for better adhesion and uniformity. I also wanted to have the edges visible--if you look at the last picture, you'll notice the original slots (on the left) have binding over the sides of the tang. Not an issue when you've got a big fret sitting there, but again, I wanted visual references, so I wanted to see the "fret" on the side of the fretboard.

The StewMac Refret saw was nice to use. The two sections cut on either the pull or the push, and it felt very sturdy.

At this point, if you want to do a sanding pass with some 320, it wouldn't hurt.

One of the other posts I read about using epoxy mentioned saving all the sawdust and mixing it back in with the epoxy. If you want to do this, you'll definitely want to be working on a clean surface, and try not to breathe or anything, because there will be a lot of very fine dust. Again, I didn't want to do that, so I'll leave that up to you.

If you're interested in that, my friend and former teacher Bob Bryant has some tips:

Step 4: Fill the Slots Back In

(I'll go forward just telling you what I did. If you're ad-libbing, then go ahead.)

Once the slots were clear of dust, I took the pieces of purfling and slid them in the slots, leaving a 1/4-1/2" on either side. This was so I could hold the purfling down with my fingers. You may notice that the purfling is straight, where the neck is radiused outwards, so I had to gently hold down the tabs on either side.

The StewMac super glue comes with some very thin applicator tips, which I ended up using for the ease of it. The glue gets down in the fret slot via capillary action through the purfling, and firms up within seconds. Every time, my fingers would get glue on them through the strips, so I just got used to having to pull my fingers away.

Once you've filled up every fret slot, clean the side with the flush-cut tool.

The purfling, as mentioned, is straight, so I had to flush it up with the radius. I used a chisel and made several small passes to get it down flush with the rosewood. If you knew the radius of your neck and bought the StewMac radius sanding block, then use some heavy-grit sandpaper and sand your purfling down. Try not to gouge, but any light scrapes will be taken care of with sanding.

Step 5: Sand & Coat

As with all sanding, go with the grain. I made a quick pass with some 120-grit, then some slow and steady passes with 320- and 400-grit. Check with your finger to make sure there aren't any bumps on the purfling.

The polyurethane should be applied in long strokes, from nut to heel. Apply in one direction, and one pass at a time. Try to keep bubbles out, and try to make your coats spread evenly.

Follow the instructions on your poly for applying more coats. Mine was supposed to dry for 3-4 hours, get a sanding with 220-grit, and then reapply. The final coat is supposed to cure for 24 hours before "light use," but I didn't wait that long.

Step 6: Restring and Enjoy!

I didn't wait the full 24 hours for the poly to cure--more like 12 or 14. Strung it up, played like a charm.

Keep in mind that new strings will feel different, so don't be worried. Just keep playing to get those strings dirty.


I highly recommend using roundwound strings (these were the only six-string ones I could find on Amazon, and I've been pretty happy with them.) There are two reasons for this: the roundwound sound is darker and is much more like the "traditional" fretless sound you're used to hearing; and because the strings are smoother, they won't eat away at the finish. If you continue to use flatwounds, just plan to periodically sand and maybe even put another coat of poly on--the strings will eventually wear away the finish.