If you’ve been playing the ukulele for a while, you might have come across the term zero fret and, judging by the fact that you are reading this right now, I’m guessing you would like to know what it is and/or what it’s for.
Well, you are in luck, because I’m here to unravel the mystery of this zero fret and to explain why some ukuleles have them, but many do not.
Let’s start at the beginning. To understand what the zero fret is, we must first understand what a fret is, period. As a uke player, you should be familiar with the term. When describing how to play chords, we usually say things like “place your 3rd finger on the third fret of the E string”, or “put your 2nd finger on the second fret of the A string.” But do you know what, specifically, is the fret?
A fret is a piece of metal wire placed on the fingerboard which marks the place where, if pressed, the string will be shortened to the appropriate length to sound a specific note. It is a common and understandable beginner mistake to think the fret is the space between the metal wires as opposed to the metal itself. This is because when we say to play the first fret, you technically hold down somewhere behind the frets, not directly on top of them. This is why you will find that it is recommended that when you finger a fret, you try and put your finger as close as possible behind the fret. The further away from the fret you get, the less accurate the note technically gets.
So if the first fret is really the first metal wire (not the space between the nut and the wire) and the second fret is the next furthest one from the nut, and the third is the next one and so on and so forth, then where is this zero fret?
The Zero Fret
If your ukulele has a zero fret, you can find it tucked right up next to, or very close to the nut.
So what is the purpose of having an extra fret here? Well, on a ukulele without a zero fret, it is the nuts job not only to hold the strings in a specific place (a goal that is achieved with the grooves that the strings rest in), but also to hold them at the right height in comparison to the fingerboard and the other frets. How high or low the strings are is referred to as the “action.” If you hear someone talking about having the action raised or lowered, they are talking about adjusting the nut (or the saddle at the other end) of the ukulele so that the strings are, you guessed it, either raised or lowered.
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Generally speaking, professional musicians prefer a very low action, which makes for easier playability and better intonation. This is why you will find that cheaper instruments tend to have higher actions and don’t sound as good. If you have an instrument where an open string is in tune, but when you fret a note it’s slightly sharp, your action may be high or a fret height may need to be adjusted so that when the string is pressed down at that fret the sound wave is being divided at the right point of the string.
I don’t have the background to properly explain the science of how the different notes are made when you play a string/fret in different places. Suffice to say that there is a wave (a sound wave!) that is altered when you shorten or lengthen the part of the string that is vibrating, and that gives you different notes. This is why frets are so important, as they show you where to “shorten” the string to get specific notes, but are also not perfect, because if the height of the strings is adjusted, you are technically bending the string slightly more to reach the same fret. Does that make sense? I hope so!
Think about an instrument like the violin, which has a fingerboard but no frets. Violinists need to memorize finger positions and practice maintaining the same distance in between fingerings to help them find the correct spot to play notes.
But you aren’t here to learn about violins! So why would you add a zero fret when you already have a nut? Well, a nut is generally made of a softer material like plastic or bone, which can be worn down by strings over time, creating tighter grooves inside the groove already cut into the nut that “clamp” the string. This technically causes the nut to grip the strings tighter, and makes it hard to make small tuning adjustments.
Another thing to consider is that strings have different gauges (which is essentially how thick they are), and if you try to put a set of strings with a thicker gauge on your ukulele you may find they don’t fit in the grooves. Likewise, some people file those grooves to make them bigger so they can use a thicker gauge string, and if they then wanted to switch back, they would need to get a new nut with smaller grooves, otherwise the smaller strings wouldn’t sit right.
A zero fret helps to eliminate both of these issues. A zero fret is made of metal, and so does not wear down like bone or plastic nuts. In fact, a zero fret has no pre-cut grooves at all so a musician with a zero fret can change string gauge without worrying. If you have a zero fret, it takes over the job of maintaining the string height (or action).
Play an open string on your ukulele, and then play a fretted note on the same string. If you don’t have a zero fret, they probably have a different sound to them. Think about when you play a chord with some open strings and some fretted notes – how the open strings ring differently. Well, some people aregue that on ukuleles with a zero fret, the open strings sound more like a fretted note.
So there you have it, an introduction to the mysterious zero fret. Does your uke have one? Let us know in the comments below!
For more lessons on chords, techniques, and songs to help you along on your own uke journey, make sure to check out our site www.ukelikethepros.com. We offer you a bunch of great ukulele content that comes hand-in-hand with an awesome ukulele community that will support you in this journey.