BY SANDOR NAGYSZALANCZY| FROM THE SUMMER 2020 ISSUE OF UKULELE
If you asked a room full of luthiers what the most tedious part of building a ukulele is, I bet that most would say it’s installing the frets, the thin metal bars on the fingerboard that allow notes and chords to be played accurately. Fretting a ukulele involves cutting a series of narrow, accurately spaced slots along the length of a wooden fingerboard, then, pressing or pounding metal frets into the slots (on some early ukes, frets were installed directly into the neck). Either way, a fret job is a fussy, time-consuming task.
But way back during the uke’s first heyday in the 1920s, a clever Chicago instrument maker and inventor named Harry E. Hall endeavored to simplify uke construction by eliminating the need to install a dozen or more separate frets. Hall came up with a process of pressing a single piece of thin metal into a complete fingerboard, frets and all. Hall applied for a U.S. patent for his pressed fingerboard design in 1925.
Even before being granted a final patent in 1928, Hall licensed his fingerboard to the Globe Music Company of St. Charles, Illinois. Globe specialized in producing all manner of fretted instruments, including guitars, mandolins, banjos, ukuleles, and banjoleles. Like other musical instrument manufacturers such as Harmony and Washburn, Globe was primarily an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) for companies that sold the instruments under their own brand names. Globe did make and market some of its own instrument brands, including La Pacific banjoleles and “Tru-Fret” soprano ukuleles that featured Harry Hall’s ingenious metal fingerboard.
In period advertisements for the Tru-Fret ukes, Globe proclaimed that buyers would have “No more fingerboard troubles . . . our exclusive new patented metal fingerboard, produced at great cost after a year of experimenting, provides you with ukuleles that are guaranteed to be absolutely perfect in tone.” They further claimed: “Through the use of a special die, ‘TRU-FRET’ ukuleles are guaranteed to be fretted accurately to 1000th of an inch.” The same die that stamped the frets also formed the nut—the raised bar that supports and spaces the strings at the top of the fingerboard. Globe’s advertising boasted that “the nut is always in the exactly correct relation to the frets—neither too high nor too low. This eliminates all buzzing and rattling of the strings.”
The Tru-Fret line included six different models which, in the mid-late 1920s, sold for between $4.50 and $12. The metal fingerboards on Tru-Fret ukes came in one of two finishes, which Globe called “silver” and “ebony.” The less expensive models had black-painted white-wood (typically birch) bodies and necks and sported contrasting bright silver fingerboards. Many of these featured white ivoroid bindings and colorful floral decals atop the body, below the bridge. The more expensive models were built from mahogany stained a deep brown and featured the black ebony fingerboards, ivoroid bindings, and decorative wood mosaic rosettes and purflings. All fingerboards were attached to the necks with three short nails located at the 5th, the 7th and 9th frets. The top of each nail was allowed to show, and thus served as a position marker—pretty darn clever.
As evidenced by the text of his 1925 patent application, Harry Hall believed that by simplifying the job of making a uke’s fingerboard, a manufacturer could save enough time and money to allow them to build a better-sounding ukulele without increasing its overall cost. Personally, I don’t think the Globe Company got the message. The two Tru-Fret ukes pictured here both sound about the same as other ukuleles built during the same period using the same basic body construction and materials. The patented fingerboards do provide the ukes with very good intonation and playability—the only downside being that in cold weather, playing on that pressed metal makes for some frosty fingertips!