Fretless bass is simply a bass guitar without frets, which allows you to play notes outside of the 12 pitches we are usually tied to when we use a fretted instrument.
It’s definitely a bit harder for beginners to learn, but it does create a unique sound and facilitates some cool techniques that you simply can’t achieve on a fretted instrument.
They are similar in many aspects, both have pros and cons as primary instruments. But does that make them interchangeable?
Like most bass players, I started with a fretted bass and added a fretless to my collection to explore new techniques, add variety, and round out my bass rig.
I fell in love with the fretless in a New York Minute. Which is a Don Henley song with Pino on fretless bass.
But many bassists don’t play a fretless at all. Conversely, a select few like Gary Willis play the fretless bass exclusively.
If you aim to be a multi-faceted bass guitar player, you ought to play both. Then, it’s only a question of which one to get first. Is it wise to start on a fretless?
What’s the difference between fretless and fretted bass in terms of cost, playing technique, and sound? In what situations is one better suited than the other?
Here, I outline the key differences, pros and cons, as well as other curiosities about playing a fretless bass guitar.
What is a Fret?
In the context of a musical instrument, a fret refers to the space between two fret wires.
A fret wire is a thin metal strip inserted across the full width of a guitar or bass neck. These wires, placed at a fixed distance, divide the neck into frets that represent a note.
The neck of most electric bass guitars has anything between 19 to 26 frets, with the frets being a semitone apart.
In common speak, musicians often use “fret” to imply pressing down a string behind the fret i.e. put your finger on the third fret.
When it comes to guitars and basses, frets are the norm. All off-the-rack instruments are, by default, expected to be fretted instruments unless mentioned otherwise.
Most bass students start with a fretted bass. But is it possible to start out using a fretless?
What is a Fretless Bass and How Does it Work?
The fretless bass is an acoustic or electric bass guitar without frets. This lack of frets allows a bass player to define and control the pitch outside of fixed semitones.
The fretless neck has no bumps, resulting in better sustain and seamless transitions between notes. These differences can be highlighted through a variety of techniques.
Frets define pitch in a fretted bass. In other words, fretted instruments only allow for a semitone as the smallest possible interval. That works great in Western Music because it is primarily tonal music.
But things are different with a fretless bass. The fingertips become the fret, allowing you to play microtonally, outside of pre-defined pitches.
The strings interact with the fingers and neck very differently in the absence of frets. It’s a distinct playing experience compared to a fretted bass guitar.
The fretless bass is an incredibly expressive and unique-sounding instrument.
One that is inimitable if you are into playing vibratos, exotic melodies, and sliding notes, chords, or harmonics. Plus, the softer attack gives a deep warmth to the fretless bass sound.
Is it Harder to Play The Fretless?
It is harder to play a fretless compared to a fretted bass. You need to voice notes without sounding flat/sharp.
It entails developing muscle memory for precision and ear training to fine-tune the pitch. Thus, it’s fair to say there is a steeper learning curve involved in learning the fretless bass.
Types of Fretless Bass Guitars
Fretless bass guitars are available in many different types. With varying numbers of strings, designs, and electronics.
You can custom-build short-scale bass guitars with a fretless neck. In addition, it’s possible to “de-fret” a regular fretted bass (remove the fret wires) and fill the gaps with wood putty.
Alternatively, you can replace the neck of fretted basses (regular or short-scale bass guitars) with an aftermarket fretless neck. However, you’ll need to get an experienced guitar technician do these mods.
The dot inlays on a fretless are located to the side or front of the neck. You can also find fretless basses with lines or line markers. They are notched or printed lines on the fretboard for visual reference.
Fretless bass with or without fret lines?
A fretless bass with lines is ideal if a) you are in the learning phase, b) you only play fretless occasionally and c) if you don’t want to specialize in fretless bass playing.
In other words, you can skip the legwork of landing notes precisely and use the lines as a visual guide to assist you with playing in tune.
Some bass players and educators advise against using a fretless bass with lines.
Their rationale is it creates dependency and prevents an individual from developing a strong ear and good muscle memory. However, the opinion on this subject is split in the middle.
Don’t fall into the ‘is it cheating to use lines on a fretless’ discussion. If Edgar Meyer, Marcus Miller, and Gary Willis don’t mind the lines, nobody ought to tell you otherwise.
The Difference between Fretless and Fretted Bass
Whether you play a fretless or fretted bass, there is no difference in scales and application of theory.
The design, build, and electronics of fretted and fretless basses are nearly identical.
The main difference is the tone (sound), strings, and playing technique.
Fretless Bass Tone:
Tone or the fretless bass sound is the primary reason people pick up the instrument. It sounds warm, has a soft attack, and has more sustain.
The sound lends well to jazz fusion, blues, or indie music. Conversely, a fretless lacks the attack that drives rock or metal basslines and percussive sounds for funk music.
Yet it has found its place in the technical/progressive metal scenes with bands like Obscura and Beyond Creation.
Bass strings, pickup configuration, and tonewoods will influence the outcome and can bridge some of these differences. Conventions exist, but how you use them is only limited by your creativity.
This video does a bang-up job at demonstrating the uniqueness of a fretless bass:
Fretless Bass Playing Technique:
Fretted basses are more versatile but there are a few things that are only possible on fretless bass.
For one, portamento and glissando sound really smooth on a fretless. Fretless players can also manipulate the notes to create a “mwah” sound.
The seamless shifts between notes come with a tradeoff. You definitely need near-perfect intonation, especially on an unlined fretless bass.
Go off target and you can sound horribly out of tune. So, it takes work before a bass guitar player can voice clear notes on a fretless.
In addition, you need to develop the ability to land the right notes as you play up and down the neck.
A fretless can get super tricky when you land big jumps or make fast runs. On the upside, harmonics sound celestial. And, you can gliss the harmonics like nobody’s business.
Fretless Bass Strings: Roundwounds or Flatwounds?
Generally, bassists use flat wound strings with fretless basses. Flats are silky smooth to touch as there are no ridges between the wrapped wire.
They are easy on the left hand and produce significantly less fret buzz or noise when your fingers glide against the strings.
Flats are a joy to sound out vibratos or long slides across the neck. Lastly, they are sometimes favored because they create a dull, deep, and thumpy sound as they age. The sounds have the flavor of an acoustic upright bass, which works well in certain genres.
Having used roundwounds with a fretless, I can attest it’s not mandatory to use flats. But both types have their own unique tonal qualities.
So, experiment to find the sound you are after. Don’t buy into rumors about roundwound strings damaging the fretboard. It’s widely exaggerated.
As mentioned in the intro, choosing fretted or fretless basses is only a momentary choice.
A well-rounded bass player will be capable of playing both. Although, if you must omit any one of them, having the fretted bass as your primary instrument is a more versatile and conventional choice.
Observe these instruments in the hands of your favorite bass players and maestros. Check out tutorials and discussions on the subject to get a better understanding of the difference between fretless and fretted bass.
Use your heart, mind, and ear to ascertain the right bass for your style and genre. That’s a surefire way to make the right decision.
Should I play the fretless bass?
The choice to play a fretted or fretless bass is for the individual to make.
Generally, the skills and techniques you learn on a fretted bass are transferable to a fretless.
However, learning the fretless first requires additional work to develop your ear and muscle memory. For those reasons, most beginners start with a fretted bass and pick up the fretless at a later stage, if at all.
Can you slap on a fretless bass?
Slap bass is not gratifying on fretless bass. The slap bass tone demands aggressive, attack-driven playing with a bright sound.
A fretless bass has a less pronounced sound – a deep thump but weak overtones.
It lacks “zing” and won’t lend well to slap grooves with a growl or clank. Moreover, this difference or dullness is all the more apparent with flatwound strings.
Low action can also cause the strings to damage the epoxy coating on the fretboard if you slap/pop aggressively.
That being said, there are bass players who do like to slap on a fretless. So, it is totally achievable with a few adjustments to tone and technique.
Can you make a fretted bass fretless?
It is possible, and quite common, to repurpose a fretted bass to save money. You can buy an aftermarket fretless replacement neck and use it on compatible electric bass guitars.
Ensure that the size/dimensions of the two necks are identical.
You can do these mods by yourself if you have the expertise or approach a guitar repair store to do it for you.
This way, not only do you make a fretted bass fretless, but you also have the option to swap the necks back if you end up deciding fretless isn’t for you.