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Fretless muscle memory


Ajoten

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I'm not quite sure of the best way of practising the fretless. I obviously as a beginner am looking at the dot markers on the (unlined) neck, but I need to be very careful with finger placement, as it needs to be just behind the dot rather than on it, as it one's finger edge that has to be in the right place. That's kinda fine as one has a basis for remembering. But if somebody advised you NOT to look at the neck, how on earth do you orient yourself? There are no clues, it all feels the same. Perhaps, as with fretted (for me anyway), you learn to play properly whilst looking and only when competent do you risk darkness...? 

 

Obviously people do learn to play violins and cellos etc. But I don't know if simply playing something correctly repeatedly is all muscle memory is, or whether I have to THINK about what I'm doing... whether associating a note with a visual clue of some sort, perhaps trying to remember the neck width for particular notes. Can you learn sitting down and nail it instantly stood up with heights and angles not quite in the same place? Not sure. Guidance welcome!

Edited by Ajoten
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Ah glasshoppa, a very interesting topic. 

First if your dots are not precisely on the note life will be much harder unnecessarily.  It may be worth paying a good luthier to check and if necessary move the dots.  Bass Gallery in London did this for me for a not unreasonable sum.

Second you talk of the visuals, but what you're working with is sound. Playing unlined forces you to think of the sound you're making, so learn to orient yourself with your ears, less with the eyes. This doesn't mean sitting in a dark room.  Try to visualise 'virtual' lines from the side dots and in the spaces between.  Work with these and slowly you'll find the muscle memory does set in and you'll look less and less at your fingerboard. Sometimes you'll be out, but more and more often you'll be in. And remember if your rhythm is spot on, being slightly out of tune occasionally may well not be obvious.

For me the massive virtue of unlined and a minimum of markers is that you're encouraged to create sound. I mean like really create it, whether its a subtle slide or a bog standard root A or C. Frets were only introduced by Leo Fender to make it possible for any muppet to pick up his bass and play - frets and even lined fretless  are the sound equivalent of paint by numbers.  IMHO of course - but I am right 🤠. [Sits back and waits for yet another firestorm of rage].  

Edited by lownote
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Very good advises @lownote.

 

As a fretless player myself, I will simply add that there's no shame to look at your neck and position from time to time, as even the best players do it.

 

Also use your opened (it's a bloody past participle) strings to check your intonation while playing.

 

Practice with a very good tuner like the Peterson StroboStomp HD looking at it instead of your neck, it will also improve your intonation and muscle memory.

 

Remember to listen to the others as you will be the only one, except if there are non fixed temperament instruments in the band, to be able to adjust your pitch to what you're hearing.

 

But, FIRST OF ALL, go to a pro luthier to have your bass PERFECTLY set up, it's the most important part when playing fretless.

 

There's no secret to a perfect pitch : practice, practice, practice and practice !

Edited by Hellzero
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I agree with everything Hellzero just said. 
 

One thing I feel is worth pointing out is that, if I’m reading your OP correctly, you should not be playing just behind the dots. You should be playing exactly on the dots. Fretless is unlike a fretted bass in that regard. On a fretted bass we play just behind the fret in order to get a clean note but there are no frets to create problems on a fretless and the spot on the fingerboard where the fret would be is where you find the note, not just behind it. If your bass doesn’t play in tune directly on the dots you will need to have the intonation adjusted so that it does. Some people will argue that it’s unnecessary to set the intonation on a fretless bass but that is completely untrue. 

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One thing that I try to do for practice is play along to a drone. There are some drones available online on websites, and I'm sure there are apps for most phones. With the drone in the background I try to noodle, in tune, with my eyes shut. Nothing against looking at the inlays, and I will do that from time to time, but when you're reading music you necessarily have to look away from the fingerboard. It'll also help you relax when you need to look away to take cues from other members of a band. Secondly, and more importantly, it helps you develop your ear to notice when you're out of tune. In a fast run the odd out of tune note is undetectable, but for those long mwahhhs if you can get yourself back in tune quickly then even if you're out by a lot then people will just put that down as a style rather than a dud note.

 

Now staying in tune, eyes shut, with no reference like a drone to help: that's where I completely fall apart. Whoever can do that is a wizard.

 

In terms of muscle memory, I'm sure there is an aspect of that, but go on YouTube and look at the famous bassists playing fretless. Most of the time they're looking down at their "fretting" hand while playing/soloing. Even the greats do that.

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1 hour ago, Lo-E said:

...You should be playing exactly on the dots...

This is what I thought/expected, however my finger is thicker than the dot. The harmonics, for example, are directly above the dot, but this means that the "leading edge" of my finger has to be where the dot is. Not the middle of the finger. If that makes sense.

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8 hours ago, Ajoten said:

This is what I thought/expected, however my finger is thicker than the dot. The harmonics, for example, are directly above the dot, but this means that the "leading edge" of my finger has to be where the dot is. Not the middle of the finger. If that makes sense.

That makes perfect sense.  As long as you're aware of where the note actually is, how you get there is up to you.  I finger the string almost directly above the note, personally, but that's developed over many years of playing fretless and it happens to work well for the shape of my fingers, the sound I'm after and my vibrato.

 

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20 hours ago, chyc said:

One thing that I try to do for practice is play along to a drone.

 

This. All day long. Your ears need to run the show.

 

Practise playing a major scale really slowly (40bpm, two clicks per note) with a drone and learn how it sounds and feels to create each interval in tune (or, if you're anything like me, slightly out and then in...). Muscle memory will follow.

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On 02/11/2021 at 12:25, lownote said:

First if your dots are not precisely on the note life will be much harder unnecessarily.  It may be worth paying a good luthier to check and if necessary move the dots.  Bass Gallery in London did this for me for a not unreasonable sum.

 

If you have 'fret position dots' set the intonation so your 'natural' finger position is in tune at the octave 9I can't say "12th fret") and magically that finger position will work along the whole length of the neck.

 

As you move up a position mean you have to adapt constantly so there isn't one simple 'muscle memory' to build.

 

I found that my fingers naturally come closer together as I move up a result of playing fretted bass anyway. What is trickiest is keeping positions consistent across the strings.

 

The ultimate arbiter is sound, the dots guide to then changing position, then you will eventually start to subconsciously adjust if out of tune, in the same way you probably bend a string slightly if it sounds flat when playing a fretted bass. You don't learn this, you just discover you are doing it one day, and feel smug 🙂

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Each day I practise one finger per fret involving shifts on the fretted so that I have the muscle memory of where the fret is, and I always always fret almost on the fret on a fretted. Practice scales up and down the neck every day on the fretted for ear training.

 

An exercise to do is to put the drone(ideally, a bass, cello, or sine wave) on C or whatever scale you want to us at the correct octave, switch off the lights and feel around for where you think the C is. With muscles memory, you'll have a good idea of where it is anyway so you will be able to make an approximate stab at it on the fingerboard. If you  can't find it, then cheat and put the light on for a bit. Then slowly slide up the fingerboard on that string, plucking the string to hear the note every few seconds to hear where you are, always listening to the 'beats/pulses' that you hear. The slower the beats the nearer you are to a note (even if it's not in the scale), the faster the beats the further you are in no-man's land. After a while you'll hear that some notes/intervals(well, it's 2 notes that you're hearing in harmony) sound sweeter. The unison, octave, and 5th and to a lesser extent, the 4th will tend to sound slightly sweeter sounding(that's when you'll be thinking that there's got to be a note somewhere around there). Do that until you've reached the octave further up the fingerboard. 

 

 

I like to play in the dark because most of the time I'm trying to see with my ears. The ultimate goal should be to rely on your hearing much more than what you see on the fingerboard, but even the best will have to look at the fingerboard occasionally. 

 

Regarding strings, choose either roundwounds or flatwounds depending on which sound and feel you prefer, either brighter/rougher or duller/smoother. Some people advise against roundwounds "because they'll eat into your fretboard, man!", but it's silly advice, like being advised not to leave the house in case you get run over by a bus. I prefer SS roundwounds because it makes it easier to grip the strings to do a vibrato each time I mess up, and I prefer the tactile feel of them anyway on both fretted and fretless. Maybe in a few decades the fingerboard will start to show some wear that makes any difference whatsoever. But by that time, the bass will have long been sold or forgotten about, but I will have enjoyed playing the bass much more along the way than if I have have heeded the advice.

 

Play with your finger tips rather than finger pads.

Edited by TheLowDown
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8 hours ago, TheLowDown said:

 

I like to play in the dark because most of the time I'm trying to see with my ears. The ultimate goal should be to rely on your hearing much more than what you see on the fingerboard, but even the best will have to look at the fingerboard occasionally.

 

This

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When I started playing bass many moons ago, I decided it would look cooler (!) on stage if I played fretless bass. So I went out and bought an unlined fretless bass and it was 20 years before I picked up a fretted bass (I've been playing bass for going on 40 years now).

Something I have found over the years of playing fretless is that there is a period of time with each new fretless bass where you get familiar with the fingerboard and your fingering. I recently bought a lined fretless and it's taken a lot longer to get familiar with than my unlined basses (I don't consider lined to be cheating. If that was the case Jaco cheated! And what counts is the end result not how you get there). 

Anyway, tips; use your ears and concentrate on / practice your intonation technique (as in set aside some regular practice time for it) especially at the dusty end of the board. And, the best thing I've bought recently for practice purposes... an EHX Freeze. Great for playing along to chords, notes etc on the fly.

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... oh, and something I found useful when initially getting to grips with the intonation on my new lined fretless was to put a clip on strobe tuner on the headstock to double check my technique. You still use your ears and don't rely on the tuner, but to initially fine tune my technique was really useful.

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On 04/11/2021 at 17:01, Ajoten said:

Oh, imagine being able to hear oneself clearly enough in a live situation to know that one's intonation is out! What joy!

No problem with IEMs.

 

Anyway general advice to the OP on getting good intonation - if you can whistle or hum in tune then you can play fretless with good intonation, you just have to train your fingers to subconsciously adjust to the correct pitch in the same way that your mouth or vocal chords do.

 

One way is to be very slow and deliberate: play an open string then try to play an in-tune easy interval e.g. a 4th (5th "fret") or 5th (7th fret), if/when it sounds out of tune don't just randomly move your finger up and down but try to hear if its flat or sharp, make a small correction and see it gets better or worse, repeat until the note is in tune. Once you get the note in tune try deliberately flattening it and sharpening it so you get familiar with the sound. Add the other intervals over time, I suggest all the major notes then add minor 7th/6th/3rd then b5 and b2 last. Once you can play a full octave chromatic scale on one string over the open note your laughing.

 

EDIT: just to add that I sometimes find it particularly difficult to accurately pitch a b3 because theres so much deliberate abuse of the distinction of b3 and 3 in a lot of rock and blues - it seems that pretty much any midway point sounds OK to me because I'm so used to hearing the deliberate abuse of the distinction in a lot of rock and blues.

 

The short version is that we can generally all already hear when something is "out of tune" pretty easily, the trick is that you have to train yourself to discrimination sharp from flat. The exercise above is what worked for me. Eventually it becomes second nature and your fingers develop "ears" and just home in on the right spot.

 

Would definitely advise against using visual aids and tuners (but people do and get by with it so ...).

Edited by bassman7755
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7 hours ago, bassman7755 said:

EDIT: just to add that I sometimes find it particularly difficult to accurately pitch a b3 because theres so much deliberate abuse of the distinction of b3 and 3 in a lot of rock and blues - it seems that pretty much any midway point sounds OK to me because I'm so used to hearing the deliberate abuse of the distinction in a lot of rock and blues.

 

More likely you are defaulting to true temperament,  this is not unusual for voice or violin, for example.

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5 hours ago, Stub Mandrel said:

 

More likely you are defaulting to true temperament,  this is not unusual for voice or violin, for example.

When you say true temperament do you mean Just tuning as per https://pages.mtu.edu/~suits/scales.html  ?. I see that the Just b3 is slightly sharp and the 3rd slightly flat compared to even tempered. I can defiantly feel my tendency to slightly sharpen the b3 and flatten the  3rd, I guess the origins of blues is people feeling that same pull.

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I think it's a much better idea to start out with lines, or at least some visual marker (short lines/dots like on Alain Caron's F Bass). Of course unlined may look cooler but generally the top players who play fretless tend to have better intonation when playing lined. Jaco, Willis, Bona all spring to mind. The bigger name unlined players like Steve Bailey, Percy Jones, Christian McBride and Tony Franklin tend not to have the best intonation, although they are all obviously great players. There are some exceptions; Pino played unlined very accurately, and Michael Manring has great intonation too. I suspect this comes down to them both having very good relative (or perhaps perfect) pitch, and putting in many hours of practice. 

Generally the lines are most useful when playing above the 12th fret as that's where the intonation can get really squeaky. It's less of an issue in normal playing positions. Of course using your ears is important, and you would not always play directly on top of the line depending which part of the neck you're at. 

One caveat is that the old 'use your ears' chestnut does depend on a player having good ears in the first place. To be honest I think most people vastly overestimate their ears. It's almost certain that there are players out there with pitch recognition good enough to distinguish between and play both just temperament and even temperament, but I doubt these people would be even 1% of the fretless community.

 

Using a tuner while playing scales will probably make you good at playing scales in tune, but I'm not sure of its wider benefits in promoting good intonation while improvising fills because as soon as the muscle movement changes, the muscle memory from that goes out of the window.

 

I'm not a teacher so I'm wary of giving advice, but I would say if you plan getting an unlined, knock yourself out, but be aware that the dusty end will present considerable challenges. Work on ear training /pitch recognition as much as possible both on but also away from the instrument, and play as much as possible - keep away from playing fretted for a good few months.

 

 

 

 

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There's nothing wrong with a lined fretless but the problem is that you'll end up playing with your eyes instead of your ears and often out of tune, because you'll rely on these lines more than on what you're hearing especially if the rest of the band is slightly out of tune, which happens more than often. 😉

 

Should I recommend you to listen back to early recordings of Pino Palladino and you'll notice that his intonation is not perfect at all and he's the first to say it...

 

Practice is the only known secret with developing your ears with anything that helps being it lines, opened strings or a strobe tuner (a strobe tuner is better as it's so accurate you'll start hearing even very very slightly out of pitch notes or chords and it will improve your intonation or get you completely nuts 😉 ).

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1 hour ago, Belka said:

One caveat is that the old 'use your ears' chestnut does depend on a player having good ears in the first place.

 

I think you are overegging the difficulty. If you can sing/hum/whistle with reasonable intonation (which the vast majority of people can) then you can learn to intonate a non fretted stringed instrument as evidenced by the millions of school children over hundreds of years who manage to learn to play various stringed instruments with decent intonation without recourse to electronic tuners and visual aids.

Edited by bassman7755
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