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Fretless bass.... what's the benefit?


ricksterphil

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So what's the benefit to your playing of a fretless bass. I get the 80's mwaah and channeling your inner Jaco, but what's the benefit to your playing and technique. 

 

Would a fretless newbie be better to go lined, marker dots or totally naked?

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30 minutes ago, ricksterphil said:

Would a fretless newbie be better to go lined, marker dots or totally naked?


I find lines help me, some people will vehemently disagree with me, each to their own. I tried a lot of fretless basses over the years and thought it just wasn’t for me and assumed that was because it was so difficult but the difficulty came because I hadn’t found the right fretless. When I tried a 30” scale I found I could play it ok. So try lots of fretless basses and don’t give up if it’s too difficult, it might be you just haven’t found the right bass. I have lines and side dots, gradually you rely on them less and less as your ear improves. Some of the best advice I had on here was to just play the same as you would on a fretted bass, bass lines you are familiar with then you’ll hear when your intonation is out. For me the weird thing was after playing fretless exclusively for a couple of months, going back to a fretted bass felt very restrictive, fretless can be a very freeing thing. People will give you all sorts of advice and tell you their way is correct, there is no correct way, try out all the advice and settle with what form of practice suits you.

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What's the benefit of playing fretless? It's a slightly different beast and you can get different tones and effects on it that you can't totally replicate on a fretted bass (the reverse is true too). It may improve your ear, you may find it easier to play. I love the tone and like the feel of it. Plus, I get to try and emulate Pino, John Giblin, Mick Karn, Tony Levin, Larry Klein, etc (not necessarily with any great success, but I try).

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All double bass to cello etc instrument players learn to play ‘in position’. That is they learn where all the notes are in each area of the instrument without shifting their hand from each area, no frets, no lines of course. Attempt to sing along to scales as you play them on fretted then on fretless, notice the difference when you try for the first time on fretless! Yes, it’s all down to ear training. My fretless basses have 3mm side dots.

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You don't have to go for the 80s mwaah - raise the string height a bit, play dead strings or add a foam mute, and you can get a lovely warm vintage electric bass sound, like a Hofner, or near to an amplified upright bass sound with the right tone dialled in. I play fretted and fretless, as Frank mentioned earlier, the freedom of expression you get with a fretless is very different.

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More tonal options. Portamento, pulled harmonics, easier vibrato, Microtuning ....There is so much more to fretless bass.  You lose slap, sustain and some attack of course.  I often take a fretless to jazz sessions if the double bass seems too much hard work; the other players prefer the DB, but I can "get away with" the fretless.

 

People often think it's going to be hard, but really it's the same as playing fretted.  If you find you're out of tune you maybe need to work on your fretted playing too.

 

I admit to struggling a bit with frets ... Accidental fretting of the g when reaching for a note on the b, not pushing hard enough and getting fret rattle.  1mm too far up the neck = wrong note rather than right note a bit out of tune etc.

 

My fretlesses have side dots only. Sometimes need a quick glance, but only in the same way as I do on a fretted. The fret lines on my fretted bass don't add much.

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Willis would not be able to play the range of the board with that level of intonation without lines. You'll notice that he watches the neck almost all of the time and uses muscle memory to play the faster lines, there is no time for pitch adjustment, that comes from a visual/muscle memory approach. Same as Lagrene below from 0.30. Pitch correction at those speeds... forget about it. It's all visual and muscle memory.

 

 

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I play an Ibanez Portamento fretless.  The front of the fingerboard is unlined but along the top edge it has dot markers and fret lines. 

 

As a fretless beginner it would be a much harder learning curve for me if I didn't have the markers, especially when playing above the 10th fret. 

 

I bought a fretless as I wanted to get close to a double bass sound without having an actual double bass.   As mentioned above, you can get away with it on a jazz gig, the piezo pickup and flat wounds strings get me as close as I'm going to get with an electric bass.

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There are no 'benefits' in the same way that there are no benefits of the cello compared to a bass. It's just different.

 

I don't bother with mwah and sliding all over the place, and definitely don't want to play it like Jaco did(I hate that tone and it does nothing for me), and these are things which can be done far far too much on the fretless. I don't play it much differently to how I play the fretted. Most of the reason why I play fretless is for ear training so I bought an unlined. And I suppose I sometimes like the more organic sound too and the potential for more expressive playing for home projects.

 

Whether lined or unlined is a moot point. The side dots on a lined are the same as fretted, but on unlined they're where the frets are.

If you just like the sound of fretless and nothing else, get lined. If you want the full experience and want to help train your ears too, go unlined. The beauty of the unlined is it helps you to see better with your ears and rely on them more than you would with a fretted or lined fretless. 

Edited by TheLowDown
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Here’s a bit of “the fretless monster” Tony Franklin showcasing his fretless sound, a bit of mwahh, a bit of genius a bit of plectrum with fretless, a bit more genius and a “monster” sound. 
fretless isn’t all about jaco and jazz 

This is in drop D using a hipshot Dtuner 

 

 

Edited by Bunion
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I can only talk from my own experience here... I had been playing bass for three years or thereabouts and had only just really started to accelerate my ability after a very, very slow self taught, pre internet age, starting point. It was coming up to my 18th, I was in a band and had just started to listen to Pearl Jam, hearing fretless in rock for the first time. My only "trick" on bass was to slide up an octave and play above the twelfth so when I wanted a new bass I thought a combination of my one trick and having heard Pearl Jam's Ten I thought grabbing a five string fretless would be a stretch but worth it. Playing a fretless, especially if it's your only bass, really does make you stand out when playing with new bands, but only if you can play it in tune! Mine is lined. I had an unlined for a short period and was fine up to the twelfth then it got chaotic for me. I think it builds up some fretting hand strength but also some real sensitivity, not just in your ear but in what you play too. The fretless is so expressive and so sensitive to your note choice there's not a lot of hiding if you're improvising a fill and you play a bum note. Even if you don't intend to gig it, I'd get one as a practice tool to change perspective a but keep you on your toes. 

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Great timing for this thread as I am going through the exact same question and considering getting a fretless. Is it feasible to keep playing fretted while also learning fretless or does getting a fretless means locking the fretted basses in their box for a few months, or at least until things start to click? 

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12 minutes ago, vincbt said:

Great timing for this thread as I am going through the exact same question and considering getting a fretless. Is it feasible to keep playing fretted while also learning fretless or does getting a fretless means locking the fretted basses in their box for a few months, or at least until things start to click? 

However you want I guess. There are no rules when there are no frets.

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I recently had my USA SUB fitted with a Status lined fretless neck.

 

I absolutely love the fretless sound, it's so unique and allows a lot more expression. I'd echo a lot of the comments - it really improves your ear as you have to be ON IT with intonation (and especially so with a Status), there is no hiding.

 

It's a superb training tool and as you grow with it, you start to unlock it even more!

 

As an aside, apart from Basschat types, I've never ever seen anyone in 18 years of gigging, play one, other than myself. It's a really good way to stand out!

Edited by 40hz
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1 hour ago, vincbt said:

Great timing for this thread as I am going through the exact same question and considering getting a fretless. Is it feasible to keep playing fretted while also learning fretless or does getting a fretless means locking the fretted basses in their box for a few months, or at least until things start to click? 

 

When I took to fretless decades ago, I would leave the fretted in the house and only take the fretless to gigs. Intonation playing in your living room, is a whole different animal from playing it in a band context at a gig.

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17 hours ago, NickA said:

More tonal options. Portamento, pulled harmonics, easier vibrato, Microtuning ....There is so much more to fretless bass.  You lose slap, sustain and some attack of course.  I often take a fretless to jazz sessions if the double bass seems too much hard work; the other players prefer the DB, but I can "get away with" the fretless.

 

1 hour ago, 40hz said:

I absolutely love the fretless sound, it's so unique and allows a lot more expression. I'd echo a lot of the comments - it really improves your ear as you have to be ON IT with intonation (and especially so with a Status), there is no hiding.

It's a superb training tool and as you grow with it, you start to unlock it even more!

 

I started to write something, but then found that everything I wanted to say had already been said..!

 

 

I find this is the ideal compromise between lined and unlined:

20220124_112054-2.thumb.jpg.9654caa48a853211943aa5da3b85a005.jpg

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As with all things musical, it really depends on the individual and how they want to express themselves. A fretless can be played as straight and un-fretless like as a fretted bass or it can be as exaggerated as much as your heart desires. Listen to a lot of early The Police, Sting really doesn't sound like he's playing a fretless in a lot of cases when actually he is. The other things to consider is strings and the bass you play. They will all sound different as we have seen, Jaco does not sound anything like Tony Franklin who in turn sounds nothing like Pino. Plus a fretless Jazz strung with rounds will sound very different to a fretless Precision strung with flats. So a few questions you should ask yourself is what you are trying to achieve by playing fretless and how you want to sound.

 

The key to be successful on a fretless bass is simply down to two main things, technique and ear. You need to have extremely strong technique so that when you fret, you fret pretty much in the same place every time, you need to hit that spot perfectly. Your fretting hand is the most import thing to get right and it is important to cover one fret per finger. Two great exercises to see how good your technique is are, playing walking bass lines and playing bass lines you normally play or know but doing them in the dark. The walking bass lines will really help with technique and getting your fretting fingers in the correct places as you move around the fretboard. Playing bass lines you know or already play but in the dark will also be a good indicator of how good your technique is and how well you know your fretboard, lots of bum notes and then you need to work on your technique.

 

The other essential is having a good ear so you can hear when you are slightly off and can correct yourself on the fly. I do think that a lot of this comes naturally but again playing walking bass lines and bass lines you know how to play already will help in being able to recognise if you are in tune or not. A very good exercise to help with training your ear is to sing along to songs and create your own harmonies and hopefully see if you are in tune. Also singing along to bass lines helps and if you know the bass line, you'll know if you are pitching in tune. If not, then get practicing. Also, if you have a piano, playing a small simple melody and then singing it back is a great exercise for tuning your ear. You then repeat the melody but play it higher and higher up the scale until your voice can't reach that pitch you are playing it in. You can do it on a bass or a guitar but piano works best. Start simple so play A, B C and D on the A string as a 4 note run and then sing it back in pitch. Then play B, C, D and E and sing it back. Just keep working up and try and keep in tune. Then change the melody, for example, A, E, D, B, C. Its one of the best techninque to work on your ear and is something professional singers do all the time to train.

 

Both of these essential skills go hand in hand as you won't always be able to hear yourself perfectly in a live situation so having good technique will help with playing as close in tune as possible. As for the question regarding lined or unlined, personally I play unlined but I see shapes and positions when I look at an unlined fretless board so lines would just confuse me. However if you use lines and you prefer that then crack on. 

 

The bottom line is if you are a half decent bass player, with good technique, then you should be able to switch over to fretless fairly easily. 

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