What is a Fretless Bass?
Frets are the metal wires up and down the neck of the bass beneath the bass strings. Their purpose is to accurately divide up the notes on each string when you press the string down. Without frets it is up to the player to accurately find and play the notes up and down each string making sure they are in tune.
Do I Want Fretted or Fretless?
Playing fretless bass is at least a little more difficult than playing fretted bass. If you are buying your first bass, you probably don’t want a fretless bass unless you know for sure that’s the sound you’re after. It takes a good bit of extra practice to accurately play the notes on a fretless bass. When you miss the notes or play sloppily you can sound pretty bad. This can frustrate many students.
If you do want to play fretless bass, consider that playing a fretted bass first can help you eventually play fretless bass better. By practicing for a while on fretted bass, you will learn to hear notes played accurately in-tune. Then, when you switch to fretless, you will be able to mentally hear the notes better before you play them. That is what is required to play the fretless bass in-tunehearing what you want to play in your head first and then matching it.
Some playing styles don’t work well on fretless bass. On a lot of fretless basses it is difficult to get a good slap bass tone. (Slap bass is a percussive style of bass playing done by slapping the strings.) Tapping is a bit more challenging. (Tapping is done by striking the strings against the fingerboard without plucking the string.) And playing chords (several notes at the same time) in-tune can be really tricky. None of it is impossible however.
If you’ve been playing bass for a while and are considering if a fretless will be easy to learn, a good way to judge is how easily you are able to tune your bass. If tuning accurately by ear is a struggle, you can guess tuning every note you play will also be some work.
Why Would You Want a Fretless Bass Anyway?
The fretless bass has a different sound to it. It has a real warm singing quality to it. You can smoothly slide from note to note. Fretless bass has a lot of subtlety and nuance. Often you will hear the tone described with words like “mwah” or “growl”.
Some amazing fretless bass players are Jaco Pastorius, Michael Manring, Mick Karn, Les Claypool, John Giblin and Percy Jones. Find some of their stuff to really hear the sound and possibilities of fretless bass. It’s really a beautiful sounding instrument which is well worth the extra practice. But, in my opinion, it’s probably not a great first bass choice for most beginning bassists.
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