The Fretless Odyssey - Removable Fret Lines
In 1973, I had the frets removed from a 1968
Fender Jazz and
were glued into the fret slots.
playing fretless in the 1970s, the Jazz remained in the closet.
That neck remains stable to this day. Recently the urge to play
fretless rose again.
Because I wanted to use a bass with a high "C" to play jazz, I
purchased an acoustic-electric bass, the Godin A5.
Except for being fretess, it is a fraternal twin (different colours) to
the fretted Godin A5 that I have. The fretless Godin has no fretlines
markings on the fingerboard. It has dots on the side of the neck where
the 3rd 5th, 7th, 9th 12th and 15th frets would be.
Learning to play fretless
For me, the long hiatus from fretless playing
starting over. So how to learn the instrument and how long before I
could take it out on the job? Having lines where the
frets "should" be makes learning the instrument much much easier, at
least in the early stages. Later on as one's abilities
the individual lines become less important and a few dot markers along
the side of the fingerboard may be all that one needs. Many fretless
instruments can be ordered with or without fretlines.Should I get lines
cut into the Godin
fretboard and fill them (wood, epoxy, plastic) to make
them visible? Are there any disadvantages to having fretlines?
As far as I can tell, there are two reasons for
not having fretlines.
The first is the "snob" appeal - no lines = increased
To this I say, "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn". The
is the possibility that cutting new slots into the surface of
already installed fingerboard might alter the sound of the instrument.
I have no opinion about whether making fretslots is detrimental to the
sound but it
would cost a couple of hundred dollars to have it done. I came up with
a compromise solution.
I purchased some "pinstriping" tape from a local
hot-rod shop. It is
white, 1/16" wide, has an adhesive backing and comes in a 20 foot roll
for $6.00. I took the strings off both Godins and positioned the two
necks facing each other. I used the fretted Godin as a guide and with a
soft pencil marked all fret positions on both edges of the
fretless neck. Then I took the pin striping tape, removed the
backing and placed the tape across the width of the fretboard at each
With a razor, I trimmed the "fretlines" to the edge of the fretboard.
At this point I had a bass with thin tape for each
fret. In some
positions, the tape was tall enough from the fretboard to act as a very
In fact for the first couple of days the instrument was essentially a
fretted instrument. As I played it, the tape flattened out
more "frets" disappeared. However, the huge advantage was that I
playing the instrument in tune. If my finger was too far away from the
tape line, the note choked. Most importantly, I could feel
the tape under
my finger tips and I had tactile feedback about the proper position.
The picture on the left shows the bass as it stands now. The tape lines
are actually a lot straighter than they appear in the picture.
After some practice (actually its only been about
1 month in total), I
started cutting away the tape with a razor blade. In most cases I
removed the tape under the string and left
a small island of tape beside
the string. This made the string truely fretless at that positon. You
can see some examples in the picture on the right. In some
positions I cut the tape away under all strings to leave 4 islands, in
other positions there are only 2 islands remaining. As of this
writing (Feb 2006) the 3 5 7 9 and 12 fret positions still have tape
board. for the 2nd (G) to the 5th (E) string. The first string is now
fretless. At the other fret positions the small islands allow
the string to be fretless but give me a security blanket.
The bass is about 70% fretless now and I've played
6 gigs with it. The
first gig was about 2 weeks after switching to the fretless. I
stuffed a piece of foam rubber under the strings near the bridge to
mute the overtones. Not my preferred sound but the muting
the "out of tune" hamonics and let me pretend that I could play the
bass in tune. The singer was unaware that I was playing a fretless
(bass drums, guitar trio). A week later I pulled the foam out. Now I
can shift positions without watching the fretboard and still play in
tune (sometimes!). I'm getting comfortable
letting my eyes read the chord charts.
I firmly believe that feeling the
tape islands under my fingers gave me a big leap towards being able to
the fretless quickly. The islands give me the confidence to hit the
position without looking. I will get rid of more tape and have
few islands over the next month. It will take a lot more time before
I consider myself to be a "proper" fretless player. Right now I can
fool some of the people all of the time.
No, I still don't call
player, but I do play it! The Godin still has a couple of pieces of
tape on it but none are actually under a string.
In May 2007 I bought a
fretted Sadowsky Metro 5 string. This is the
bass to die for! On the advice of the esteemed Bruce Jacobs, I switched
to using only one instrument for an extended period. Goodbye to
switching between E-C (fretless) and B-G (fretted) tunings. So I sold
my Musicman Stingray 5 that I had been using in the rock gigs and put
my flirtation with the Godin fretless on hold. Sadowsky,
Sadowsky, Sadowsky. It really is the "do everything" bass.
In June 2008 I picked
up a lightly
used Ibanez Gary Willis bass (GWB35, thecheaper
It has 5 strings (B-G) and is fretless with lines. These
come in every colour that you want - as long as you only want black.
There is a single pickup(Ibanez) in the sweet spot near the
instrument - fantastic value.
The bass had been
converted to a passive bass when I got it. Sonically
it needed a little help. I dropped a Bartolini 3 band preamp in it and
kept the original 2 body hole layout by using 2 stacked pots. The front
stack has volume and treble and the rear has bass and mids.
position midrange frequency selector switch for the Bartolini midrange
was left in the body cavity set at 800 Hz.
I've been using the bass
all summer at my rock gig - house band at the
Pony Corral Restaurant (Grant Avenue, Winnipeg). Classic and
rock, some blues, RnB, backing up a rotation of excellent singers.
While fretless is not the first choice for this type of gig, it was
perfect for getting me comfortable with the Ibanez. The bass
works suprising well in this setting.
I replaced the bridge on the Ibanez fretless with
an inexpensive but excellent adjustable bridge that I found on E-Bay
from choppersmusic - a great dealer located in Canada). The original
bridge was very "Fender Jazz" -like.The new bridge has top-loading
string slots and individual piezos on each string with the leads
soldered together in one output cable. I also
4 string version of this bridge on my Ibanez P-Bass copy, again a big
improvement. I haven't bothered hooking up the piezo output
permanently - but a quick trial showed the output to be very hot, full
frequency range and well balanced between strings (into a
high impedance preamp of course).
In my youth I
dismissed the notion that a bridge could
make a HUGE
difference to the sound of the bass. But like so
held ideas, I was wrong, very wrong. The new bridge made a big
diffference to the sound of both Ibanez basses and in particular to the
fretless. A much more "focused" sound, better articulation.
Pics to follow.