Why I Play Fretless Bass Guitar
What’s happening fretless bass freaks? If you’re like me, you are not only a fretless player, but also a fretless bass fanatic.
Seriously. I’ll play a fretted bass, sure. It might be fun to toy around on, maybe take an acoustic bass guitar outside on a chilly evening to throw down some rhythm around the fire pit.
Or maybe I want to rekindle the old days, when I was all about shredding and hardly cared about whether or not anyone wanted to hear it. Y’know, throwing around techniques that are completely different animals on fretted, like tapping for example.
But there’s really nothing like the feel of a fretless fingerboard for people like you and me. I bet you have your own reasons for picking fretless, and I’d like to know what they are. But we can save that for the comments. I’ll start by throwing out my own ideas, and I really want to hear back what keeps you on fretless above all other basses.
Top Reasons Why I Play Fretless Bass Guitar
How many reasons do you think you can come up with? Here are mine.
Much Love to That “Mwah”
Ask any fretless bass guitar player what they love the most about playing the instrument, and most of them will immediately start talking about the “Mwah” tone. You know, that smooth, silky fretless sound that gives the low end of the track a fluid feel.
Even for those of us who don’t over-emphasize the mwah sound, it’s still a huge selling point. I recall back when I was playing actively with a local all instrumental jazz act here in Austin… I tried to keep from using the mwah sound as a gimmick. But I still used it when the time was right.
I found that it is very cool for any type of music that requires a lot of sliding or walking lines. And if you tweak out the mix of pickups and tone on the instrument, you can get a very woody sound. I’ve even managed to get it to sound similar (though not identical) to a standup bass for some jazz tracks.
I don’t have to tell you what a luxury that is, do I? Getting a good semblance of that tone without lugging a huge, heavy standup around is a big benefit in my book. Even if I still find myself romance at the idea of playing out on a real (or at least an electric version of a) standup bass.
Complete Control Over Tones and Microtones
Like most of us, I started out playing a standard fretted bass guitar in my early days. That was a great place to start, since it minimizes focus on the imperfections we all have when we first pick up the instrument.
What I didn’t realize was that the very qualities that hid my imperfections were also limiting my ability to create. Like the cello, violin, viola, and other string instruments that come sans frets, the fretless bass guitar opened up a whole new world of microtones and halftones!
Some people hear them and wince. They find it cacophonous. But that’s only when it’s being wielded by unskilled hands.
A true artist knows the rules, but is capable of creating art that still resonates with people even when they break the rules. Seriously, how else do you think we cooked up diminished scales? There are emotions you can’t get by sticking to standard keys and scales already, so why not also kick around microtones to test it out?
It may not be familiar or comfortable at first, but that’s just because it’s new. Do you play around with this as well, or is it just me?
Dial In the Exact Intonation I want
Here’s another huge benefit of fretless – I control intonation from start to finish. That can be a liability for those of us with untrained ears. But for the pro caliber bassist, it’s a massive advantage.
So your bass fell out of tune while playing live? No problem. I can shift my playing on that one string up or down a touch. It’s just like using microtones, but pretty much a dynamic way of playing between the tuning itself.
And with things like vibrato, slides, and other techniques, intonation is a wide open door. Like I said, having frets limits your ability to adapt on the fly. Fretless is the opposite – in the right hands, it opens you up to adapt to anything, any time, and in whatever way you want to do it. In my book, completely control over the intonation is a godsend.
Sliding Harmonics FTW!
Oh how I love sliding harmonics! If you play fretless and haven’t integrated them into your arsenal, why not?
There are multiple ways to employ this technique. You can pop the harmonic on the open string, then hammer it down immediately and slide up or down. Or you can use artificial harmonics and then slide afterward.
This technique is a great one for reaching into the upper register to add some pretty sweet sounds to the bass. Michael Manring, whom we interviewed here on Fretless Bass Guitar Hub a few years ago, is a master at using this technique to create masterpieces.
No More Speed Bumps (& Less Buzz)
No frets means no more speed bumps! What does this mean? It’s when you are moving your hand up or down the neck, perhaps trying to slide between notes. When you pass your fingers over the frets, you can feel the “bumps” and also hear where the string changes from one note to another. But it doesn’t change notes smoothly; it’s like riding over a speed bump.
No frets means no more speed bumps. Problem solved.
There’s also the issue that, without using a finger to precisely place where the note should be as on a fretless bass guitar, fretted basses introduce much more buzz into the sound. This can be because you are fingering the note far behind the fret, or maybe because the string is vibrating against higher frets. Either way, it’s a bigger task of muting fret noise on a fretted bass than on fretless.
So fretless allows you to focus exculsively on the playing, without having to worry about any audible side effects based on the bass or neck you are using. Huge perk in my book.
Respect and Adoration by My Peers (sic)
How many times have you done this? Walk into a club, band is playing.
You mosy up to the bar and grab a beer (or whiskey, or whatever whets your whistle). Quick glance over the the band, and all of a sudden…
“Wait a sec, is that dude playing a fretless? Badass Dude!”
Spot on, isn’t it? I’m always ecstatic to watch a fellow fretless player getting his thang done on stage, especially when it’s a surprise event.
So yeah, not to sound narcissistic or anything, but it’s freaking COOL to stumble on a talented fretless bass player. I’m sure you and anyone who sees you live feels the same way. Keep on making the rest of us smile. We are happy to witness it in person…for real.
I could have probably listed a dozen or more reasons for why I love to play fretless bass guitar, but I’d rather not dominate the conversation. I bet you have tons of reasons you love to play as well.
Help me out here. Add to the story below. Share something you love that many of us might not have considered. This post was meant to initiate a conversation, so let’s hear it people!
And as always, thanks for reading. Glad to have you as a friend of the “Hub.”
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