The fretless electric bass is essentially an electric bass with the frets removed, providing the sound and convenience of an electric bass, with some characteristics of an upright.
You can hear the difference between fretted and fretless basses by the smooth sound and even gliss that a fretless player achieves. Remember, a gliss or slide on a conventional bass guitar will move up or down in half-steps, like a piano (read more in the previous article on playing techniques). Fretless players tend to use a lot of gliss technique to highlight this slick sound. It also has the advantage that you can always slide a bit more if you don’t quite hit the note pitch exactly!
For someone coming from an electric guitar or bass background, this is an example of how ear training can help you learn to play the fretless bass. Without frets to guide you in playing notes at the correct pitch, your ears and hands must work in perfect harmony. This can seem a little intimidating at first, but persevere and you will be surprised how quickly you can pick it up.
Most people came to know the fretless bass through the music of Jaco Pastorius.
Pastorius modified a jazz bass by ripping out the frets, filling the gaps with wood glue, and coating the fingerboard with epoxy. Prior to Jaco, the rare individuals who played fretless used flatwound upright bass strings and a dull tone to emulate an upright, but Jaco favored round wounds and a bright bridge pickup sound, pulling him to the front of the mix.
The track “Donna Lee” is a perfect illustration of his virtuoso technique.
Fretless electric bass is not a very common sound in the charts these days, but for the smoochy 80s balladeer it adds that subtle sophistication. Check out this track by soul smoothie Paul Young. Even if it’s not your bag, the tasteful fretless playing by session legend Pino Paladino is a moment of magic.
The fretless electric bass would probably be a footnote rather than its own section without Jaco Pastorius. Some say that no one man has so completely defined and dominated his chosen instrument.
Often called the Jimi Hendrix of bass, Pastorius was a key member of the jazz fusion masters Weather Report and worked in a number of genres, including several notable collaborations with Joni Mitchell.
Despite (and perhaps because of) his undoubted genius, Jaco suffered from bouts of serious mental illness and died in 1987, at the age of only 35, after a fight with a nightclub bouncer.
Despite his short life, he created some incredible work. His 1976 eponymous Jaco Pastorius, and Hejira by Joni Mitchell are both great starting points for the curious.
Quiz: Fretted and Fretless
Think you can tell a fretted from a fretless, no problem? Test yourself!
So far we’ve focused on how the instrument and the player affect bass tone – well, what else is there? Next time on Bass Tone we’ll be looking at the impact the bass amplifier has on tone.