Why Fretless

I started playing the bass quite late. At 18 I went into the Rock Shop on Chalk Farm Road in Camden and bought a Westone Thunder 1a bass (four strings, with frets and made of solid oak). Aside from the weight it was a good instrument, never letting me down once – a sort of poor man’s Fender Precision.

But, a few months later I went into Russell Accott’s music shop in Oxford and ordered a fretless version. It took months to arrive, coming on a boat from Japan. When it finally showed up I instantly fell in love with the neck, free from the silver lines of frets, took it home, plugged it in and immediately realised how hard it was to play. Apart from the fretlessness of it I had to contend with a very high action (the strings felt like they were a foot higher than the fingerboard) and so it soon became more of an ornament than an instrument. I was so green in those days that I had no idea you could change the action, or whatever else you wanted, on your own bass. I didn’t know any other bassists for a start.

So, many years later with hundreds of gigs and roles in dozens of bands behind me I dusted off the fretless Westone and tried again; this time giving it a proper set up first. What had propelled me into wanting to play fretless in the first place had been the wonderful sounds I heard from Jaco Pastorious (especially on Weather Report’s 8:30 album), the much missed Mick Karn, Pino Palladino and Del Palmer (on many Kate Bush recordings). Now, with a properly set up instrument I was ready for the second hurdle – it was bloody hard.

Following a tried and trusted method I played along with records and took the bass to rehearsals but something wasn’t right and the bass got put back on the shelf.

Skip on a few more years and I’m now playing regularly with a Fender Jazz bass. The pull to fretless is stronger than ever so I trade in almost everything I have and buy a Fretless Fender Jazz. It is beautiful instrument, resplendent in what is called tobacco sunburst and it provokes approving sounds from all who see it. This is the instrument that allowed be to play fretless. I made it my main bass and tried to make it fit for every kind of gig I was doing.

But, as is often the way with fickle musicians, I had developed an interest in what five string instruments could do and I had started listening to the band Tribal Tech. Some investigating revealed that their bassist, Gary Willis had developed a signature five string fretless. On paper it was the perfect bass and I searched for one in the music shops of Oxford and London, finally finding one in Birmingham.

This was it. A simple bass: no paint or finish, two knobs and very clean lines. It was as if someone has designed it for me. I have played this for the last eight years or so, only switching to a Fender Precision for specific sounds (e.g. gigs with the marvellous Soul Beaver). Recently I have acquired the updated version of this bass, with a different fingerboard and a slightly changed body shape. This feels like the bass that will last me a lifetime.

But why fretless? It’s not just the tone, the growl and the slides. It’s not the creative implications of playing quarter tones, or the exciting fear produced by trying not to screw up your intonation mid song. It’s mostly the feeling of freedom. Frets are extremely useful when you want to make sure your notes are perfectly played, but I keep coming back to that thrill that comes with an uninterrupted fingerboard.

Just don’t get me started on double bass.


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