Despite being not as well-known as its fretted sibling, many people have some preconceived notions regarding the fretless bass. This article will lay out useful information regarding the pros and cons and help you decide if it's a good choice for you.
Each of these aspects will be discussed more in-depth within their respective sections, but this segment will give you a sneak-peek into what this article covers.
- Unique, distinct sound
- Expressive options
- No fret buzz
- Learning curve
- Having a great ear is optimal
- Rarity (compared to the fretted bass)
These fretless bass benefits and drawbacks intend to inform you about the instrument's qualities to hopefully help you make a decision for yourself. It's a beautiful instrument, but it isn't for everyone. Here's what you should know about it:
Fretless Bass Pros
The fretless bass has quite a few different benefits to it, and it's fair to outline the highlights first before getting into the cons of it.
It Offers a Unique Sound
The first of the fretless bass benefits is that it has a distinct sound to it, especially compared to the fretted bass. Some people describe it as having a “buzzy” or even having a “mwah” sound. Others have compared the fretless bass sound to singing because of its phrasing options.
Here's a video of a solo that showcases how it sounds and what it's capable of:
With that in mind, picking up one of these can add a different kind of voice to your music due to how it's constructed.
When playing a fretted bass, the frets are designed to give you an accurate pitch when you press down on the string in various parts of the fretboard. You can still learn how to play pitches accurately, but it will offer you some freedom at the same time which is how it gets its unique tonal flavor. This freedom will also lead us to our next advantage of using this instrument...
You Can Be More Expressive
Since it doesn't have frets, you'll have more creativity and expression compared to a fretted bass. Some of these powerful tools are a big part of the fretless bass sound. Here are some examples of how this is the case:
- It's easier to slide and transition between notes, creating more fluidity.
- A wider sliding vibrato
- Assuming you are in tune (you can follow this guide here), you can play notes that technically don't exist on a fretted instrument (i.e., between B and C). These are known as microtones.
- The ability to do sliding harmonics
No Fret Buzz
Fret buzz is typically a problem when the strings on a guitar or bass are set up too low, but since the fretless bass neck is not outfitted with frets this can't be an issue.
Speaking of strings, these basses support either flatwound or roundwound strings, and it's usually a matter of preference on which one to choose. Tapewound strings are also another popular choice because some people love its warmer and softer sound and claim that they're easier on the fingers and preserve their tonal quality over time.
Fret buzz can be very annoying and may require a trip to a guitar/bass tech to fix. Luckily, this is one of the pros to choosing a fretless bass vs a fretted one. On the other hand, string buzz still can occur, so you will always want to get a proper bass set-up. Not getting a set-up is one of the most common mistakes a beginner will make.
Fretless Bass Cons
Now that we've discussed some of its highlights, we can now dive into the drawbacks. These are a few fundamental ones that exist for the fretless bass.
Higher Learning Curve
The learning curve is easily considered the most common con to this instrument. What exactly makes the fretless bass hard to play?
Technically, since there are no frets, playing and producing a sound should be much easier to play. This is true, and people find it easier to produce notes with the instrument, but this is not where the difficulty lies.
The primary challenge is caused by the fact that the frets are not there to serve as a guide. People are comfortable knowing that they can find and hit notes accurately on a fretboard. It gives them one less thing to think about when playing.
However, some manufacturers have taken steps to help rectify this issue to make it more accessible. Here are some ways that this common problem has been minimized:
- painted or inlaid fret lines
- dotted inlays
- fret markers along the side of the neck
Since the instrument now offers these, is the higher learning curve really a con? Is the fretless bass hard to play? Well, at this point, it really depends on what kind you buy.
There are still some types out there that will present a challenge, but with these features on more recent ones, the accessibility of the fretless bass for beginners has increased. This is an example of one that is affordable, good-looking, and has inlaid fret lines to help with accuracy.
The Need For A Great Ear
This topic may be related to the challenges and difficulties of the instrument, but it's unique enough to warrant its own section. When comparing the fretless bass vs fretted, it's a requirement to have a good ear when playing.
Having a good ear means that you are able to hear the detail and depth of each sound. It can also refer to being able to identify pitches accurately. Even though the fretless bass has the potential to sound flexible, being keen to each note and sound is essential.
The basis of why this is worth mentioning is that any slight movement on the fretted bass can result in an alteration of the sound. These changes can be unintentional, and that's why it's important to be aware of it because it can result in an undesirable tone. If it's intentional, you can create some fantastic and unusual sounds that would otherwise be impossible on a fretted bass.
Here's a video that shows just how much movement affects the sound of this bass:
Having a great ear when playing the fretless bass with a band will be a tremendous asset. In fact, having a good ear is a useful skill with all instruments. There's a pretty good chance that the other instruments in the group aren't as tonally flexible as this bass, such as a guitar or a piano. Having perfect intonation with these other instruments will be the key to creating a superb fretless bass sound in a band setting.
They Are Rarer (Compared To Fretted Basses)
The final item in this list of fretless bass pros and cons is the availability of the instrument. Compared to fretted basses, these are harder to find at brick-and-mortar retailers. If they do carry them, they won't have as large of a selection compared to its fretted counterpart. According to this article, fretless basses make up approximately 3 percent of the whole bass market.
This can be remedied by purchasing your bass online; however, you miss out on the option of trying it before buying it. This is sometimes an essential step before someone makes a decision to purchase a bass or any instrument for that matter. The feel and sound are critical factors as not all instruments are created equally.
One of the possible reasons for there being fewer fretless basses in stores compared to fretted ones is simply due to supply and demand. Since a good chunk of the population believes this kind of bass is extremely difficult, businesses know about this and limit their supply. On the other hand, this prevents curious players from making a decision for themselves.
Hopefully, this guide to the fretless bass pros and cons has given you some insight into this amazing and unique instrument. As mentioned earlier, it's a great instrument, but it is not everyone's cup of tea. Even if it's not as popular, there's a pretty good chance that one your favorite bassist uses one. Its unique sound and the possibilities to be more expressive is appealing to many bassists, new or experienced.
However, this instrument does come with a learning curve, but a lot of this has been minimized to improve its accessibility. There's even the option to buy custom inlay stickers if you come across one without inlays or lines.
Even without any added fret markers, the perceived difficulty of it does not necessarily need to be a con of the instrument. Some people may also see it as one of the fretless bass benefits!
Because it can provide a new challenge, people can see this as an opportunity to grow as a musician. Being able to play and sound competent with it requires practice and commitment just like every instrument out there. Compared to the fretted bass, the skill set is a bit different.
If you have the chance to play one in the store, you should give it a shot. That way you can see how it feels and sounds as well as develop your own personal opinions about it. Who knows, maybe you will add the fretless bass to your arsenal along with your fretted one! Why settle on one type of bass when you can have both?