Lots of the newer bassists who come to chat end up asking about fretless. I was interested in fretless bass from the earliest days of my playing. Partly because of the Jaco influence, but also because when I started playing there were a number of bands in vogue that featured fretless (Japan, Paul Simon, The Christians and tracks featuring Pino Palladino and Sting were in force too).
There are many reasons to play fretless, from the instrument’s unique tone, to the ability to slide gracefully between notes. Ultimately it is a matter of personal preference. Recently I asked Steve Lawson about going fretless. Steve is well known as a teacher of fretless bass, on top of his Solo Bass career.
“It’s probably not as hard as you think, particularly if your technique is decent, and assuming you’re going to get a lined fretless. There’s no law against getting an unlined one, but that just seems to be making life difficult! …Anything that is going to help me play in tune, I’m going to do!”
There are some differences in frethand technique and finger placement in moving from fretted to fretless too:
“On a fretted you play behind the fret, but on a lined fretless you are going to be about 2/3 of the way behind the line, so that the contact point of your finger onto the fretboard is on the line.”
Steve picked out one of my bad habits, which turns out to be quite a common one:
“The biggest mistake that people learning to play fretless make is learning to auto correct – sliding in to the notes [rather than getting them on pitch at the start]. The most important practice is learning to hit the notes without any vibrato, bang on. When you get it wrong, don’t correct, look at where your hand is. Try and feel how it was wrong.”
“You have to practice what you ultimately want to have happen – which is that you don’t want to have to correct, you want to be playing in tune from the start… …I spend a lot of time [practising] getting my fingers in exactly the right place. The trick is to start slow, work on accuracy from the beginning. If you play out of tune, it just isn’t going to work.”
Keying against something (like an open string) to make sure your intonation is correct is another neat tip.
“Intonation is the beginning, middle and end of getting fretless playing right.”
It is worth the patience needed to master it, as Steve says:
“If you do, you are opening yourself up to a whole load of expressive potential that fretted just doesn’t have.
Here is the full video of Steve Lawson speaking with me. Sorry if the sound is a little quiet! We also talk about fretless bass compared to upright, and there’s even a mention of my Elrick fretless. My favourite quote from Steve on moving from fretted to fretless bass:
“It’s like taking the training rails off”