The Fretless Odyssey - Removable Fret Lines


In 1973, I had the frets removed from a 1968 Fender Jazz  and wood strips were glued into the fret slots. After giving up playing fretless in the 1970s, the Jazz remained in the closet. That neck remains stable to this day. Recently the urge to play fretless rose again. Because I wanted to use a bass with a high "C" to play jazz, I purchased an acoustic-electric bass, the Godin A5. Except for being fretess, it is a fraternal twin (different colours) to the fretted Godin A5 that I have. The fretless Godin has no fretlines or markings on the fingerboard. It has dots on the side of the neck where the 3rd 5th, 7th, 9th 12th and 15th frets would be.

Learning to play fretless

For me, the long hiatus from fretless playing meant essentially starting over. So how to learn the instrument and how long before I could take it out on the job? Having lines where the frets "should" be makes learning the instrument much much easier, at least in the early stages.  Later on as one's abilities progress, the individual lines become less important and a few dot markers along the side of the fingerboard may be all that one needs. Many fretless instruments can be ordered with or without fretlines.Should I get lines cut into the Godin fretboard and fill them (wood, epoxy, plastic) to make them visible? Are there any disadvantages to having fretlines?

As far as I can tell, there are two reasons for not having fretlines. The first is the "snob" appeal  - no lines = increased coolness. To this I say, "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn".  The second is the possibility that cutting new slots into the surface of an already installed fingerboard might alter the sound of the instrument. I have no opinion about whether making fretslots is detrimental to the sound but it would cost a couple of hundred dollars to have it done. I came up with a compromise solution.

Removable fretlines

I purchased some "pinstriping" tape from a local hot-rod shop. It is white, 1/16" wide, has an adhesive backing and comes in a 20 foot roll for $6.00. I took the strings off both Godins and positioned the two necks facing each other. I used the fretted Godin as a guide and with a soft pencil marked all fret positions on both edges of  the fretless neck. Then I took the pin striping tape, removed the backing and placed the tape across the width of the fretboard at each fret. With a razor, I trimmed the "fretlines" to the edge of the fretboard.

At this point I had a bass with thin tape for each fret. In some positions, the tape was tall enough from the fretboard to act as a very low fret. In fact for the first couple of days the instrument was essentially a fretted instrument. As I played it,  the tape flattened out and more "frets" disappeared. However, the huge advantage was that I immediately began playing the instrument in tune. If my finger was too far away from the tape line, the note choked. Most importantly, I could feel the tape under my finger tips and I had tactile feedback about the proper position. The picture on the left shows the bass as it stands now. The tape lines are actually a lot straighter than they appear in the picture.

After some practice (actually its only been about 1 month in total), I started cutting away the tape with a razor blade. In most cases I removed the tape under the string and  left a small island of tape beside the string. This made the string truely fretless at that positon. You can see some examples in the picture on the right. In some positions I cut the tape away under all strings to leave 4 islands, in other positions there are only 2 islands remaining. As of this writing (Feb 2006) the 3 5 7 9 and 12 fret positions still have tape across the board. for the 2nd (G) to the 5th (E) string. The first string is now all fretless. At the other fret positions the small islands allow the string to be fretless but give me a security blanket.

Getting Better 

The bass is about 70% fretless now and I've played 6 gigs with it. The first gig was about 2 weeks after switching to the fretless. I stuffed a piece of foam rubber under the strings near the bridge to mute the overtones.  Not my preferred sound but the muting masked the "out of tune" hamonics and let me pretend that I could play the bass in tune. The singer was unaware that I was playing a fretless (bass drums, guitar trio). A week later I pulled the foam out. Now I can shift positions without watching the fretboard and still play in tune (sometimes!). I'm getting comfortable letting my eyes read the chord charts.

I firmly believe that feeling the tape islands under my fingers gave me a big leap towards being able to play the fretless quickly. The islands give me the confidence to hit the position without looking. I will get rid of more tape and have few islands over the next month. It will take a lot more time before I consider myself to be a "proper" fretless player. Right now I can fool some of the people all of the time.


No, I still don't call myself a Fretless player, but I do play it! The Godin still has a couple of pieces of tape on it but none are actually under a string.

In May 2007 I bought a fretted Sadowsky Metro 5 string. This is the bass to die for! On the advice of the esteemed Bruce Jacobs, I switched to using only one instrument for an extended period. Goodbye to switching between E-C (fretless) and B-G (fretted) tunings. So I sold my Musicman Stingray 5 that I had been using in the rock gigs and put my flirtation with the Godin fretless on hold.  Sadowsky, Sadowsky, Sadowsky. It really is the "do everything" bass.

Update  (September 2008)

In June 2008 I picked up a lightly used Ibanez Gary Willis bass (GWB35, thecheaper model).  It has 5 strings (B-G) and is fretless with lines. These basses come in every colour that you want - as long as you only want black. There is a single pickup(Ibanez) in the sweet spot near the bridge.  Excellent instrument - fantastic value.

The bass had been converted to a passive bass when I got it. Sonically it needed a little help. I dropped a Bartolini 3 band preamp in it and kept the original 2 body hole layout by using 2 stacked pots. The front stack has volume and treble and the rear has bass and mids.  The 3 position midrange frequency selector switch for the Bartolini midrange was left in the body cavity set at 800 Hz.

I've been using the bass all summer at my rock gig - house band at the Pony Corral Restaurant (Grant Avenue, Winnipeg). Classic and light rock, some blues, RnB, backing up a rotation of excellent singers. While fretless is not the first choice for this type of gig, it was perfect for getting me comfortable with the Ibanez.  The bass works suprising well in this setting.

(Spring 2009)

I replaced the bridge on the Ibanez fretless with an inexpensive but excellent adjustable bridge that I found on E-Bay (about $60.00 from choppersmusic - a great dealer located in Canada). The original bridge was very "Fender Jazz" -like.The new bridge has top-loading string slots and individual piezos on each string with the leads soldered together in one output cable.  I also installed the 4 string version of this bridge on my Ibanez P-Bass copy, again a big improvement.  I haven't bothered hooking up the piezo output permanently - but a quick trial showed the output to be very hot, full frequency range and well balanced between strings (into a proper high impedance preamp of course).

In my youth I dismissed the notion that a bridge could make a HUGE difference to the sound of the bass. But like so manyof previously held ideas, I was wrong, very wrong. The new bridge made a big diffference to the sound of both Ibanez basses and in particular to the fretless. A much more "focused" sound, better articulation.  Highly recommended. 

Pics to follow.