Do you remember that song from Berlin called Take My Breath Away?
It would be hard not to notice that fretless bass sound in the background going through the whole song. But, what is fretless bass, and how it’s any different from the regular, fretted bass?
Stay tuned as we’re going to talk about it right now.
Table of Contents
- TL;DR: Fretless vs Fretted Bass
- What is a Fretted Bass and What Does it Sound Like?
- What is a Fretless Bass and What Does a Fretless Bass Sound Like?
- Relevant Characteristics Between Fretless and Fretted Bass
- Similarities and Differences
- Advantages of Fretted Bass
- Advantages of Fretless Bass
- Why Play a Fretted Bass?
- Why Play a Fretless Bass?
- Factors to Consider When Choosing a Fretless or Fretted Bass
- Bottom Line
- People Also Ask
TL;DR: Fretless vs Fretted Bass
Improve aural skills
Stays in tune / reliable
Unique sound character
Available in many models, sizes, and options
Might be complicated for beginners
Can’t perform microtonal scales so easily
Unwanted notes and mistakes possible
Jazz music, professional players
All-around solution / all players
What is a Fretted Bass and What Does it Sound Like?
When someone talks about bass guitar, they think of fretted bass. So, try to not get confused by mentioning the “fretted” part as it’s just a subcategory for the bass guitar instrument in general. While it was initially made in the 1930s, its real commercial life starts in the 1950s along with the Fender Precision model.
It’s the one that made the electric guitar an irreplaceable part of every band. It’s that instrument that makes everyone nod their head around and make their bodies move and it’s also that one that a few will notice until it stops playing or plays wrong notes. Whether it’s Another One Bites the Dust or Daft Punk’s Around the World, the thing that makes those songs moving is the bass guitar.
The name fretted derives from the fingerboard construction which has vertical metal bars also known as fret wires. The space between two fret wires is called fret. While the fretted bass guitar may come with different numbers of frets they all sound about the same - low, boomy, sometimes more felt than heard and it can be played in various ways - plucking, pulling, slapping, or popping the strings.
Which Strings Should Be Used on a Fretted Bass?
Fretted bass usually comes with roundwound bass strings and based on the specific type you can pick the brighter or darker tone to match your preferences. But, in case you’re more into a more mellow sound that would match the vibe of jazz music and similar genres, perhaps you could try out flatwound strings instead. They will last longer than roundwounds and will provide you with a different, more smooth feel.
Flatwounds tend to be harder to find, cost a bit more, and come in a more limited variety of gauges and will ask for additional effort if you plan to bend them excessively.
What is a Fretless Bass and What Does a Fretless Bass Sound Like?
Fretless Bass is a more rare bass guitar instrument that always asks you to specify its subcategory. With all the efforts given, we can’t tell for sure which one performed or even made the first fretless bass. It might be that Bill Wyman from Rolling Stones was one of the fretless bass pioneers, but on the other hand, it’s more likely that he was the most famous one.
Anyway, his creation was quite practical - frets that he had on the electric bass were buzzing horribly, so the instrument was unplayable and with being practical, he made a bit of history by simply removing all the frets and fixing the holes in the fingerboard.
But, the real fretless technique doesn’t have so much with The Rolling Stones. It was Jaco Pastorius who redefined the fretless bass playing technique.
So, the fretless bass guitar instrument has no fret on the fingerboard. This trait gives it a specific sound and a bit different playing approach. While it still sounds like a bass guitar the overall tone is a bit more dull and mellow and it may resemble the sound of the double bass instrument.
But, the main trick lies in the fact that there is no fret. With no fret, there is no conventional 12-tonal layout we all are used to. This means you can easily hit the note between E and F without even knowing. And not just one note, several! It's a totally different perspective that unlocks the world full of crazy possibilities, especially if you’re a bit of an advanced player who is willing to go further and explore more than just a basic groove.
This of course means you will have some struggle to stay in tune throughout the song.
Which Strings Should Be Used on a Fretless Bass?
Honestly, there is no wrong string type and both roundwound and flatwound strings will work just like they would on a fretted bass.
But, as there are no frets, this means there are no fret wires to protect the front surface, so some roundwound strings might harm your fingerboard a little bit in the long run and that’s why we would rather recommend flatwound strings as the first choice. As most players pick fretless to get a more subtle tone, flatwound will produce that mild and warm tone that goes ideally for the mindset of such players.
Relevant Characteristics Between Fretless and Fretted Bass
Dull / mellow / warm
Bright / crisp / punchy
Variable (w/ units)
Variable (w/ units)
Similarities and Differences
If you just take a look at the pictures you may think there are not so many visual or hardware differences between those instruments and you’re both correct and wrong, so let’s take a look and compare those two instruments. You will be stunned how much difference a piece of fret wire can make.
Fretless and Fretted Bass Differences
These are the most significant differences between those two models:
The most obvious difference lies in the fret wires. Fretless bass guitar doesn’t have any fret installed on the fingerboard. Fretted may come with different numbers and sizes of frets, though.
Frets found on fretted bass allow you to play specific tones no matter where you press the string between as long you’re not leaving the area between two frets, Fretless, on the other hand, is more demanding as even the smallest
Fretless bass tends to have a more smooth and mellow sound when compared to the fretted bass. It allows you to get an almost ethereal vibe out of your instrument and it sounds wonderful if you decide to play a theme or solo on it. It’s also not so rare to find both fretted and fretless tracks in the same song.
As mentioned before, fretted bass use a standard western musical scale of 12 notes. Every fret represents one note from that scale and if your instrument is in tune, you will easily match the tone with any other instrument.
Fretless on the other hand allows you to extend your playing by hitting the notes that exist outside of standard musical scales.
While fretless bass fingerboard is the same width and length, the real difference from fretted bass is there are no cuts made for fret wires on it. This also means that fretless fingerboard is more tender and playing strings aggressively can scratch it in the long run.
Fretless bass are a bit rarer to find than fretted basses. The same goes for left-hand models or five or six-string models if you need one. In other words, fretted bass should be considered as a regular and fretless as a “special” model.
Fretless and Fretted Bass Similarities
These are some of the most important similarities you may find between those instruments:
Both instruments can be used in all genres and tracks respectively. They are being used for the same role in the song and that is making the song groove.
Fretless and fretted bass are more a “weapon of choice” than two different items. Once you master them both, it’s all a matter of delicacy and how you will approach a specific track.
Tonewood, pickups, hardware, and all other parts except the fingerboard are designed in the same way and if needed you could even swap them between fretless and fretted bass guitar. The weight is also pretty much the same as fret wires are the only hardware difference.
The fretless and fretted bass of the same tier should cost you about the same. Sometimes major brands such as Ibanez or Fender even make the same model in both fretless and fretted options and if you take a look at them, you will notice there is no price difference at all between those two bass guitars.
In general, playing fretless bass guitar isn’t different from playing a fretted bass guitar. You don’t have to develop any particular playing skills for playing a fretless that you wouldn’t use on fretted.
It’s the player’s mindset that’s different, but as we’re speaking of practical differences, you will pluck or pick the strings and place the hand on the fingerboard pretty much the same way in both cases.
While there might be some strings optimized for fretless bass, there is no specific string set that wouldn’t work for fretted bass and vice versa. Any type of bass string fits both fretted and fretless bass guitars respectively.
Advantages of Fretted Bass
In case you’re tilting towards fretted bass option, here are some points that may help you out to close the deal:
If you’re a beginner, you will appreciate frets a lot. They help you as indicators where specific notes start or end. The lack of frets may easily turn people from playing the fretless apart from being frustrated of not being in tune with the rest of the song.
More Models Available
As fretted bass are the majority of bass guitars, you will find much more models out there to try out. So, if you’re nitpicking the right model for you, you will have so much more options with the fretted bass whether it’s picking the right color or burst design or even picking some exotic small brand bass guitar that sounds so much better than the one from the big brand.
Simply put, if you plan to be a session musician or live player, fretted bass is the way to go. In most situations, people will be very specific if they need anything else than a fretted bass from you. Be sure that people will be very specific if they want you to bring the fretless bass and do yourself a favor and don’t bring it as the only resort unless it’s specified otherwise.
Fretted bass will always sound punchier and brighter than a regular fretless bass. Sometimes, it’s those low mids that will help you stay on your own in the song mix. And trust us, producers will love it if they can hear some “life” from your instrument instead of dull low-end vibes. Remember that it’s always easier to cut something down than enhance something which didn’t exist in the first place.
Advantages of Fretless Bass
If you’re still thinking of fretless bass, it could mean something. Let’s help you out and point out some of the most important advantages of this instrument:
Double Bass Sound
Electric bass derives from double bass and one of the main traits of this instrument is that it doesn’t have frets either. So, if you want to get a sound that resembles the double bass it will be much easier to do it with the fretless bass guitar.
Improve Your Aural Training
Fretless bass guitar is capable of performing just like a singer. There are no frets in vocal cords and because of it, you will be aware of all those extra notes. By paying attention to those minor and subtle tunings your hearing will improve.
Improve Your Playing Mindset
It’s not just aural training that you will be improving by playing a fretless bass. It will also allow you to produce some tones and runs that sound specific and authentic to this instrument and because of it, the way you look at the bass guitar as an instrument will evolve.
So, even if you play the fretted bass next time you might easily pull off some fretless lines in a second.
It’s not just that playing fretless allows you to be different. It’s because even the smallest twists and turns make the sound different that it helps you out become authentic. Two fretless bass players would have to put a real effort to play exactly the same.
This might be both blessing and omen as every fretless take will be a little bit different than the last one. But one thing is for sure, if done correctly, it will be irreplaceable.
Why Play a Fretted Bass?
These are the most important reasons why you should consider purchasing a fretted bass:
The Way it Was Meant to Be Played
Despite the electric bass guitar deriving from double bass which doesn’t have any fret, even the first models had frets. That being said, frets are an important part of the instrument and show you the way how the inventor of the bass guitar wanted his instrument to be played in the first place.
Also, while you can use all of your equipment on a fretless bass as well, it’s safe to say that all pedals, preamps, and other gear were being tested and optimized for a fretted bass.
Staying in Tune
Punctuality is not just a matter of playing the notes in time. It’s also the matter of playing the notes in tune as well. The great producers know how important it is for the song to have a session player that stays in tune all the time and the same goes even for basslines. Frets allow you to go auto-pilot with this trait
Slap is an aggressive playing technique that sounds very percussive. While it can be done on fretless bass, because of fret wires and the sonic traits of roundwound strings it will sound so much better on a fretted bass.
Why Play a Fretless Bass?
These are the most important reasons why you should consider purchasing a fretless bass:
While glides can be pulled on a fretted bass too, nothing can’t compare with the sound you will be getting from the fretless bass. Those are so authentic that once heard you will know for sure if the fretless bass was used in a specific track.
The tone nature of the fretless bass is much closer to the double bass instrument which is often described as warmer and smoother. So, if you would like to approach bass in a way it was done before electric bass guitar was invented, fretless bass with flatwound strings may bring you there in no time.
Simply put, if you want to play notes that are not even possible to do on a fretted bass without complicated setups, fretless bass is your first choice. If you’re into experimental music or you would like to make something truly authentic and unique, fretless bass can easily become your favorite tool.
While fretless can sound like something completely different from the typical bass guitar, it can also clone any fretted bass line in no time. You can slap on it, play any kind of run, trill, or groove, just like you would on a fretted bass. Once you master the freedom of notes found on this instrument there will be nothing you can’t play on it.
Evolve as a Musician
Fretless bass is meant for those players who want to express themselves much further than just playing some basic lines up and down and while you play on it, your musical approach will start evolving and it will be pretty much impossible to stay on a basic level for too long. It will improve your music theory, song arranging skills, and many other aspects of playing.
Factors to Consider When Choosing a Fretless or Fretted Bass
Here are some factors to think of before you finally pick between fretless and fretted bass:
While there is no reason to hold from trying out fretless bass in all genres you may think of, it’s safe to say that it works the best in jazz music. So, if you’re more of a contemporary player, perhaps a fretted bass would be better for a first choice.
Do you have some idol or favorite bass guitar player? Maybe some favorite song? Research it and see what they have been using for recording. If you really love the performance or the way they approach bass guitar instruments, finding a bit more if they prefer fretless or fretted instruments may help you decide as certain playing techniques simply ask for one or another instrument.
Listen to Your Hunch
Go out and try the instruments for yourself. If you really love some specific fretless bass guitar from the music store and feel connected to it, go for it! There is nothing wrong with playing either of those two models, so, eventually, it’s all about what makes you feel eager to play more.
Fretless and fretted bass can live together in your collection. While fretted bass will be your first one to pick and find a place in any genre literally, a sophisticated vibe around fretless bass sound traits can’t be achieved by any other equipment. It will make you stand out and express your musical knowledge.
So, if you crave for those smooth and mellow slides up or down, fretless will find a place in your music. But, if you're a more rock-oriented player we wouldn’t be surprised that fretted bass will be enough throughout your whole career.
People Also Ask
These are the most usual questions players were asking regarding fretless and fretted bass instruments. We will cover some basic terms such as nut or fret, the number of frets on a bass guitar and even explain things like zero fret, fret replacement price, and point out if the fretless bass is harder to play than fretted bass.
What is a Nut?
The strip closest to the headstock is called the nut. It comes in different sizes and can be made out of different materials such as brass, graphite, plastic, or even bone. The material used for nut can make a significant difference in the overall sound of the bass guitar.
What is a Fret?
Fret is a space on your fingerboard between two vertical fret metal wires. It marks up the field on your fingerboard where the specific tone is produced and makes it easier for you to find specific notes. The more frets your bass guitar has, the more tones can be played.
What is a Zero Fret?
Zero Fret may easily be confused with the nut as it’s installed right beneath the nut position. It’s not often found on bass guitars, but it helps out to make open strings sound like the fretted ones. So in case you hear a significant difference, it’s something you might consider.
How Many Frets Does a Bass Have?
Standard bass guitars usually come with up to 24 frets. But it’s not that rare to find less than 24 frets and as a matter of fact, some of the most iconic bass guitars, Fender Precision Bass, and Jazz Bass come with 20 frets only.
Is it Harder to Play a Fretless Bass?
When compared to fretted bass, fretless bass wants a bit more experience from a player. While the actual playing isn’t harder on its own, fretless bass requires a different and more prolific mindset. Also, as there are no frets to be found it can be a bit harder to find the right notes.
Can You Slap on Fretless Bass?
While it won’t sound the same like it does on fretted bass guitar, the sound will remain percussive enough to produce the same result. We would just recommend not to overpower slap playing technique as there are no frets to protect your neck from interacting with the strings.
Can Frets Be Replaced?
Yes, you can replace them and even upgrade with better fret wires. But it’s something we would strongly advise you to go and hire a professional for such a job. Improper frets installation can cause you wrong intonation and may damage your fingerboard beyond repair.
How Much Does it Cost to Have Frets Replaced?
Fret replacement can vary from $150 up to $450. The final price will vary because some tonewoods such as Maple are finished and if you want to get the old frets out without damage so it will be almost impossible. That’s why this procedure will require extra work once you install new frets.
Can You Add Frets to a Fretless Bass?
Yes, it is possible, but bear in mind that this is an irreversible process. You will have to cut your fingerboard to make slots for the frets, so be sure you really want to do that. It may easily turn out cheaper if you purchased fretted bass instead of altering fretless bass.