One question I have concerning the hands/bass setup relationship is, exactly how low do your set your own action? I’ve always thought a virtually straight neck made sense with fretless bass anyway, and I currently have the action on my bass setup at 1/32″ on the G and just a hair over (maybe 3/64″) that on the E string measuring both at the 24th “fret”. It is playable from top to bottom but I seriously have to pay attention to playing very softly. Am I on the right track or am I maybe taking the low action/light touch concept a bit too far?
[Willis] It’s true that how your bass setup definitely influences technique. A fretless setup like mine is optimized for getting that characteristic “buzz” out of the notes but still allowing them to breathe and not choke from too much buzz. A perfectly straight neck won’t allow that. A string vibrates with a slight curve and the neck has to be adjusted to compliment that curve. Lowering your strings will reveal if your neck is adjusted properly. Buzz only in the first few frets means that it’s too straight. While buzzing only on the heel (last 5-10 frets) means that there’s too much bow. If it buzzes top to bottom then your neck is great – you just need to raise the string at the saddle. A combination of careful adjustment and appropriate right hand intensity will determine how low you can get the strings without buzzing too much but just enough for the right amount of fretless “buzz”
Any chance of revealing the patch settings you use on Actual Fiction and Slaughterhouse 3 so I can try them out on my own V-BASS rig?
[Willis] Sure – here’s the link:
The only problem is that the sounds that I’ve programmed (the 1st 6 or 7 banks) depend on using the expression pedal for the mix. If you don’t have an expression pedal connected you won’t be able to mix your dry sound and the V-Bass patch. But, you could re-program the patches so that the mix was dependent on the GK’s volume knob.
What inspired you to take up fretless as your main voice, was this early on when you started playing bass?
[Willis] I first wanted to go fretless while playing in jazz ensembles at college and figured that was the only way I could get closer to the way an upright bass functioned. I tried lowering the strings on my fretted and only succeeded in getting funny looks from my fellow band members. My first summer after college, I joined a top 40 band and saved up enough to buy a ’65 Jazz and made it fretless. Several years later after trying to be a typical Los Angeles “chameleon” – you know, sound like this guy for this tune, then sound like this guy for this tune – I decided that musically, the fretted was just too one-dimensional and found myself only playing fretless in creative situations.
How do you build the ability to play fretless and not have to look down at your fingers to intonate the notes properly? When I jump positions is where I have to look the most.
[Willis] For me, at first, it was hand-eye coordination. I spent a couple of years with my eyeballs tracking my left hand up and down the neck. Eventually I felt safe enough to look away occasionally. One of the secrets is to develop the ability to roll each finger into proper intonation. Sustained fretless notes should always have a little pitch movement – I hesitate to call it vibrato, since it shouldn’t sound like the floor is moving. But as you’re creating this kind of “liquid” note, you can be searching for the proper intonation point and centering on that.
On your Web site, you state: “Developing a medium, instead of hard, touch gives you a fatter sound and the potential for a lot more dynamic playing.” How does one do that “in the heat of the moment,” that is when the energy is really pumping, the band is kicking hard, and the normal instinct is to want to dig in?
[Willis] It’s definitely a big contradiction to feel like it’s time to “kick some butt” and still move your fingers only a little. It took me a good 2 years of always making myself uncomfortable with the live amp or practice amp turned up. Eventually you will be able to get into the music physically and pull off all your break-dancing, booty shakin’, neck-bobbing moves without influencing your right hand technique.