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Why Fretless?

Since Jaco Pastorius in the mid seventies, fretless bass guitar has become popular not only in fusion and jazz, but in all kinds of music.We have to admit that since the death of Jaco at the end of the eighties, defining a voice on this instrument has been a challenge”.

Of course, Jaco had an incredible talent, and after him there haven’t been a lot of fretless players who have been able to find their own voice on this instrument as Jaco did. There was a time you could be accused of being a “Jaco clone” if you were simply just “playing” fretless. I see this is a very interesting problem, because it’s all about the music, not just the bass. It goes without saying that it’s easier to copy someone than finding your own voice, and I’ve always felt that finding your own voice, even on fretless is totally reachable. Let’s talk about that as well as other reasons to consider fretless.

One of the first reasons to consider playing fretless, for all bass players, is that it will develop your ear. It’s actually worse in my opinion to be out of tune on a fretless bass than an acoustic bass. The sound of the upright is deeper than the sound of the bass guitar, and with the acoustic tone, it’s seems to be OK even if you’re not perfectly in tune… I’m exaggerating just a little bit.
On the electric fretless, you can hear everything… absolutely everything. If you’re not perfectly in tune, it just sounds terrible! Each time I record something, I become a sort of maniac with making sure I’m in tune.

So in that sense, once again, playing fretless will develop you ear. For me, bad intonation is simply just not acceptable, and that being said, you’ll see how the fretless will make you more humble.

The second thing to consider is realizing that bass guitar is a very young instrument, as well as the fretless. When you chose to play upright (for example), you’re playing an instrument, which has a tradition of several centuries. And it’s sometimes difficult to break away from tradition.

Bass guitar is only 57 years old (if you take the 51′ Fender Precision as reference). Its life span in comparison is very short. All of the reasons why Leo Fender created the Precision, then the Jazz Bass are still good reasons (portability, playability, precision of sound…)

A lot of us still carry the concept of fretless as a “Jaco” thing… but there are so many other possibilities. The concept for bass guitar is in a permanent state of evolution, as well as the players themselves.

I began bass guitar and upright bass almost at the same time (13 years old). But at the age of 20, I decided to concentrate exclusively on bass guitar, because of the reasons above… I still love the sound of the upright (my favorite upright player is Charlie Haden). Maybe I will play some upright again, just for my own pleasure… but I’m still, and will always be a bass, contrabass and sub-bass guitarist.

If you consider also the extended range basses, which are still something very new, you can see that there are so many variations for a fretless bass guitar. And some of those variations are just impossible to achieve with an acoustic instrument. The “sub” register is close to impossible to reproduce with an upright bass. You would have to consider the giant one which is called the “Octobass”, which was used for some of Hector Berlioz’s symphonic work in the nineteen century!

I’ve made the choice 6 years ago to develop my sub-bass concept. My fretless sub-bass has a low E, one octave below standard, and the biggest bass I use (the 12 string) even has the low B one octave below standard.

My song “Holy Spirit” was composed on an 8 string fretless sub-bass. I still feel that at this point in time I don’t have any clichés with this instrument. I was just concentrating on the music… and I was discovering my own voice!

Please click below to listen to my song “Holy Spirit”
from the album “Carbonne Di Piazza Manring” and
then click on NEXT PAGE to continue reading

I feel I have found my sound and style with extended range fretless basses. I still enjoy playing the Jazz Bass occasionally, but my focus has been working with luthiers and developing my own models, which I’ve done since 1998.The third reason for considering fretless is the singing quality you can get out of the instrument, just like the human voice! Of course, this is only my point of view. Technically speaking, once again comparing fretless with upright, I feel fretless has more of a  singing voice. Why, because of the length of the vibrating strings. Upright acoustic bass is a bigger instrument and has more string length. The result of that length gives a deeper sound in the bass register, but if you go in the melodic or higher register, there is basically less sustain than on a fretless.

A fourth reason, I feel the fretless bass can be a more expressive instrument than a fretted bass.
The possibilities of phrasing on fretless are endless. On fretted, obviously, there are possibilities as well, but you’re limited by the fret. You can extend the pitch of a note going up (making a bend), but not going down.

I recommend exploring fretless to every bassist. It’s difficult, but it can give you an incredibly powerful melodic voice that you might not have experienced yet.

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