Fretless Bass Intonation: Getting It Right!
Let’s talk about fretless bass intonation… Fretless bass is a great tool to have in your bass player arsenal. But adding fretless bass implies learning a different set of skills. Of all challenges that arise from playing fretless bass, we can identify one as definitely the biggest: intonation! It’s by far the single most important thing when playing fretless and the most important thing when playing bass at all. Playing it in tune!
Today we’ll share with you actionable techniques you can use in your practice routine to help you get that intonation in place.
But before we move on to the actual techniques and tips, let’s first get one very big thing out of the way.
Lined vs Unlined
The ever-present question. Intonation issues are naturally less when playing a lined fretless bass because of the visual cues. That being said, don’t let that influence you. Go with what you like best, what makes you feel more comfortable and creative. Just be aware that unlined fretless will have a steeper learning curve.
Also, practicing in a dark room (as a lot of people will suggest) is not something I look forward to doing, but once again, go with makes you feel better.
With that out of the way let’s actually dive into what we came here for, intonation practice techniques.
1 – Practice intonation by using open strings.
First of all, make sure your bass is in tune!
Intonate with open strings is probably the oldest and most useful trick in the book. Imagine you’re playing the E on the 7th fret of the A string or the 9th fret of the G string. You can always check if the note is in tune by playing the open E string (assuming you’re using standard tuning). The same technique can be used for all the notes on a scale. As the great Steve Lawson said himself:
“If you can ‘hear’ a major second to be slightly flat or slightly sharp, then playing that against the open string makes sense. If that’s a less familiar sound to you, then maybe try to hear it as part of the scale, between the root and third, rather than sounding it simultaneously with the open string. The 4th should be a sound that you’re fairly comfortable with, as it’s just an inverted 5th, and the 6th requires the same consideration as the 2nd. Eventually, you should be working towards a level of pitch perception that allows you to hear all the possible intervallic combinations, but that’s perhaps a longer-term project than just hearing and playing the scale tones in tune.”
Practice your ability to hear intervals rather than just comparing with the open note, this is a skill that’s transferable to other fields of playing and will benefit you greatly in the future.
2 – Practice with a tuner.
I personally use a clip tuner for this technique as it is really handy for playing a note and checking it right away on the headstock of the bass, but almost every tuner will do the job here. This is a great technique for when you’re practicing your scales and arpeggios. It makes it super easy to check if you’re playing the note correctly. It’s a very useful technique when you want to slow down and check how a note feels not only in terms of sound but also mechanically under your fingers.
This brings us to another very important point. Intonation on fretless isn’t just how it sounds, it’s also how it feels. It’s very mechanic, especially when playing an unlined fretless. It has a lot to do with how the intervals feel mechanically under your fingers. Make sure also to practice muscle memory. How does the fifth feel under my fingers? How about a major third?
3 – Practice with a sound pad.
Another way to practice intonation is by creating a sound pad, or drone, using a note from a particular chord tone. For this, you can either use a reverb pedal, a delay, or any type of keyboard or digital instrument. A way to do it with a delay pedal (and this probably only works with digital delays, as analog ones will go into self-oscillation mode) is to swell a note in by using a volume control and then crank the delay time to the max getting “infinite repeats” of this sound pad.
With a sound texture going you can then play any bass line or solo in that particular scale and check against the pad if any of the notes sound off.
This method gives us a lot of freedom to experiment with since we are not tied to playing the open string.
4 – Practice with a looper pedal.
Looper pedals are the ultimate practicing tool. We will share with you the two ways we use them to practice intonation, but the uses on those can be close to infinite.
- Record a bassline on a fretted bass and then play it note for note with the fretless on top. Make it sound exactly the same. Then practice the same line but using 3rds, 5hts, and so on. It’s a great way to teach your ears to detect when notes in the interval are off.
- Just like the sound pad, you can always record a bassline on a particular note and then solo on top of it. Using the bass line to check for intonation issues.
As a final note I would like to reinforce a very important concept that ties directly with sound and muscle memory:
Learn to not correct wrong notes. With this I mean, don’t use vibrato or slides to get it right. Instead, try to understand what went wrong. Was the note sharp? Was it flat? How did it feel to play the wrong note? Then play the same but this time try to play the same note in tune. How does it feel now? Both sound wise and mechanically wise. Don’t use vibrato to cover it, own it and try to get it right the next time. It’s a great exercise, even though it’s a rather hard to do consciously.
These are just some ways you can practice your intonation on fretless bass. Do you have more techniques you use for fretless bass intonation you would like to share?
Check out my article: Bass Players Of Naughty
Photos: Bass Musician Magazine – NAMM 2020 at the F BASS booth