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Lines on a Fretless Bass: Is it Cheating?

Fretless bass with fret lines

Photo photo by Shunichi Kouroki

Q: Is it cheating to have lines on the fretboard of a fretless bass? Also, what would be better for a first fretless: picking up a quality used instrument and de-fretting it (assuming I cant find a used fretless) or a brand new entry-level one? The only fretless basses I’ve played so far I liked was a Warwick Corvette and a Fender Jazz. Any other suggestions?

A: First, let me say that anything we play should be in the interest of the music. To that end, anything that serves to help you to play the music better is the way to go.

So no, it is not cheating. Don’t anyone tell you otherwise, either.

If you don’t play fretless very often – or even if you do – and the lines help you to play more in tune, than that’s what I would do, because it will make the music sound better. I use lines on all of my fretless basses (actually, my Zon fretless just has line markers on the side of the neck, so it looks unlined but from my perspective I can see where the lines would be. It’s just how the bass was built, I didn’t ask for that. I would’ve probably gotten full lines, if it had been a custom build.)

Edgar Meyer, one of the absolute kings of the upright bass, for example, had fretboard dots added to his neck to help him with his intonation, and his intonation is as near perfect as I’ve ever heard. Also notice that he only uses vibrato when he intends to. He often voices clear and unwavered notes in ‘perfect’ tune. Pretty amazing).

I am a fretted bassist who also plays fretless when the need arises and because of that I need all the help I can get playing in tune. Lines are a must for me.

Now, on to the instrument you choose to play… Personally, I would get something that was built with the fretless sound in mind when it was built, but there’s certainly nothing wrong with repurposing an instrument and making it fretless. You could even buy a replacement neck and swap them out, leaving you with your original fretted neck just in case you change your mind later.

I would hesitate to suggest one bass over another as it really depends on the feel and sound you prefer. I would try to play as many instruments as you can, to try out a nice variety. If you don’t have any resources in your area, you may just have to risk it and buy something online. But I would strongly suggest doing as much research as possible before plunking down your hard earned cash on a bass unseen and unplayed.

The Fender Jazz is certainly a good (and classic) choice, but I would caution that all Fender’s are not created equally and much will depend on how you like your basses to feel. Personally, I came up with more modern feeling basses and I tend to really like only about 10% of the Fenders I’ve played. I must admit though that of the Fender’s I’ve liked, I’ve really liked some of them.

Manufacturers producing factory-built instruments require a little hunting and pecking to find the right one, while small luthiers who hand build each instrument tend to have a more reliable quality control and consistency factor. But those small shop basses come at a (literal) cost.

As with all things on the web, try and ignore the ‘fan boys’ who diss anything but their favorite brand. Check out the players you like, listen to educated opinions and listen to sound clips, watch videos and so on. Try your best to ascertain which bass will suit your style and preferences before you lock and load your credit card.

I would also suggest that you try and buy used as well. There are tons of great used basses to be found online and there’s no sense in paying full retail until you decide to get a custom instrument made one, or decide to go vintage. Otherwise, save the money if you can.

Readers, what do you think? Lines or no lines on a fretless? How about buying one? Which are your favorites? Tell us about it in the comments.

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