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.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to askdamian@notreble.com. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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  1. Lines on a fretless bass are often counterproductive due to the fact that as the neck expands and contracts from age, climate etc., the notes “move” slightly above and below the line, hence confusion, poor intonation, and angry soloists and singers! Also, the beauty of the fretless is not playing it in “perfect” tune – the notes between the notes (often) embellish the harmony within a composition. I’ve tried lines and no lines, and by far, no lines are much better and easier to master in the long run. Oh, and practice, practice, practice! Note: not to be sexist but…chicks dig no lines! And no lines scare off the posers too!

    • Phil

      I’d tend to disssgree with Tom…… strive for intonation , and forget what the girls like. We have enough ego stress with the singers.

  2. I’ve recently transitioned to fretless. I have one with lines and one without, when I’m playing it makes no difference because I’m not looking at the front of the fingerboard. Both have marks on the edge of the neck (where I can see them) and that is what I use to keep intonation. I sat down with a tuner and found each note according to how my finger “spreads” when I push it against the string and marked it with a tiny piece of white tape, it seems to work best. Honestly, I would get a hell of a neck ache trying to gauge my intonation by looking at lines across the fingerboard on an electric.

  3. I’ve tried both and I find lined is easier. However, the times I have played an unlined board it didn’t take me long to start getting very close to where the notes actually are. I bought my Jazz as a lined instruments because I preferred the sound (as you said), not because it was a lined board, although it does help.

  4. The difference between an electric fretless and an upright is that when you play upright you have positions on the other the electric fretless has a much longer neck and you don’t have a heel like the upright as a guide.

  5. I like lines on my fretless and I agree, anything that helps the music is a good thing.

  6. Try practising against a drone – e.g. a sustained single note or chord pre-recorded on keyboard / Sibelius (what ever you have available) – you will soon find that your ears and fingers become more useful than eyes and lines!

  7. I have a 6 string fretless and just put strips of tape on key fret spaces. Only as a guide. I can feel the tape so it keeps me closer to being intoned because I don’t look at my fretboard.

  8. I prefer lined when I need to record in studio.

  9. I went the backwards way as opposed to most bass players, by starting on upright, continue to fretless and then go fretted. I always had a fretless, a lined Steinberger from early 80’s until I bought a fretless unlined Warwick Corvette some six years ago. The tone of the Corvette was so much nicer and more organic compared to the Steinie so I started playing fretless more often at gigs. I even found it easier to intonate on the unlined board, since I had to trust my ears and not confuse my ears with the sight of lines. From that I moved on to upright again after a 20 years long break. I sold the Corvette last year and got a lined Lakland five string, but now I am more “at peace” with the lines. One important thing when playing fretless is to have GOOD MONITORING on stage. If you can’t trust your ears, well, your intonation will be bad. The ears and the muscle memory mean everything. In brief: I prefer unlined board, but lines don’t disturb me anymore…

  10. what about dots but no lines like my CR5M?

  11. No lines. Not for the “cheating” aspect, but more for the clean look. And yes, it scares hell out of the posers. (Of course, that means you’re never going to get a break during that jam, either).

  12. If you want to play a fretless, fundamentally it is all about the tone. It has nothing to do with your prowess or talent as a bass player. The fretless electric bass is meant to bring back the vibe and tone of an upright double bass without the cumbersome package. If you set it up right with some flat wounds or ground wounds you will get the sound of a big upright. There are the added advantages of sliding notes effortlessly and if it’s a good bass you can hit harmonics anywhere on the fret board. As far as ghost lines go, who cares? If it helps you find the notes before you have the feel for the notes. go for it. There is no such thing as “cheating” in music! Simply strive to learn more and improve your talent. We are all students, I have yet to meet a master,……

    • Mario

      Oh, there´s cheating on music: It´s called “AutoTune”, using AutoTune in live performances is simply as doping on sports. Unacceptable.

  13. The whole idea of lines has always mystified me. I don’t lean over to look at the fingerboard of the neck while I’m playing, I don’t know many people who do. I know if I’m playing the right note because I’m listening to what I’m playing, I can’t imagine having to look at the front of the neck all the time. The usual markers on the side are helpful, but lines? Just a waste and they detract from the beauty of the instrument.

  14. Personally, I like the unlined look, but Jaco had lines on his fretless and I don’t think anyone would call him a “cheater”. Just sayin…..

  15. My upright has several red grease pencil lines on the side. I don’t need them on the front. As I get better, I mark more notes above the octave (right now I have a high D and C marked on the neck.) Those lines put me in the ballpark, but I’ve got to use my ears for intonation. Bending and sliding and vibrato throws it out of tune anyway.

  16. played fretless bass almost exclusively for many years. In my experience, the only people who think lines and dots are “cheating” are people who can’t play fretless…

  17. I wouldn’t call it cheating, but lines can fuck you up. Most players who use lines are primarily doing so, because they see the board as fretted. The problem is that most fretted players fret *between* the lines, not *on* the lines. Without adjusting the fingering technique, you’ll be a 1/4-step or so flat.

  18. I prefer no lines and won’t own a Fretless that has them. I do however, like side dots. Not having anything would be good if your interested in sliding up or down to the note.

  19. Lines can be a problem, too, if you rely on them too much. Fretless is all about practice, and ear training, and there is no short cut anyway.

  20. Lines are fine…but ultimately your best guides are your own ears……

  21. learned the fretless on a J Bass without lines (with dots on the side though, otherwise it’s a BIG challenge), sold it and after 2 years I got a Ibanez Sr 500 Fretless, with lines. Couldn’t be better…

  22. I play mostly fretless bass and have had a Yamaha BB300F (lines and dots), a Guild Pilot (dots) and currently have a Rob Allen MB-2 (lines and dots). The fretless taught me to play by ear instead of by eye, as the dots and lines can mislead. I find I play better when I am looking off into space but listening intently as opposed to referencing a visual cue. The Rob Allen is delicate but incredible and the fretless is my favorite way to play as far as tonal options go. I only play fretted when fretless would add something intrusive to a song.

  23. The best fretless Bass, in my biased opinion, is the Pedulla Penta Buzz. Though Percy Jones and Gary Willis seem to have a different opinion.

  24. Anyone who tells you lines is cheating has never been on stage with a fretless. Sure sitting at home in a well lit room they totally help. The truth is not only can you not really see them from a standing position, they all but vanish under coloured lighting

  25. I went fretless about 5 years ago. No lines thank you but That’s not what I want to talk about. the transition, finding a good first instrument. I had been playing a fretted Washburn T24 Taurus. It fit me well. I don’t have huge hands and It just felt right. I find most fenders too chunky. When I wanted to explore fretless I thought that maintainingthat feel and reach would be a good start. Fortunately I found a fretless Washburn T14 on craigs list for a $100. The T14 is not much of a bass but had the same geometry as the T24. It was close enough that I was able to evaluate making the change. After a few weeks I was convinced and a bit hooked. Off I went to the local Luthier with My T24 and had it de-fretted, frets replaced with darker wood and the finger board finished with cynoacrilic (Super glue) super hard and glass smooth.
    I don’t know why Washburn never made a fretless T24. It’s like it was meant to be this way.
    By the way. The cheap ass T14 still gets played. It has a nasty growl and a real nice feel.

  26. I had a fretless Steinberger with ” no lines”. ‘Lines” certainly would have ruined the aesthetics of that bass. I had an upright so playing without “lines” was not so daunting a concept. I like Edgar Meyer’s dot position markers , but it’s the ONLY upright I’ve ever seen it on. How about “lines” on a violin or cello , eh? Fretless guitar? I’ve seen it. Whatever. The Steinberger was strung with roundwounds. And yes, using light gauge strings is “cheating” too.

  27. Put lines on your upright then! Most electric bassists have no idea where the real positions are.Learn on a upright then lines/marker dots will be viewed differently.Who would ever buy a custom fretless with lines?

  28. Jaco’s bass was defretted…watch him play and count how many times he looks at his fretboard…..

  29. It is an aid, especially if you are new to it. It costs about 100 bucks to have a luthier pull frets on a fretted bass & fill the bridge slots with maple strips. You CAN go back, but that will cost you a re-feet. I just did this to a bass. It was 450.00 to go back. Personally, I prefer an unlined neck. It forces you to have the be accurate, and work at the intonation & your technique. I don’t think lines are cheating, though.

  30. Juan Alderete uses a lined fretless. That’s good enough for me.

  31. I really like the write up on this. I’ve been thinking about fretless myself and was wondering what the status quo was. I love the feel but want to make sure I’m in key as well. A lot is muscle memory and feel over time, but it helps to have that reassurance.

  32. I bought a Carvin LB70 fretless in 1988 and it has been my primary bass ever since. Not having lines was never an issue but I had played upright prior to that for seven years. I bought a Dean EAB fretless that I thought was unlined but it came lined. I was bummed about that but it was not a big deal to me. I prefer a clean neck because it looks nicer to me. As long as you play and enjoy what you are doing, the lines are just cosmetic. Play well my friends.

  33. thank you for answering my question Damien! most of my equipment is used. I play multiple instruments and cannot afford full blown retail to upgrade my gear it would cost me an upgrade or even maintenance (strings, reeds, key pads exct) I was able to get a full blown ampeg SVT 8×10 and svt amp rig for 1/3 of the retail I would rather have used working professional gear than shiny not as good stuff. I was discouraged early in my bass playing career by two fretless players I knew who told me that if I needed lines to play a fretless then I would never learn or be good at it but as I am comfortable with my fretted I’m now willing to branch out.

  34. When I started on fretless (a long, long time ago), I had a 63 Fender jazz and a 64. Jaco’s 1st album had just come out and I had a luthier defret the bass in Chapel Hill, NC because he had a sign up doing defretting as a special. I had the frets removed from the 63 and kept them on the 64. Still have those 2 basses. When I was learning fretless, I would switch between the 2. It definitely helped the intonation to do that. Lines made it easier to get started. Lines are a great guide for intonation. I would warmup on the fretted and then the fretless – still do to this day. After a while, you learn where the notes are but I still look at the fingerboard. As to intonation on the upright, it was my major instrument in college. But the fingering system is entirely different – don’t let it be your guide. Lower position upright fingering is 1/2 steps between 1 2 and 4 for the most part whereas bass guitar is 1/2 steps between 1 2 3 and 4 for most people (although I do use Jaco style extended fingering quite a bit – consequences of seeing Jaco in 1976 – I don’t recommend it for most students). Upright is a whole different ball game as no two are alike, rarely having the same string length. Use what best works for you.

  35. I play both guitar and bass, and have had good success buying and selling instruments on ebay. A few years back I discovered the Fender MB5, an instrument made in Japan in the 1990s with Jazz Bass style pickups. Their quality is pretty consistent, with good tone and a decent neck for around $300. When I got the jones for a fretless, I found a beat up MB5 with EMG pickups for $99, tapped into a bass forum of players who gave me tips for a DIY project, and got what I wanted for cheap. It was fun, and the wood filler I used is lighter than the rosewood fretboard so I have lines, and find them very helpful.

  36. I’m in the unlined camp. Lines actually confuse me more since I largely read from charts and you can’t be looking at the neck at the same time. I took enough DB lessons to learn hand positions. My go to fret less is a Rob Allen Mouse 30 inch scale that is not in the beginner price range. Currently, I am almost exclusively playing fretless

  37. I have been playing fretless basses since the early 90’s and most of the time on a bass with fret lines. My first fretless was defretted by myself (maybe not the nicest looking fretless but still…). Putting in many hours and focusing on listening rather than looking has worked nice for me.
    Nowadays my main bass is a Rob Allen MB-2 (walnut) and it is a absolute joy to play. I also play a Gary Willis GWB-35 and since 2010 a fretless Kala UBass.

  38. It seems playing fretless is a ‘big ear’ challenge. With that said the adjustment of string/technique length is critical. Well if you have lines do you position the notes on the line or between – as in a standard fretted instrument? Most unlined basses I have played became more easy to adjust too. As you know the higher you play your spacing begins to compress. The ‘real’ guide posts are your natural chimed overtones. They are the positions (marked or unmarked) to obtain and adjust pitch too. After practicing major scales on one string at a time (without looking at the fingerboard) your ‘ear’ dictates spacing. With that said it would make sense to magic marker the positions that correlate with the chimed overtones. The bridge saddles will need to be adjusted per string (mostly slight variations for string thickness just as a fretted bass).

  39. The lines aren’t cheating. If a player find it helps to play the music they want to play then there’s nothing wrong with that. The only problem with some lined fretless basses (and nearly all converted ones) is that the side dots are in the wrong place! They lie between the frets and not over the frets themselves. If you play using the side dots you’ll be flat! Personally and IMHO I prefer unlined instruments because I come from a string background and just don’t like the look of the lines :-)

  40. Close your eyes while playing on a fretless or a fretted for that matter. Can you hear or know where you are anyhow? Whatever you see when you open your eyes is now irrelevant. Hopefully they are now engaged with either the band or audience. Cheers!

  41. This is a loaded question; contains the assumption that this is a game.

  42. Best fretless I’ve ever played was a circa 1979 musicman fretless (no lines). I own old Italian Eko which I made fretless. Because of the finish I used there are no lines, but I did put a few markers on the side just as reference points.I’ve been playing fretless for about 20 years now and I must say that proper fingering technique and a good ear is all you need.After all these years I actually find the fretless to be easier to play than the fretted ones. Less unwanted noise.

  43. I don’t look much anyways. I have a lineless warwick streamer. sometimes I might be slightly out of tune and can adjust on the fretboard accordingly, in which case lines are worthless. it’s all about listening to yourself and correcting before you sound like an amateur, just as a vocalist autocorrects if theyre slightly sharp or flat. and I’m still very much a student of the fretless.

  44. Why are people so quick to say something’s cheating? I don’t care if you play a 4 5 6 or 7 string with frets, without frets, half and half, with a pick, fingers, slap, your teeth, I don’t care just play the damn instrument.

  45. If having lines on a fretless bass is cheating, I suppose looking at the neck while playing a fretted bass is cheating as well… :-) :-)

  46. My Carlo Robelli entry-level is a lot of fun for a beginner fretless player. BTW, the best creed I’ve ever heard was from bassist “Sal Amato” (Eddie And The Cruisers II) to a stubborn “Eddie” (Michael Paré): “….Don’t worry about being ‘good enough,’ just go out there and play it, the best you can play it!”

  47. In the studio, time is money. Lines help me play faster, prevent mistakes and costly retakes. All of my fretless basses (Kubicki, Steinberger & Fender) have lines. If you’re a fan of fretless I hope you enjoy this… http://10trecords.com/artists/genres/progressive-experimental/man-on-fire/discography/

  48. “It all about the sound, not trying to look cool…” Is what everyone says, but at the end of the day they still wanna look cool if they can… just sayin