Getting Better Intonation on a Fretless Bass
Q: I’ve recently made a switch from fretted to fretless bass, and so far it’s been awesome, but here’s the thing… A couple of the fretted basses I’ve played so far were all 34-inch scale, and the fretless I now play is a 35-inch scale six-string – and it’s unlined. So stretching my fingers that wide is becoming a pain in the… fingers. It seems to greatly affect my intonation on the bass. I would be really grateful for any advice on “the fretless switch” in respect to scales. I know in time and with a lot of practicing things will set in, but are there any shortcuts or just helpful tips to speed things up a little, since this my only bass right now and I have a couple of gigs coming up soon.. All the best and utmost respect from Bosnia!
A: Unfortunately, there are no real short-cuts to muscle memory. The more you practice, the more quickly you will acclimate to the instrument. That said, what you practice will also have an impact on the expediency of your shed time.
- Practice slowly through a chromatic tuner. Focus on one position at a time and play a collection of scales (including the chromatic scale) through the tuner, also paying close attention to your hand position.
- Practice Bach cello suites or some other scalar study type of classical piece.
- Practice diatonic arpeggios. Do this both in one position but also traveling horizontally along the neck.
- Practice slowly! If you have iReal Pro, even just playing whole-note, roots through changes at a slow tempo can really help to tune your ears and hands to the intonation. If you play too fast, your brain doesn’t register the out of tune notes as well. Things can sound “close enough” to in tune, if one plays fast enough. Practice slowly and get a feel for holding a note. Notice how the note changes ever so slightly when you twist your hand one way or the other.
- Don’t get too obsessed with intonation when actually on the gig. Save it for the shed. Just work on it and continue to improv it over time. If you focus on it too obsessively at first, it can really hinder your ability to make music. Make allowances for slight adjustments and slurs and try and make them musical. I’ve had some students that have gotten temporarily paralyzed by obsessing over the accuracy of each note (ie: only hearing how this or that note was flat and not focusing on the music they are making). Try thinking of the notes as words and consider any nuances to be more of a vocal inflection. I’ve found that this slight shift in perspective can help one to play more musically, even if the intonation isn’t perfect (of course, you can’t just go sliding up and down the neck, searching for notes, but I think most of us can find a balance.
There are also a few things you might try in an effort to do as well as possible on your gigs while you are internalizing the instrument:
- Add fret dots or lines of your own. You can actually buy stick-on dots for the neck of your bass and, if you put them on the side of the fretboard, nobody will even know except you. I’ve also found it helpful to use a pencil and lightly draw some lines on the side of the neck (I did this on my electric upright). Be aware that those lines very well may disappear on stage, depending on the lighting! Personally, I try to use the guides when making a large leap or when I hear myself drifting out of tune. More often than not, I try to use hand positions and muscle memory. I want to constantly tune my ear to the sound of each placement of my fretting hand (get a ‘feel’ for what movements in each position sound like).
- Memorize the music. This may or may not apply, but I’m reading notation on 90% of my gigs and I know from past experience that my intonation takes a dive when my face is glued to the page (remember, that I don’t often play fretless). My intonation is pretty good when I can really just focus on the instrument. Allowing all of your attention to get laser focused on intonation and hand position will go along way in compensating for a current lack of muscle memory.
I’d really like to hear from readers on this one, as I generally only play fretless when called upon in the studio or on certain songs, on certain gigs and never as a full-time instrument. Have any of you found a “fast-track” to intonation beyond time and attention? If so, please share in the comments.