Fender Fretless Precision
Fretless Bass Playing
Colin Hodgkinson wide-eyed and fretless.
There are several fretless basses currently available on the market. Guild, Alembic, Ibanez* as well as Fender make them as standard today, whereas a few years ago it was difficult, to say the least, to find one.
The Fender Precision bass is still the most popular and widely used bass in the world and I'm sure that most bass players will have tried one or at least seen one at some time or another. The fretless version is exactly the same in every way except that the fingerboard is slightly more curved and there are of course no frets! Fender introduced the fretless Precision in 1970, and in that very description we have a contradiction.
The Precision was so named because it gave the bass player of the time (early 1950s) several advantages over the double bass — chiefly: ease of portability; increased volume because the instrument was electric and could easily be amplified; greater facility because phrases that were difficult to execute on double bass became relatively easy by comparison on the bass guitar; and most important of all, perfect intonation because of the fact that it was a fretted bass, in other words a precision bass.
To digress for a moment: it seems rather surprising that the virtuosi of the bass guitar didn't really appear until fairly recently. Considering that the instrument has been with us for around 25 years it's strange that it wasn't until the advent of soul music the Motown school of players and people like Willie Weeks, Chuck Rainey, 'Duck' Dunn, Carol Kaye et al, that people became aware of the bass. Before these sort of players came along the bass guitarist of the day would hardly ever encounter a piece of music that required at least a certain degree of technical ability and that was also musically challenging. This was in fact the time when the worst guitarist in any group was given the bass guitar because it was such an easy chore, the usual function being to play simple, repetitive figures in the low register of the instrument with all the bass tones of amplifier and guitar set at maximum. In fact as a friend of mine frequently says, 'If you couldn't find a bass player the local butcher would do!'
Suddenly all this changed. Bass riffs from certain songs became virtual standards in themselves and one heard bassists practising such things as James Brown's Papa's Got A Brand New Bag, not because it was particularly difficult to play but because the whole feel of the music had changed; it was the emphasis on certain beats that became important. The whole role of the bass player had suddenly changed and his contribution to the rhythm section became vital, he had in fact ceased to be a pedestrian. Have a listen to Larry Graham, when with Sly and the Family Stone, for an example of this period's style.
All the innovations in the field of bass playing prior to this time had come from double-bass players. At the time I started playing bass guitar (around 1960), I turned to players like Charlie Mingus and Scott Le Faro because they were doing amazing things, especially the way in which they used the instrument as a lead voice, playing both melody and harmony. There was absolutely nothing comparable happening in the bass guitar field. The bass guitar had all the advantages of a guitar, yet no one really dreamed of its potential until quite recently.
The Seventies have certainly seen the emancipation of the bass guitar. When one considers the tremendous ability of players like Alphonso Johnson, Stanley Clarke and Jaco Pastorius it's easy to see why a bass player's role today can be incredibly demanding.
Jaco Pastorius has without a doubt been more responsible for the current interest in the fretless bass than any other individual; however, any of you who saw the second version of John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra will remember the great fretless bass playing of Ralphe Armstrong. He used a wah-wah pedal to great effect, gradually depressing the pedal (increasing the treble) when playing a slide up the fingerboard so that the note came out almost like a growl. Any of you who haven't heard Ralphe should check out Apocalypse or Visions of the Emerald Beyond by the Mahavishnu Orchestra — both include some beautiful fretless bass playing.
To return to Jaco Pastorius; he has a formidable command of the instrument and a very unique sound. On Weather Report's Heavy Weather and Jaco's own solo album on Epic one can hear the almost singing sound he achieves, also his tremendous use of harmonics. Considering the currently great popularity of Weather Report it's easy to see why Jaco has had so much influence on bass players in general. He does however play a standard Fender Jazz bass from which he removed the frets.
There are certain differences between the fretted and fretless Fenders which I feel it's worth going into. The normal fretted Precision has a flatter fingerboard. If you were to play the note of C on the G string, for example, you could play anywhere in the space between the B and C fret (about 1½in) and get the note of C (of course the nearer to the fret one plays, the cleaner the note). Also on any fretted instrument when the note is struck the sound is at its loudest; it then gradually dies away.
By comparison, the fretless bass has a slightly more curved fingerboard (as have violins, cellos, double basses etc) and what becomes immediately apparent is that to hit the note of C (repeating our previous exercise) one must be very much more accurate and finger the note in exactly the right spot, otherwise one starts to hear quarter tones and even microtones. The whole sound quality of the note is different too. When a note is struck one can hear an almost swell-like effect as if the note were actually increasing in volume, particularly on the lower notes of the bass. There is also a lot of difference in the 'thickness' of the notes from string to string. The notes on a fretted bass could be compared to a dotted line, in other words they have roughly the same intensity. But with the fretless the notes sound distinctly different, in fact the whole instrument sounds an octave lower (as does a double bass) than a fretted one, although the tuning is exactly the same — a lot of players seemed to have observed this.
When I first bought my fretless I found that the hardest thing to do was to play in tune, especially with chords of more than two notes. A fret physically (and psychologically!) serves as a kind of anchor, but when trying to play some chords on fretless (for example a ninth) the fingers start to slip, the tuning goes to pieces and the general effect is horrendous! The position dots are placed in the centre of the wood between two frets, but on the fretless, looking at the side of the fingerboard (there are no dots on the fingerboard itself), the dots are placed exactly on the line where the fret would normally be placed, so that the position dot represents the actual 'note'.
Advantages of fretless playing include being able to 'bend' notes easily by merely sliding them up or down the fingerboard, and achieving a really good vibrato (this can be greatly exaggerated with weird results!) Slides also sound really powerful.
The ideal, of course, would be to have both a fretted and fretless bass, because both have advantages and disadvantages depending on one's personal style and taste in music. The only thing to remember before rushing out to buy a fretless is that one must be prepared to put a lot of practice in to achieve that accuracy of playing which the instrument, by its very nature, demands.
One fact that has always surprised me is that when double bass players also play bass guitar (as most of them do today), they all seem to choose the fretted bass. Ron Matthewson, Jeff Clyne and Roy Babbington, to name a few examples, are all primarily double bassists; one would have thought that they would have felt more affinity with the fretless, because of its obvious similarity to the double bass. Maybe they can explain?
My own Fender fretless, which you can see in the photo and on the front cover, is in rather a strange state, to say the least. It was originally part of a custom built double-neck bass (fretless and Jazz) but I found that I wasn't really using the Jazz very much, because I always found the sound too mellow. So I literally had the body sawn in half and then had half the Jazz bass body joined to the fretless. All this served to do was to put it totally out of balance so that when I try to play it standing up it immediately makes a nose dive towards the floor! However I am having a new Precision body made for it, then I can dive towards the floor instead!
*Summerfield Bros, the UK distributors of Ibanez guitars, stress that fretless basses are in fact only available to special order — a few that filtered into the UK in June went to Chappell's music department in London's New Bond Street. They are fretless versions of the Artist 2626 bass, and one player interested in the instrument is Fairport's Dave Pegg.
Colin Hodgkinson was bassist with Back Door until their split in 1977, and is currently involved in session work and the MU rock workshops.
Feature by Colin Hodgkinson
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