Tech Bench - Fretless-ize Your Life!

August 26, 2013
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Unlined (left) and lined fretless fingerboards on Mayones basses
IF YOU’RE PRONE TO BOUTS OF B.M.S. (BASS
Modification Syndrome), at some point you’ve probably looked at one of your basses and wondered, “What if it were fretless?” No doubt you’ve read how a young Jaco Pastorius changed the bass world by yanking the frets out of his Fender Jazz Bass and coating the fingerboard with marine epoxy to create the Bass of Doom. Put down the pliers, buddy—I’m here to talk you off the ledge. While it may seem like a simple matter of defanging the fingerboard, if you’re not a luthier (and prefer not to ruin your axe), bring it to a pro, one who is experienced with this particular operation.

Converting a bass to fretless carries a risk, even when performed by skilled hands. Removing fret wire and filling the slots with material will change the neck’s resonant frequency, and how the neck interacts with the body; there is always a chance you won’t like the results. On a neck-through or setneck instrument, this is potentially fatal. If your bass has a bolt-on neck, first look into a fretless replacement neck—companies such as Warmoth, USA Custom Guitars, and Allparts sell replacement necks for Fender-style basses as well as several other models. But be forewarned: You will need to have the nut slots filed, make sure the neck pocket fits properly, and drill holes for the neck bolts.

If you buy a replacement neck, the first decision is to go with or without fret lines. The fret lines help maintain your visual reference on the neck, and they can be guidelines for good intonation, but they won’t guarantee it. Some people just love the aesthetic beauty of an unlined fingerboard, while others take it as a point of pride that they “don’t need no stinking fret lines.” Playing in tune is a challenge on fretless, and ultimately your ears are the most important tool for good intonation, but I prefer having lines anyway. Unlined fretless necks have position dots along the top edge of the fingerboard, but you’ll need to adjust to the dot being placed where the fret would be, not placed in between, like on a fretted bass. (Some basses, like my 1973 unlined fretless Gibson Ripper, have the dots placed in the same position as on a fretted bass, making it even more interesting to play.) If you are de-fretting a bass, you can choose a lighter wood such as maple to fill in the slots visibly, or find a wood that more closely matches the fingerboard, for a stealthier look.

Another choice is the type of wood for the neck and fingerboard— or even, not wood. Moses Graphite makes graphite replacement necks for several basses; they can be ordered in lined or unlined fretless versions. Graphite offers structural stability and even tonal response, and many love its natural clarity for fretless applications. I’ve found that graphite necks are relatively inert when compared to wood, and seem to work best paired with a highly resonant body. Slapping one on a cheapo import will not miraculously transform it into a Zon. Most replacement wood necks are flatsawn hard maple, but quartersawn maple’s greater stiffness and stability may be worth the upgrade. Fretless fingerboards are typically rosewood, pau ferro, or ebony, although maple is not unheard of.

The discussion of how fingerboard wood affects tone takes on an interesting dimension with fretless bass, as the string comes in direct contact with the wood. It’s often said that ebony sounds brighter than rosewood, and that maple has the potential to be brighter than ebony. But different body woods, construction methods, strings, pickups, and technique all play a big role in tone production as well. Without frets, the feel of the wood plays a greater role in your tactile experience. You may like the smooth feel of a tight-grained ebony board, or prefer the organic texture of a rosewood plank. Some instruments, such as the Ibanez Gary Willis model, have composite fingerboards (in this case, a material called ebonol), which can offer the advantages of graphite with the workability of ebony.

Another factor in the fretless equation is fingerboard treatment. Jaco used marine resin epoxy to create a hard surface that would stand up to the punishment of roundwound strings grinding into the fingerboard. Pedulla uses a similar treatment on its fretless instruments, and many builders offer this as an option. If you’re going the replacement neck route, you will have to find a luthier capable and willing to do the job. It’s a sticky, sloppy operation that requires patience and skill to do correctly. The advantages of a coated fingerboard are longevity, decreased sensitivity to weather conditions, and a glassy top end on sustained notes, which some players love. But some fretless players are looking for a double bass-type experience, and the sound and feel of a string vibrating against unfinished wood gets them closer.

If you do intend to have your fingerboard epoxy coated, make sure the neck itself is not overly reactive to temperature and humidity fluctuations. I once had a coated-board fretless that played great for about four months, but when the weather changed, the neck twisted just enough to make sanding the fingerboard necessary. Removing the epoxy added many hours and dollars to the job. If you just have to do the Jaco thing, roundwounds are the way to go, coated fingerboard or not. Rounds will eventually chew up an uncoated fingerboard, but if you stay on top of the damage with periodic (professionally done) light sanding, you can avoid major ruts in the board. Unless you play that one fretless bass exclusively, or have caveman technique that grinds your strings against the fingerboard (lighten up, dude!), you should be able to get a few years of playing in before any touch up is needed. You may want to try nickel instead of harder stainless steel strings. If you want an epoxy coating mainly to prevent wood damage, consider using flatwound or nylon-tapewound strings. These are more fingerboard-friendly while giving a more upright-like tone.

Coated or uncoated, the most critical aspect of a successful fretless bass is the “dress” of the fingerboard itself. A poorly dressed board will make even the nicest instrument sound worthless, while it’s possible to take a cheap import and make it play great with a proper setup. Local Austin luthier (and bassist extraordinaire) Brady Muckelroy has transformed two of my fretless instruments into total “mwah” monsters. He told me: “I like to go for a level fingerboard with a tiny amount of fall away in the upper register if needed. From there, the neck can be adjusted to be level or have the desired amount of relief.” Brady also talks about filing the nut: “A proper nut carve is crucial to the performance of a bass—fretted or fretless. If the slots are cut too high, it will be very uncomfortable to play and the intonation will be out in the lower register. Too low, the open string will buzz.” In general, the absence of frets means the slots will need to be cut a little deeper than on a fretted bass. Once your fretless is together, all you have to do is learn how to play in tune! Fretless bass opens up an entirely new set of challenges, but the creative rewards are great, and having it in your toolbox will help you on the path to being a full-service bass player. My legal department also tells me I should say: Please, don’t let B.M.S. make you use your U.S. MTD for your D.I.Y.!

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