AFTER NOTING IN MY LAST COLUMN that major bass manufacturers were slow to jump into the fretless market in the wake of Jaco Pastorius’ mid-’70s fretless innovations, I immediately encountered this unusual example from 1975 that disputes my point. This maple-neck Fender, which was later customized with replacement pickups and bridge, is quite an interesting animal.
In the early days of fretless bass, there were only a few high-profile practitioners of the art, including Freebo with Bonnie Raitt, Rick Danko with The Band, and Boz Burrell with Bad Company. Their tone was typically fairly dark, and the style was often more like a tuba or string bass in approach, rather than being about virtuosity.
This bass most likely began its life as a stock fretless Fender Precision, similar to the 1970 fretless Fender Precision John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin occasionally used. The one-piece neck/fingerboard jump out as the most visually striking feature, and immediately sparks a debate as to the “best” wood for a fretless. Over time, we have seen an acceptance of ebony as the optimum wood for a bare fretless fingerboard due to its hardness and density, so one has to wonder—why maple? It is not as hard as many other woods, and the frequencies accented by maple are lower than the resonant frequencies of rosewood or ebony. The result is an earthy, round tone that in this case is accentuated by black nylon strings and a relatively thin varnish finish on the neck (in contrast to the edgier tone that a hard epoxy surface would highlight).
Somewhere down the line, someone decided to “hot rod” this bass and replaced the one stock Precision pickup with a PJ set of Bartolini pickups, adding the Jazz-style pickup toward the bridge. Regardless of the original Precision pickup’s tone, I feel certain that the Bartolinis’ clean hi-fi sound improved the tone of this bass considerably, giving it a sonic versatility and complexity that’s unattainable with a single mid-position pickup. The Leo Quan Badass bridge was one of the first replacement bridges to become popular as a simple way to improve the tone of any bass, with its increased mass being the key ingredient. One drawback of this modification is its effect on the total weight—this customized puppy weighs in at a hefty 11 pounds!
There are a ton of useable sounds with this bass. The neck pickup sounds warm and throaty by itself, and when you roll in the bridge pickup, the complex highs of the classic Fender Jazz sound come in. By itself, the J-style pickup is a bit thin, although rolling off the tone knob gives it a soft edge which, through an amp, could be made to sit in a track nicely. The coolest combination comes from turning both pickups up full and then backing off the bridge pickup slightly—a setting Jaco often used on his Jazz Basses. The resulting sweet yet full tone really is the best of both worlds, and would work in a number of different musical contexts. This bass will never have the high-gloss top end that an ebony fingerboard or epoxy finish would impart, but its combination of materials and electronics give it a rootsy warmth that makes it a lot of fun to play. Fretless basses are no longer a rarity, but this one gives an interesting look at their early history, and still sounds unique and cool many years later. Happy sliding!