The fretless bass has a very distinctive sound. Whether it’s a fretless electric bass or a traditional upright double bass, there’s something about its sound that marks it out clearly from a normal bass guitar. What is it?

There is one big factor: the lack of frets!

To understand the significance of this you must understand why bass guitars have frets at all.

Why do bass guitars have frets?

The purpose of frets on a guitar (electric or bass) is to help the player pitch their notes. In theory the strings can produce any pitch on a wide range, not just the “note” pitches we would write on a musical score. The frets ensure that if the player wants to play, for example, an A note they actually produce an A rather than a pitch slightly higher or lower.

Frets allow for easy accurate pitching of notes, and much faster and better playing, particularly for beginners. However, fretting the instrument does limit the player’s expression somewhat, and this is why some players choose a fretless instrument instead.

Fretless Expression

With a fretless bass, you can still play that perfectly-pitched note (with a bit of practice!) but you also have the option to:

  • “Slide” into the note from a pitch slightly higher or lower
  • Play vibrato by adjusting the note’s pitch up and down while it sounds
  • Move smoothly between notes rather than “hopping” between their pitches

In the hands of a novice, each of these just sound like sloppy mistakes. However, in the hands of an expert they are powerful tools of musical expression, allowing far more expressive playing than fretted notes alone can. In fact, you’ll see that g