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 guitar players typically resort to other techniques (like string bends) to accomplish the same effect!

It is these skillful manipulations of pitch around each target note’s pitch which give the fretless bass its distinctive character and emotional impact.

Fretless Bass and Singing

Why does it make such a difference? It’s partly because it adds an extra dimension of expression to how the player plays a melody or bassline, allowing them to embellish it and make it their own. But probably the bigger point is that this freedom of pitch is very characteristic of the human voice too. Although singers generally aim to hit note pitches spot-on, expert singers will also make use of their voice’s freedom to embellish the melody with slides and vibrato.

Fretless techniques on a bass, and pitch bends on a guitar both serve to make the instrument sound more like a human voice, and in the same way we respond emotionally to a voice singing, these instruments can bring melodies to life through skilful manipulation of pitch.

If you want to explore how this kind of pitch manipulation is used in music and how you can apply these powerful techniques on your own instrument, pitch ear training is the area to study and this article in particular will help you improve your sense of pitch.

For more on the sounds of bass guitars, explore the Bass Tone series.

Similar questions answered on this page:

  • Why does a fretless bass sound like someone singing?
  • What’s the difference between normal and fretless bass?
  • How can I add more expression to my playing?

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