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Fingerboard Durability on Fretless Basses

Discussion in 'Basses [BG]' started by NeverKnowsBest, Jan 5, 2014.

  1. I was watching this well-known video featuring Jaco Pastorius. In the video he says that he mainly practices with a fretted bass and only uses a fretless for gigs because, as he claims, the fretless would otherwise be totally chewed up from constant practicing. I hadn't heard of this happening before. Is this just Jaco being really hardcore, or is this a real thing? I was also thinking that perhaps a harder fingerboard wood, such as ebony, might alleviate this issue?
  2. bh2


    Jun 16, 2008
    Oxford, UK
    Here we go again... damaging a fretless with rounds is a load of tosh... I had a fretless Aria SB 1000 for nigh on two decades... sure the board was marked but in no way damaged... regular gigs and rehearsals/practice. My Jazz was defretted around 2005... no visible marking.

    Fender P 2004 has a heavily lacquered maple board... no marks yet.

    All sport RS 66's.
  3. I've never played fretted. I define "damage" as any mark or scratch that shows up on my fingerboard.

    Back in the early 80s I read that Jaco used marine varnish on his necks. So I've tried that and it really works - super hard, and it has a nice hard tone. On the basses I've used varnish on I have used roundwounds and have had less damage. Rounds on varnish is super bright.

    It also depends on the tone I want. Most of my basses have had flats because I don't particularly like a bright tone, particularly on the D and G strings.

    The necks I have that are phenol or bare wood I ONLY use flats - and usually tapes.

    Additionally, flats have a certain feel that I have become very used to, and rounds feel weird to me now.

    I'll add this - I just got a 1982 Steinberger L2 unlined fretless. It came with rounds on it. The neck has very clear string gouges. I'm going to have to send it out to be resurfaced. I like to see both sides of every issue, but bh2; these furrows affect sound. Particualary when I change to flats.
  4. bh2


    Jun 16, 2008
    Oxford, UK
    You'd have to really dig in to get those furrows to buzz... I tend to have a light left hand, I tend to 'dig' more on the fretted.

    I just can't get on with tapes or flats at all.
  5. Roscoe East

    Roscoe East

    Aug 22, 2011
    I'm pretty sure anyone who has used a fretless bass with roundwound strings for a decent period of time will agree that the fingerboard does indeed get gouged, abraded, divoted, misshapen, worn, pick your favorite adjective...

    but whether or not that constitutes "damage" or simply normal wear & tear is up to the individual's preferences and/or standards.
  6. bmc


    Nov 15, 2003
    I've had my fretless maple precision for 22 years. Gigged with it for ten. No damage
  7. FunkyMcNasty


    Dec 4, 2010
    It also depends on the rounds that you use. I believe that Jaco preferred Rotos and those things will chew up frets, let alone bare rosewood.
  8. Steve Dallman

    Steve Dallman Supporting Member

    I put a bubinga fingerboard on my fretless in the mid 90's and finished it with Defthane poly (very hard polyurethane, bar-top varnish) and it's held up well.

    I was given a mid 70's maple fingerboard, A width Fender fretless P neck, the owner (a Nashville player) had "worn out" and replaced with a Warmouth neck.

    It looked like hell, after years of roundwound use. Dang if it didn't easily sand out, and I mean with minimal sanding.

    I put a few coats of Defthane on it when done (a few minutes of sanding) and it was like new. I gave it to a bud in Nashville after I had used it for several years, and he's still enjoying it, with no visible wear.

    Minwax makes an interesting product designed for rotting wood. It is a thin, almost solvent like product that soaks into wood and hardens into a plastic like hardness. I often thought it would be interesting to treat a fretless wood fingerboard with it, with or without a top finish.
  9. Bassdude15


    Feb 26, 2013
    Yes, I would recommend having a fingerboard made of a very dense, hard wood like ebony or snakewood.
    A board like that should hold up against Rotosounds even without varnish
  10. MethodsofDance


    Nov 19, 2013
    This. I started seeing marks on my first one in less than a week, as the action was super low and I was playing so much.
  11. bass_case

    bass_case Maintain low tones. Supporting Member

    Oct 23, 2013
    Miami, FL
    Can you use rounds on a fretless without damaging it? Sure, but it's less likely with flats. Either way, metal vs. wood, something's got to give. Pulling roundwound strings, instead of using a "proper" vibrato, is a good way to make a serrated fingerboard.
  12. MD


    Nov 7, 2000
    Marin Co. CA.
    Yep. Adopting a classical vibrato where your finger rolls on the string is always less abrasive than bending the string and digging into the wood.

    Bottom line, if rounds and untreated rosewood is the tone you're looking for, then having your board dressed every 5-10 years is just the cost of doing business.
  13. Baird6869

    Baird6869 RIP Gord Downey. A True Canadian Icon. Supporting Member


    I have owned more than a few fretless basses and I always seem to use stainless rounds. I mean, I buy flats and wanna love them, but that usually only lasts a few days before I am back to rounds. Rosewood and other woods (even ebonol) will definitely wear over time with rounds no matter how you play.

    In any case, I recently ordered an extremely expensive custom fretless 5er with an ebony board. I figure I will be able to get 5 years minimum without a board refinish with heavy use and stainless rounds. Worth the cost to me in any case as I love the sound/feel.

    Flats and tapes are a complete different story. Very little wear to a fretless board. I actually use flats on my 1974 fretted P as it is way past due for a refret. It has been stable for a few years of playing with rounds.
  14. Wow - excellent stuff here. I guess what it comes down to is style and the degree of wear one is willing to deal with. My wooden necks are all very unmarked, but the phenol neck on the Steinberger bears witness - there's no denying that it's furrowed. Oh well, send it off and use flats when it gets back. I also think that light gauge flats might resolve my "brightness/muddiness" debate.
  15. 1958Bassman


    Oct 20, 2007
    I'd like to remind that strings have changed a lot since the mid-'70s. Who knows what he used when he initially pulled the frets? The variety of brands and materials for the strings was pretty limited and since basses all came with frets at that time, wear of the wood wasn't much of an issue.
  16. bucephylus

    bucephylus Supporting Member Commercial User

    Aug 18, 2002
    General Manager TecPadz LLC
    Here's my <2c experience:
    Jaco seemed to play with a medium/medium-heavy touch on the board; meaning his notes were well stopped. I have read posts here over the years that you can play with a lighter touch; and that may be true. If so, perhaps one could get away with bare wood. Jaco would have created grooves in bare wood with his approach, IMO.

    I have loved fretless since picking up my first in 1970. Pre-knowing about Jaco. But I was coached not to play it as a young player. I did start playing a fretless Jazz in 1987 at an open mic Blues gig. I used a Warmoth ebony board birds eye unlined neck on a 72 J body.

    No fingerboard finish. Because I did NOT want to copy Jaco.

    After about 14 months doing that gig, I had worn ruts into the fingerboard at the typical Blues root locations to the point that I could not get proper intonation.

    Long story short, I ended up sanding an filling and then overcoating with polyurethane; which is a bit softer than epoxy and has a warmer sound.

    So, yes, IME, the bare board can be rutted. So Jaco's comments ring true to me. Of course, YMMV.
  17. Gouges to neck from round wound strings. This is a Steinberger L2 with phenolic neck, but I have seen this happen to wood as well. I have played fretless exclusively since 1972. Regardless of "opinions" here and elsewhere - if you use rounds, this will happen. Varnish helps by the way.


  18. Looks about right. No big deal.
  19. They made maybe between 8 and 12 unlined fretless L2s in Brooklyn before the Steinberger factory moved to Newburgh in 1983. This is an extremely rare bass. So yeah. It's kind of a big deal.
  20. I meant the wear. The wear is no big deal. Yes, extremely rare bass, sure.