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Fretless Intonation Question

Discussion in 'Technique [BG]' started by ProbablyTooLoud, Dec 21, 2020.


  1. ProbablyTooLoud

    ProbablyTooLoud

    Aug 1, 2020
    Atlanta
    Hi Ask a Pro - Berklee Peeps,

    I play a fretless electric bass.

    Question:

    How perfect should my intonation be? And by that I mean pitch - if I'm using the words wrong, please correct me. For instance, if I'm warming up, practicing scales and my tuner is on, and I stop on a random note in the middle of a random scale, should I expect that pitch to be perfectly "on," as in lighting up green ( or whatever) on my tuner? If a pro bassist did that in the middle of a scale while practicing, would their intonation be perfect?

    Thanks in Advance!
     
  2. 1958Bassman

    1958Bassman

    Oct 20, 2007
    I'm not a pro, but I play fretless and have a hard time listening to bad intonation and inaccurate intervals, whether played by myself or someone else.

    If the intonation is good, you'll have a much easier time finding the notes. If it's as wacked out as mine was when I brought it home, you'll be hating life. As soon as I realized I couldn't find my way around with any accuracy, I checked the intonation and found that it must have been set by someone who has never heard of the concept.

    YouTube has a video by Scott Devine, who studied with Gary Willis, and Willis is one of the people who adds videos and instructions to the site. This particular video is titled '5 Reasons Fretless Bass Sucks (And How To Fix It)'- he plays fretless and doesn't hate it, but mentions five problems with playing it and technique is the main point. Keep your fretting fingers spread, not close together- this way, you don't need to move your whole hand to hit the notes and you can let muscle memory work for you.

    Does your bass have dots, or fret lines? Much easier to navigate the neck accurately with fret lines when you move higher up the neck if you haven't done it for a long time.

    Our 'ear' WRT perfect intonation/pitch varies from person to person but many can learn to perceive minor errors through ear training. Become accustomed to hearing intervals that are 'perfect' for lack of a better word and practice playing them randomly and while playing the 3rd, 5th, 7th intervals, play the root at the same time, so you can hear whether it's accurate, or not. Don't worry about perfect pitch, work on relative pitch.

    Ear training video-
    Ultimate Ear Training Exercises for Bass Players

    Five Reasons...-
    Five reasons fretless bass sucks at DuckDuckGo

    Online Bass Guitar Lessons | Scott's Bass Lessons
     
    Odys and ProbablyTooLoud like this.
  3. ProbablyTooLoud

    ProbablyTooLoud

    Aug 1, 2020
    Atlanta
    Hi Bassman,

    Thanks for the reply. I play an unlined Rickenbacker that has helpful dots on the neck binding and useless dots on the fingerboard. The binding dots are placed where the frets would be, so that's why they help.

    Thanks for the advice on how to practice, too, and for the links - they're great.

    Happy Holidays to you.

    I wonder if the Berklee folks check this forum.

    Hmmmm....
     
  4. ahadl2500

    ahadl2500 Supporting Member

    Nov 28, 2003
    Greenwood, IN
    Not a Berklee person and the following is personal opinion based on a variety of musical experience throughout my life...

    My personal thought is that the importance depends on the group and the audience. Ideally you are in tune with the group and your group as a whole is in tune. Your need to match a tuner is much less than your need to match the group (clashes are more obvious if the group is out of tune with itself).

    Real world, being a touch off is not going to be obvious to most listeners unless you are hanging on the note (and even then it depends on the listener). I say to most listeners, because sensitivity of hearing to tuning is an individual thing. It ranges from tone deaf to perfect pitch. In my life I have encountered everything from people who cannot tell when they are way out of tune (ran into a ton of these; I am sure you have too) to a marching band judge who said the band was in tune with itself but sounded like the full group was 2 cents sharp (my high school marching band tuned to 442 instead of 440; I have only encountered one person that was this good at pitch).

    Personal thoughts... set your bass up correctly (fretted or fretless) to get yourself a good starting point for staying in tune. After that, practice... in fact do not just practice, practice deliberately and focus on improvement.
     
    ProbablyTooLoud likes this.
  5. FunkHead

    FunkHead Supporting Member

    Mar 10, 2007
    I believe Probablytooloud is referring to intonation as in ability to get your finger in the exact right spot in fingerboard, Not the setup of the bass.
    @ProbablyTooLoud , Also not a Berklee pro but I can tell you, It's very important to get your intonation very precise.
    I would start by making sure when you play right at the dot that it is ,in fact, showing in tune on your tuner.
    Or if your ear is good, it should sound spot on.

    Then as you play more and more, you should try to play without looking as much as possible. But check from time to time and make sure you're landing on the dots.

    I find that I am coming right up to the dot with the edge of my fingers(Not centered on the dot) for perfect intonation.
    It takes a lot of practice and I am always working on it every single day. I play without looking at the fingerboard as much as possible. I check my position ever so often to keep on track.
     
    ProbablyTooLoud likes this.
  6. ahadl2500

    ahadl2500 Supporting Member

    Nov 28, 2003
    Greenwood, IN
    I agree.. that said, getting your finger in the exact right spot is made more difficult by a poorly setup bass (which is what I was getting at when I mentioned start with a good setup).
     
  7. FunkHead

    FunkHead Supporting Member

    Mar 10, 2007
    Very true. The way I setup my Fretless is so that I am right up to the dot, not straddling it. I don't have lines but if I did I would want to be up to the line and not directly on it.Others may setup for the reverse. I don't think there's a right or wrong with respect to that but you'd have to be aware of it.
    That's why I recommended OP check with tuner to at least know "visually" where the exact note is.

    Bottom line is that you get used to your bass and hopefully have a good enough ear. Then muscle memory will start to kick in too.
     
    ahadl2500 likes this.
  8. bassdude51

    bassdude51 "You never even called me by my name." Supporting Member

    Nov 1, 2008
    Central Ohio
    If the fretless bass has a lined neck, it should be fairly accurate to intonate @ the 12th line. I use my finger nail to press down on the string and eyeball where the string is making contact at near exact at the 12th fret line.

    On an unlined neck. Measure from the nut to where the 12th fret line would be on the neck. You should be able to get that measurement off of any 34 inch scale bass. Use a piece of masking tape to tape a straight line for #12. Intonate from there.

    All in all, it's pretty impossible to hit exact notes with a fretless and so dead on intonation is not critical. And isn't that the appeal of a fretless bass? The notes are not perfect and thus that natural organic sound. Sort of stand-up in sound.
     
    ProbablyTooLoud likes this.
  9. ProbablyTooLoud

    ProbablyTooLoud

    Aug 1, 2020
    Atlanta
    Thank for the reply.
    My bass is well set up by an experienced tech, so when I tune correctly, I always have the open strings as foundational references.
    My ear is "okay," meaning that when I compare it to the readings on the tuner, I can hear differences of +/- about 20 "cents," if I'm reading it right and using "cents" right. Closer than that and I honestly can't hear the differences as I hone in on a perfect reading.

    Also thanks for the good advice about intentional practice. I believe in and apply that concept. Music for me is very much about the process of learning, in addition to the joy of playing with friends.
     
    Last edited: Dec 22, 2020
  10. ProbablyTooLoud

    ProbablyTooLoud

    Aug 1, 2020
    Atlanta
    Thanks - and yup, I'm talking about getting my fingers in exactly the right spot. It's definitely a process that involves a lot of repetition, but I enjoy it. I try to nail it on the tuner but as I mention in another reply, my ear is okay, but not perfect. So I'll work on it and get there eventually - or not, I suppose. Using the open strings as reference pitches, as well as usimg a drone note from my tuner, have so far been the most productive approaches.
     
    FunkHead likes this.
  11. ahadl2500

    ahadl2500 Supporting Member

    Nov 28, 2003
    Greenwood, IN
    Human ear can typically hear 5 cents difference.

    I wrote 2 cents... I meant 2 hertz. A-440 to A-442 is 8 cents roughly. That said, the guy called out the specific tuning frequencies. Thinking about it more he might have cheated... percussion instruments (marimbas/vibes/xylos) are frequently sold in A-442 which is a problem he might have been aware of. At any rate, I have met people with insanely good pitch over the years.
     
  12. ProbablyTooLoud

    ProbablyTooLoud

    Aug 1, 2020
    Atlanta
    Thanks for the reply.
    I have a great tech, so the bass is well set up and intonated correctly.
    And absolutely, that's the appeal of the fretless - the organic variation.
    Your point brings up a great discussion that we don't really have to delve into here though, related to form and art in general: without form, some may say you have nothing, because form organizes your ideas and allows you to communicate your artistic impulse to others - and I totally agree with that, to the extent that one does not allow form to dictate what one will or will not express. The same is true of these perfect pitches which are impossible to achieve, in practice: I think I have to know where the absolute is - and the rest of the musical world needs to agree - or else the variations and subtleties and half tones (of a Paul Chambers on "So What" for instance) would have no meaning, or at least they'd have less impact.

    Anyway, thanks for the input, and definitely for the statement "all in all its pretty much impossible to hit perfect notes on a fretless." That's what I figured, but wasn't really sure.
     
    bassdude51 likes this.
  13. FunkHead

    FunkHead Supporting Member

    Mar 10, 2007
    I have been playing all the songs in my set list that I know by heart on fretted. Playing them on fretless is a challenge sometimes but it’s very rewarding. I am improving in that when I look down at my fingers they are starting to be in the right place.
    Before, I would “drift” up the neck a little (playing sharp). Hearing myself go sharp is what triggered me to look down and see where my fingers were. Each day that goes by I get a little better and end up not feeling the need to look down. Then when I check I am spot on. Not on every single song yet but getting there.

    Then there’s songs like “mama I’m coming home” by Ozzy. Learning that is a whole different exercise....

    I don’t think there’s a wrong way to practice so you will surely improve every day little by little.

    I would definitely strive for 99.9% accuracy. Sure a few cents will probably go unnoticed but you want to be close IMO.
     
    ProbablyTooLoud likes this.
  14. ProbablyTooLoud

    ProbablyTooLoud

    Aug 1, 2020
    Atlanta
    I will most def strive for perfect but won't stress if it takes a while.
     
    FunkHead likes this.
  15. Seanto

    Seanto

    Dec 29, 2005
    USA
    You just get as in tune as much as you can. You also continue to improve your ear to tell you when you are out of tune in real time which allows you to adjust on the fly. I've never gotten too deep into using a tuner(too frustrating), instead EQ the bass so you can hear the fundamental of the note really well. Then practice against recordings and keep a mindful ear to each note you are playing and how it sounds against the recording. You can also put on a droned note and practice scales against it, which you can usually hear when each note is out of tune pretty easily. Open strings can also serve as a useful reference pitch.
     
  16. Ed Fuqua

    Ed Fuqua

    Dec 13, 1999
    Augusta GA
    Chuck Sher publishes my book, WALKING BASSICS:The Fundamentals of Jazz Bass Playing.
    I second the recommendation to start using your ears and not your eyes. The best tool for playing in tune (and let's start using "in tune" to mean playing the correct pitch, since "intonation" means such a different thing to guitarists, bass guitarists included) is expectation of pitch. That is, being able to hear, before you play I what the next note is supposed to sound like. Using visual or ergonomic geography gets you in the neighborhood, but you need to be able to hear with clarity what that next note sounds like. And the more familiar you are with your instrument, the more your fingers will follow your ear.
    As Seanto intimates above, the deeper you concentrate on playing in tune, the better your ear gets, it can sometimes sound (to you) as if you are playing more out of tune. The better your ear gets, the more nuanced your hearing becomes, the "margin for error" becomes smaller and smaller.

    The other thing to remember about playing an instrument that doesn't have frets; it is NOT an equal temperament instrument. It doesn't matter too much if you're playing with a group of musicians with equal temperament instruments (guitars, keyboards), but when you're playing with a mix (say you've got a violinist or cellist in the group, or like me, you play with a pianist and a saxophonist), then it's kind of a different story.

    But as far as practicing - I'd recommend some kind of ear training that includes singing intervals and arpeggios (with a keyboard, if you are really hearing the pitch you can sing it), that way you're internalizing what a (for example) 2nd inversion dominant seventh chord sounds like, so you have that expectation of pitch to aim for when you have your instrument in your hands practicing scales and arpeggios. Also find (or have a keyboardist or guitarist friend) record some of these exercises (or others, if they read music and you read music, the bass parts for Bach 2 or 4 parts are nice little etudes) and use them for practicing playing in unison, matching the pitch.
     
    pbass888, JRA, friend33 and 3 others like this.
  17. That is the goal! I made my biggest improvements on fretless and upright intonation through learning/practicing solfege and sight singing extensively. (I’m not a Berklee pro but have earned a college degree in upright bass performance)
     
    ProbablyTooLoud likes this.
  18. ProbablyTooLoud

    ProbablyTooLoud

    Aug 1, 2020
    Atlanta
    Thanks for the reply.
    That's what I figured, so that's my goal.
    Sight sing lines before playing?
    I should do more of that.
    I just kind of hum them.
    So - if (theoretical db player with degree) were to stop to check as described above - what percentage of the time would (theoretical db player with degree) be right on the money, pitch-wise?
     
  19. SteveCS

    SteveCS

    Nov 19, 2014
    Hampshire, UK
    It needs to be PERFECT. By that I mean you should not settle for less than perfect as your internal default sense of 'in tune'. In order to calibrate and tighten the tolerance on your internal sense you need to know what 'in tune' sounds like, which means training your ear. Without it, your external manifestation of intonation on the instrument will never be right other that through 'lucky accidents'. If your internal tolerance is wide, you won't even know you are out of tune and you will not be compelled to adjust as you practice or play. That is not to say you have to play perfectly in tune all of the time, but if you can't hear when you are out you will never get there.
    IME.
     
    JRA likes this.
  20. Ed Fuqua

    Ed Fuqua

    Dec 13, 1999
    Augusta GA
    Chuck Sher publishes my book, WALKING BASSICS:The Fundamentals of Jazz Bass Playing.
    Well, no. There are a number of ear training methodologies out there, the one that SLO is talking about is SOLFEGE ( like the Do Re Mi song in SOUND OF MUSIC), you can either use FIXED solfeggi (Do is always C and you get th accidentals in with different vowel sounds) or MOVEABLE (Do is always the tonic) and using either method you look at a piece of music and sing the syllables for the pitches they represent. What I am talking about is outlined here.



    SteveCS is on the right track, there's practice and then there's the real world. What happen sin real live play is contingent on so many things, but ultimately it all comes down to hearing what you play in conjunction and cooperation with what everyone else is playing. And HOW you're hearing stuff that day, some days are better than others. And, for your theoretical DB player, what the weather is. Because humidity affects us much more than it does a solid piece of wood with metal wires on it (particularly for those of us that play gut strings). Get your ear training and expectation of pitch together and I predict you'll find you're kind of barking up the wrong tree with the way you're approaching this...
     
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