fretless tones

Discussion in 'Luthier's Corner' started by Robin Fowler, May 14, 2021.

  1. Robin Fowler

    Robin Fowler

    May 14, 2021
    Hi there,
    A few weeks back I decided I would have a go with a fretless bass, having been playing a fretted Ibanez K5 for a few years. I didn't want to spend a lot of money in case I didn't get on with it. Knowing that a cheap instrument would inevitably require a fair bit of work it would satisfy my second requirement of giving my limited luthiery an airing.
    During the course of doing all the niggly bits and then setting up the playing action (lowering it of course) I came across a YouTube comparison video in which it was mentioned that a lacquered fingerboard gave better fretless sound than an unfinished one, which my cheapo fretless has.
    My simple question is "Is this true?"

    I have got the 'wah' sound on the top 2 strings by lowering the action, but would like to improve this if possible, particularly for the other two strings.
    I notice that despite having changed the round wound strings for flatwound, the fingerboard is already getting string marked, which also suggests the advisability of an applied finish.

    I would appreciate any guidance you feel able to give, with thanks in advance.
    Beej and DJ Bebop like this.
  2. bholder

    bholder Affable Sociopath Supporting Member

    Sep 2, 2001
    Vestal, NY
    Received a gift from Sire* (see sig)
    The harder the fingerboard, the more mwah (and less wear). So yes, you might want to look into having yours covered somehow.
    Jazz Ad, Beej, DJ Bebop and 1 other person like this.
  3. GMC


    Jan 1, 2006
    Wiltshire, UK
    Mwahh fretless tones can be emphasised with playing technique and hand location. I find that playing just over the fingerboard is easier to get that sound than at the bridge or over the pickup. Playing slower and holding the note with the left hand (assuming right handed) helps too.
  4. bholder

    bholder Affable Sociopath Supporting Member

    Sep 2, 2001
    Vestal, NY
    Received a gift from Sire* (see sig)
    For mwah on a fretless electric bass, you want the string to vibrate more vertically against the fingerboard rather than parallel to it. So yeah, changing right hand technique to be more vertical can help bring it out for sure.
    Last edited: May 14, 2021
    DJ Bebop likes this.
  5. BaileyMan

    BaileyMan Supporting Member

    Jan 8, 2012
    San Francisco
    What sounds better is a matter of opinion. It's possible to get a great fretless tone out of an uncoated fingerboard. As I'm sure you know there are a lot of components at play. Neck relief, string height, strings (many prefer round wounds on fretless, the neck may need to be resurfaced in a number of years, but it's no biggie), electronics. Of course fingerboard wood makes a difference, but what sounds better to you is up to you.

    Listen to some clips of Tony Franklin playing his signature fender fretless. His tone is killer and his fingerboard is uncoated. Just straight up ebony.
    roccobass, equill, DJ Bebop and 3 others like this.
  6. Gilmourisgod


    Jun 23, 2014
    Cape Cod MA
    My fretless Warmoth Frankenjazz had the polyester "Diamond-Kote" finish put on it back in the late 80's, when you could still just walk in to Pedulla in Rockland MA and they would do stuff like that, and it's still in excellent condition after years of rounds. That stuff is HARD. It has that very "glassy" Pedulla Buzz bass tone, but warms up nicely just rolling the treble off. The Squier Jaco clones have the "ebanol" fretboards (compressed paper and resin) that has a similar tone. You can get there with highly polished ebony too, but rounds will wear on it a lot quicker, same with most epoxy coatings. I've never tried a CA coated board, supposedly similar, and easier to do the coatings. An uncoated rosewood board sounds more like an upright to my ears, so go that route if you want a "softer" tone. There was whole thread on fretless coatings a while back:
    Fretless fingerboard coatings

    There's a company that does the Pedulla process now, but epoxy of some sort, I can't remember the name. It's possible to do it yourself, but not for the faint of heart, polyester is NASTY.

    Remembered the name, it's HG Thor:
    HG Thor Epoxy Fretless

    Attached Files:

    Giraffe, DJ Bebop, dkelley and 2 others like this.
  7. dwizum


    Dec 21, 2018
    What bass did you end up with and what's the fingerboard material?

    I don't think fingerboard finish is really correlated to "mwah" at all - to me, that's much more about setup, string choice, and playing technique. A finished fingerboard will definitely sound different, but the difference (to me, at least) is more about the brightness than the classic "this is definitely a fretless bass" tone, which you get as a result of the string's interaction with the fingerboard changing the attack and decay of the note - those attack and decay changes can be managed by changing the angle that the string and fingerboard interact, i.e. by changing the action, relief, and fingering technique.
  8. WillyWonka

    WillyWonka My roadworn is in mint condition Supporting Member

    Dec 10, 2019
    low action parallel to the board = mwhahahaha

    make sure you have a "tone" coating or "tonewood" on your fingerboard, but not both, your head will explode, unless the body of the bass is basswood.
    Beej and Auspuff like this.
  9. JRA

    JRA my words = opinion Supporting Member

    @BaileyMan, @dwizum and @Gilmourisgod pretty much covered it for you, robin!

    FWIW: i have all manner of finished/coated/uncoated fretless fingerboards and each has its own 'character', but they all deliver that "mwah" sound. i like 'em all so i'm good with any fingerboard surface: coated or natural! some of my coated fingerboards yield more 'trebly attack/mwah snap' and some of the 'naturals' have more 'mellow' in the attack/mwah sound. but they're all good, all fun!

    my advice: instead of searching for a specific sound, try coaxing out the best possible sound of the instrument you have. also: string markings are natural and expected. worrying about string markings detracts from the pleasure at hand! ;)
  10. smtp4me


    Sep 30, 2013
    Philadelphia, PA
    I can share personal experience with this. I started playing fretless about 6 years ago. Just like you, I got a "cheaper" one at first in case I changed my mind (a fretless Ibanez SR), and later it was replaced with a fretless MIM Fender Jazz. I put a CA glue (super glue) finish on the Fender fingerboard, for two reasons: 1) Mostly to protect the fingerboard from wear because I use stainless steel roundwound strings, and 2) For the difference in tone.

    I am now seriously considering to build my own fretless from parts (e.g. Warmoth), and this time, I'm getting an Ebony fingerboard and leaving it unfinished. Why? Because although it is true that a finish will give a different sound, I'm not sure it is what I ultimately want. In my experience (with a finish) you lose some of the "warm" fretless tone that can only come from the strings vibrating against wood. I will not say which one is better because that is completely subjective. I want a balance - a combination of very clear/audible tone but with a little bit of warmth from the wood. Ebony will give me that because it is among the hardest of fingerboard woods (brightness), and again, it's still wood.

    If you're interested about how to DIY a CA glue finish, PM me and I will let you know what I did. You could also check out how-to videos on YouTube. Here is a picture of the finished product:
    Last edited: May 14, 2021
    Rafar, dkelley, DJ Bebop and 5 others like this.
  11. FretsAreFor


    Apr 26, 2017
    Keep in mind that "mwaah" is the "ooh shiny!" of fretless. It's awesome and attracts players, super-fun for soloing or ballads. But there's lots more that you can do with a fretless! It's an incredibly expressive instrument, even when playing straight-up rock, folk, or other support roles.

    Sorry, just responding to the framing of the question as looking for a "better fretless sound." I don't want to sound like the old guy, but it's generally better to be looking for "better fretless playing." You can do great things with a mediocre instrument! As long as it's intonated well and doesn't have bumps on the fingerboard, that is.
    equill, JRA and bholder like this.
  12. IMG_5718.jpg
    Bought this Fender Jazz Bass Special, back in November.

    From there, it went to my Luthier, in December, for care, and feeding, whereby the electrics were cleaned, the fingerboard was sanded down, along with a rigorous neck leveling program, Dean Markley Flatwounds, and set with very low-action.

    She gets the "Mwah," everyone talks about, and, as my Luthier instructed (he is an accomplished guitar, bass, and accordion player), finger position is critical.

    It is my first fretless, and I am just having a ball, with this thing. :thumbsup: :bassist: :hyper:
    JRA likes this.
  13. Lukasonbass


    Dec 12, 2019
    New Hampshire
    ^ yup
  14. 9Thumbs


    Jul 3, 2013
    Near Boston
    My fretless P bass neck is 45 years old. I played it with Rotosounds for years, but changed to GHS flats when I noticed grooves under the strings. Although the bass sat unloved for many years while I raised a family, I can tell you that the fretboard will take a lot of abuse. The grooves forced me to raise the action slightly, but the neck still plays and sounds great.
    MVE, NigelD, Heavy Blue and 2 others like this.
  15. bherman

    bherman Supporting Member

    Apr 30, 2009
    Grand Junction, CO
    I can assure you as someone who plays both upright bass and fret less electric, coating has nothing to do with mwah. It’s purpose is to protect the fingerboard if you use roundwound strings. The ultimate mwah sound is a double bass, not necessarily with low action (on a DB, we call it growl). DB fingerboard are uncoated ebony. I prefer flat wound strings - medium action on db, lower action on electric. TI Jazz FLats are great for fret less electric bass.
    oren and JRA like this.
  16. Killing Floor

    Killing Floor Supporting Member

    Feb 7, 2020
    Austin, TX
    Better is subjective. So it really comes to your preference.
    A harder material (wood, finish on the wood, etc.) certainly affects the tone. My favorite fretlesses have maple unfinished necks. For my preference, it's a mellow, less aggressive but very rich tone profile. But for me it works because I enjoy a sound like a cello, somewhat. No matter the fingerboard, strings make a big difference in tone on a fretless. I'd suggest trying a few varieties. No right answer, just a lot of choices. I play LaBella DTF over TI Jazz Flats on my fretlesses because I know that I want more tension on fretless than on my fretted (where I use TI). Have fun discovering your flavor. Fretless is a great option to have. Enjoy.

    Oh, having grown up with stringed instruments I can tell you a lot of the "mwah" that you're looking from comes from technique. On fretted or guitar your vibrato is really a bend of the string. But on fretless (like violin) you're free to employ proper vibrato. Work on your hand/wrist/forearm movement. Use the whole fingerboard.
    JRA likes this.
  17. Kael


    Dec 26, 2004
    Oklahoma City
    BS. You can get plenty of mwah from an unepoxied board. Mwah is the string buzzing against the fingerboard. Lower the action and play with a lighter touch if needed to keep those strings low. If you aren't getting that mwah from certain strings you might need to have someone check the nut. Might be cut too high.

    Regarding fingerboard wear... if you have particularly soft fingerboard, you will get wear. I have been using a bare wood fingerboard for pushing ten years with nothing but rounds and I've seen no appreciable wear. My fingerboard is a rosewood warmoth board. I used to epoxy all my fretless basses. After this neck, I think I am done with epoxying fingerboards. Bare wood actually sounds warmer to my ear. Additionally, epoxy interferest with the truss rod turning freely. You can still get the truss rod to usually move, but not the same as if that epoxy wasn't there.

    PS, get a radiused sanding block from stew mac or some such location. Worst case scenario, you can get some fine grit sand paper and use that radiused sanding block to touch up the fingerboard. I have one but haven't needed it for years. Fingerboard wear is WAY overblown.
    Reiska, D.A.R.K. and Rolling Thunder like this.
  18. The description of glassy but warms up with rolling treble off.. that describes my carvin icon fretless (in my profile pic) with it's coated board also.

    I do strongly recommend it for longevity. Does it sound better? No... Just different. My main fretless for years was uncoated... very hard wood, nobody knew what but the theory was that it was either ebony or very very dense and dark rosewood... and after many years it finally started wearing to the point of audible issues, but it was NEVER short of mwah either. Hardness DOES MATTER, but you can get that with or without coating---- tone-wise.
    Gilmourisgod likes this.
  19. I just did the CA glue on fretboard thing on my brand new squier cv fretless 60's jazz bass and you defiantly get more mwah.
  20. Thumpin6string

    Thumpin6string Supporting Member

    Apr 25, 2013
    Shoals Indiana
    I haven't seen it mentioned, but I found that cutting the nut slots almost to the fingerboard helps with mwah too. I poly coated my fretless rosewood board and that added even more and no wear from rounds.
    JRA likes this.
  21. Primary

    Primary TB Assistant

    Here are some related products that TB members are talking about. Clicking on a product will take you to TB’s partner, Primary, where you can find links to TB discussions about these products.

    Jun 21, 2021

Share This Page