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Fretless tuning issues - advice?

Discussion in 'Basses [BG]' started by strost, Feb 5, 2014.

  1. strost


    Oct 2, 2008
    Blacksburg, VA
    Hi All,

    I recently picked up a 1977 fretless P-bass. I love the way it sounds but there is one small issue.

    I was playing with a tuner yesterday and noticed that starting with about the 7th "fret" my fingers need to be in different places on the D and G string than on the E and A string in order to stay in tune. Specifically, I need to place my finger about 1/4-1/2 inch lower (toward the headstock) on the higher strings (open strings and harmonics all in tune).

    Is this something that futzing with the bridge can fix or should I bring it in for a full setup? Or do I just need to deal with it?

    Any insight would be appreciated. Thanks!
  2. SoVeryTired

    SoVeryTired Endorsing nothing, recommending much

    Jul 2, 2011
    Milton Keynes, UK
    It's an intonation issue, which you fix by 'futzing with the bridge', something you'd check when you set your bass up.
  3. MonetBass

    MonetBass ♪ Just listen ♫ Supporting Member

    Sep 15, 2006
    Tulsa, OK
    ^This. It's a good idea to intonate a fretless bass just like you would a fretted one.
  4. DiabolusInMusic

    DiabolusInMusic Functionless Art is Merely Tolerated Vandalism Supporting Member

    Have you adjusted the intonation at the 12th fret by moving the bridge saddle? Harmonics will always be in tune because the scale length of your bass doesn't change.

    I highly recommend reading Jerzy Drozd's setup guide and just doing it yourself, it is an extremely easy process.
  5. Lo-E


    Dec 19, 2009
    Brooklyn, NY
    You should check and set the intonation just as you would a fretted bass. There will also be a bit of a "fudge factor" as you move up the neck, but it shouldn't be as wide as 1/4" nor should it be vastly different from string to string.

    With the intonation set perfectly at the 12th "fret", or position, on a fretless, you'll find yourself playing just a tad in front of the position down lower and just behind it up high. It won't be huge, though... just a little bit.
  6. strost


    Oct 2, 2008
    Blacksburg, VA
    Thanks all!

    Commence futzing....(or as some call it, "adjusting the intonation")
  7. Dbassmon


    Oct 2, 2004
    Rutherford, NJ
    Absolutely what others have stated - intonate that fretless bass.

    Here is the procedure. Tune the bass, hit the twelfth fret harmonic or half the length of the string. Then put you finger down directly over the octave dot. If the string is sharp, its too short, move the saddle back away from the bridge... opposite for flat.

    That being said, even a perfectly intonated fretless bass, requires that you use your ears. Micro variations in pitch are constantly being made by great fretless players. Practice two and three octave scales, preferably with a recording. I made a disc of every scale in every key in three octaves. It is a great practice aide.

    Once you gain some confidence and muscle memory and heightened awareness of pitch, you will love the expressiveness that gain from being able to create endless variations on ornaments to lines. You can add some huge attitude to your playing.
  8. strost


    Oct 2, 2008
    Blacksburg, VA
    Super helpful. Thanks!

    One stupid question. The bass has two dots at the 12 position. I've been assuming the octave should be between them. Is that right or is it the first dot? Sorry, I've never had an unlined before.
  9. lz4005


    Oct 22, 2013
    Should be between them. If you really want to get precise, measure exactly 17" from the nut and put a light pencil mark on the fingerboard as a reference.
  10. JTE


    Mar 12, 2008
    Central Illinois, USA
    Yep, find the center point of the scale, and put a light pencil mark there. On this bass that's 17" from the fingerboard-side of the nut. That's your 12th stop ("virtual fret"). Adjust the intonation just like you would for a fretted bass by comparing the 12th fret harmonic (or the open string, they're exact octaves if your strings are in good shape) to the stopped note at that stop.

    Some people use a credit card to stop it exactly at the line. I used to as well, but after a few years figured out that using my fingers exactly like I play the bass gave me a more consistent location along the whole neck. I also make sure I'm holding the bass in playing position when I check intonation. The weight of the headstock can be enough to throw the neck out just enough to make that slight intonation change that drives you crazy even if no one else hears it.

  11. Lo-E


    Dec 19, 2009
    Brooklyn, NY
    I totally agree. I've heard of the credit card trick, but since I've never played a gig using a credit card to play the notes I just set intonation with my fingers!
  12. strost


    Oct 2, 2008
    Blacksburg, VA
    So I did this last night and it's much better now. Thanks!

    The in-tune spot still rides a bit relative to the marker dots but I got it to be consistent across all the strings which is the important bit. Now I won't be (as) out of tune!

    Thanks again for all the help and advice!
  13. Bassisgood4U

    Bassisgood4U Banned

    Jan 30, 2014
    First intonate the open strings against the harmonics. Once those are set(use a tuner at least for now), think of your fingers as a slide(like you'd use on a guitar) with your fingers straight across the fingerboard. Make sure the side dots are precisely in the middle of your "fretting" fingertip. Every notes you check needs to be done this way, or you'll never be as accurate as needed. If you don't have dots where they should be, I don't know what to say about it, but at least that'll get you thinking.
  14. bassbenj


    Aug 11, 2009
    I use the credit card. Fingers can work but they are kind of fat in comparison and the "fretting" spot can vary according to the pressure you use etc.

    People often think that tuning doesn't matter so much on a fretless bass. Not so. Because of intonation it matters more. To intonate a fretless:

    1. Tune all strings VERY carefully and keep them in exact tune as you work.

    2. Harmonics can tell you where the 12th "fret" wiil be but you don't want to use that to tune. Use the card and tuner to press strings down and find exact octave when played. Mark it by each string.

    3. These marks will not be in an exact straight line! You can then adjust the saddles to PUT them in a straight line. You want to adjust the string saddles so the straight line is half way between the double dots of the octave side marker.

    4. Real strings are NOT perfect like theoretical strings and hence dividing them in half doesn't give an exact octave. The amount of discrepancy varies with the fattness of the wound strings. So if you now check the 24th fret octave you will find that that is now NOT in a straight line! You can ignore that OR you can kind of "split the differnce" between 12 and 24 depending on how much you play above the 12th fret.

    5. This intonates the bass. But because strings are not perfect if you experiment with the card and try notes at some other position across various strings you will observe there will be a slight variation from string to string. The line will NOT be straight. But differences are typically small. But you may want to note areas where you play a bit behind side markers or a bit ahead of them. Ears are final judge.
  15. SteveC

    SteveC Moderator Staff Member Supporting Member

    Nov 12, 2004
    North Dakota
    futzing will do it. In order for me with a new bass:

    New strings
    Adjust truss rod and string height if needed
    adjust saddles for pitch