Fretless vs. Fretted: Newbie Questions

Discussion in 'Basses [BG]' started by neoslimdog, Apr 21, 2005.

  1. Hi,

    I'm a guitar and violin player for many years looking to start playing the bass seriously, and I'd like to know the differences and advantages of each type of bass.

    As a violin is not fretted, I know the intonation difficulty of playing the fretless, but other than this, what are the main tonal and technique differences - esp. what types of sounds are NOT possible with a fretless but are possible with a fretted?

    I'm also looking to purchase a bass soon and am looking at the Warwick Corvette standard basses - are these a good buy as a first instrument (since I am pretty serious I thought I'd just get a solid instrument the first time round)? I find the idea of playing fretless very appealing, but everyone I've talked to has recommended AGAINST buying a fretless as a first instrument. However, I've tried out a friend's fretless, and it does not seem overly hard to grasp the intonation with a bit of practice. What should I do? Should I:

    a) Buy a solid/quality bass like the Warwick WITH frets and learn the basics on this, then see what happens.


    b) Buy a solid/quality bass like the Warwick FRETLESS and jump into the deep end.

    Is there any need (eventually) for both types of basses? Or would buying and learning a fretless properly render a fretted bass useless?

    Sorry for the long post,
  2. Eli M.

    Eli M. Life's like a movie, write your own ending

    Jul 24, 2004
    New York, NY
    First of all, welcome to TB. There have been several good threads on this subject - do a search and you'll find some useful information, although I'll try to answer your specific questions.

    I wouldn't necessarily recommend against a fretless as a first bass. It depends on what you want to do. The main thing a fretless is good for is if you want that "mwah" sound - a horn-like singing quality. It also gives you a smooth glissando, and the ability to use more vibrato.
    A fretted bass is often better suited for slapping, if that's what you'd like to do (you can slap on a fretless, but it sounds a bit different - most slap bass parts you've probably heard have been on fretted basses).

    If you want an idea of what a fretless bass can do, here are my two favorite fretless albums:
    Jaco Pastorius - Jaco Pastorius
    Paul Simon - Graceland (bassist - Bakithi Kumalo)

    Two very different styles of bass playing, two different bass tones. In my opinion, Jaco is very good at using the bass as a melodic instrument - that's another thing that fretless works great for. In a couple of songs on the album, though, he plays his fretless like a fretted bass - none of the characteristic glissandos or mwah.

    Kumalo, on the other hand, loves to use glissandos all over the place. His tone is all about the mwah - my mom thought it was a tuba :) . On Graceland, you'll also find examples of fretless slapping.

    In terms of difficulty, since you play violin, I expect intonation wouldn't be a problem. (There are also probably dozens of past threads on the "lined vs. unlined fretless" debate, do a search for those too if that's a question you have).

    As for the Warwick Corvette... I'm not a fan of fretted Warwicks (personal preference, they're still good instruments). I do like the fretless Corvette - I've played a few.

    Again, welcome to TalkBass. And by the way, I first came here looking for fretless information too.
  3. Hi Eli,

    Thanks for the detailed reply. I'll check out those two albums. One thing you did mention sparked my interest - I am definitely interested in the bass as a melodic instrument, although I assume it is possible with both types of basses?

    In terms of players - do most players just specialise in ONE type or do most advanced players eventually learn to play both? In other words, would you consider them two variations of the same instruments or very different instruments to be learned separately?

  4. Eli M.

    Eli M. Life's like a movie, write your own ending

    Jul 24, 2004
    New York, NY
    Yes, melodic playing is possible with both types, although... here's where it gets hard to explain. When I sit behind a fretless bass, a more melodic playing style happens. Maybe it's because of my background as a singer, I don't know. Maybe it's because of the lack of frets, so I can do more vocally-oriented things like glissandos and vibrato. I guess it's something you have to observe - listen to some fretless playing and you'll see what I mean.

    For your second question... Pretty much every bass guitarist knows how to play the fretted bass, and many also play fretless. The two players I mentioned above are known for their fretless playing, but they also play(ed) fretted bass (I think Kumalo started on a fretless, but I'm not completely sure). I'm not sure how many players who learned on fretted also learn fretless - maybe other people can chime in here and answer that question.
  5. You're an experienced musician with violin training. I can't imagine that you'd have a problem starting out on a fretless. I just played a Corvette standard for the first time last weekend and I really liked it. I think it would be a good match for what you're looking to do. A lot of people play both; any "specialists" would likely be fretted bass specialists. Welcome to TB and have fun!
  6. Hi,

    Thanks for the warm welcome, these forums are great! I've learned so much in the last few days just from reading the discussions.

    Is it a myth that one can play a lot faster on the fretted bass than the fretless? Thinking about it, I can understand the logic (i.e. no need to have exact placing) but I'm sure doing shifting exercises and a lot of practice would eventually mean similar skill levels on both instruments?

    What about sustain? I understand that with the piece of metal there it might 'ring' for longer but... fretless basses still have reasonable sustain right? I.e. would this issue be more about how your left hand is placed/vibrato as opposed to the fretted/fretless difference?

    And now a question for all fretless/fretted bass guitar players: Which do you play more? Why? Which did you start on/why did you eventually pick up the other as well?


    EDIT: Hi I just listened to some Jaco Pastorius, and I think I'm starting to pin down the fretless tone. It sounds more... 'bubbly' huh? Is it possible to get that smooth/creamy sound out of a fretless? Or is that more of a fretted sound?
  7. BurningSkies

    BurningSkies CRAZY BALDHEAD

    Feb 20, 2005
    Seweracuse, NY
    I find that I play my fretless for different musical settings than my fretted bass. The fretless takes a while for the notes to open up and 'bloom', which is nice for some things, but not good for settings where I need fast punchy response.

    For reference, I have a fretless Jazz...but usually play fretted 'Jazz" type basses.
  8. form52


    Mar 17, 2005
    I learned on a Doublebass when I was 12, but my first bass 'guitar' was fretted. I stuck with that for a couple years then learned of fretless basses. I think it was because I had learned on an upright that I had no problem getting used to the fretless. Your experience with the violin may give you a similar advantage.

    I would try out a lined fretless and clean board fretless and see which is more comfortable to you. But.. fretted has it's advantages as well. Fretted basses can carry a much brighter sound which many bass players long for (myself included) if you want examples of this Check out John Patitucci or Especialy Victor Wooten! Slaping and tapping sound much better (in my opinion) on fretted basses.

    The two offer two different sounds and aproach.
    I grab one of my frettless basses for slower more melodic songs and the fretted ones for faster more aggresive songs.

    Eventually.. a lot of bassists want both just for the range of sounds that you can't get with just one or the other.

    If you feel comfortable playing a fretless. . . go for it. There's really no "right bass" to learn on as long as you learn the correct way. (scales, theory, technique... and so on).

    good luck and let us know which you choose.

    with pics.
  9. Snarf


    Jan 23, 2005
    New York, NY
    For some contrast to Jaco's fretless tone, check out Trip Wamsley on Magnatunes ( He plays Zon fretless basses (along with others I'm sure), and they have a much clearer, ringier tone than Jaco's jazz.

    As for faster playing, it really doesn't matter which bass you play. A fretless may take more practice to get right, but generally I'm equally fast on both fretted and fretless basses.
  10. tplyons


    Apr 6, 2003
    Madison, NJ
    Against common sense, if you intend to play fretless, buy a cheapie used fretted bass first, get some technique down, build up muscles, then go for the Warwick fretless. It IS a lot more strenuous to play an electric bass.

    As an upright bass player, I find that fretless and double bass are similar, but different monsters at the same time. While vibrato is very common on stringed instruments, it can be done on fretted instrument by bending the strings laterally instead of longitudinally as you would on a violin.

    And also, getting technique down on a fretted bass is much more difficult, but is better in the long run. Jaco, the fretless master said it himself, he practiced on his fretted basses because it was more difficult to do properly, but performed fretless.

    I find it important to play both.
  11. lowphatbass

    lowphatbass ****

    Feb 25, 2005
    west coast
    Welcome to bass playing!!
    My two cents are as follows:
    For many musicians the challenge switching to bass from other instrument is not technical, but conceptual. The ability to first understand and apply your roll as a BASS player should be primary. This roll varies with the style of music, but keep in mind your "job", which is to provide the sonic foundation and often times a rhythmic pulse as well. If playing bass in a "traditional" setting I would recommend a fretted bass, Warwick is a fine choice. My reason for recommending a fretted bass: It is easier to intonate allowing you to spend more energy on the correct tonic, even tempo and solid consistant attack, all of which are paramount to effective bass playing...Once again, welcome!!!
  12. Hi,

    Thanks for the replies. So, why is technique HARDER on a fretted? I am seeing the logic in starting with a fretted bass first (not worrying about intonation means working on right hand technique etc.), so eventually I will go in a store and try both styles.

    If I DO choose to learn slapping/popping - that pretty much means playing fretted right? (since is it true fretless is mostly played finger style?)

  13. bigcatJC


    Jul 9, 2004
    I think tplyons was talking about Jaco saying left hand technique being harder on a fretted involves placing your fingertips as close to the fret as possible. On a fretted bass you can play with sloppy technique (anywhere between the frets), but the note will still be in tune - Whereas the same sloppy technique on a fretless will get you dirty looks from your bandmates! In other words, there's many places to finger a note on a fretted bass and be in tune, but only one spot on a fretless. Proper fingering on the fretted can give you a clean, non-fret-rattling sound (listen to Jeff Berlin and you'll hear what this left-hand sounds like).

    My advice to you is to start on fretless if you want to. If you've played violin, you should have decent ears, and the ability to read music is a HUGE plus. The only disadvantage I see is learning to play in tune at the same time you're getting used to right hand technique AND building your hand strength. But as long as you're starting a new instrument anyway...might as well learn it all at once!

    Whether you start on fretted or fretless, I suggest starting cheap. These days, you can spend in the $300-$400 range and get an instrument you can learn on AND is actually worth playing until you decide to upgrade. Hope this helps.
  14. EricTheEZ1


    Nov 23, 2004
    Clawson, MI
    As for slapping on a fretless bass, it's harder and sounds 100% completely different. I'd say 100% of the slapping you've heard is on a fretted bass.

    Also, not sure if this has been covered, but pretty much 99% of all ROCK music is on a fretted bass. Fretless basses usually can't get the naturally gritty, powerful sounds that a fretted bass can get. You'd have to do major EQ changes to get a true rock tone out of fretted.

    I also suggest looking into cheaper basses. If you went the RondoMusic way you could get a fretted and a fretless bass for probably less than $300 shipped. Just to try and get playing well at both. If you've decided exactly which one you want; they resale extremely well. Usually at the same price you paid.

    Anyway you go, research DEEP into exactly what tone you're looking for as electronics (preamp/controls), pickups, scale length, number of strings, and even wood can play major factors in how your bass feels, plays, and sounds.

    Good Luck.
  15. lowphatbass

    lowphatbass ****

    Feb 25, 2005
    west coast
    I don't think I'm stretching it to say that the majority if bass guitar is played on fretted instruments, that is a good reason to go fretted. The other compelling factor is the solid and consistant attack, volume and tone that most would agree is favourable, and even required to play bass effectively. It can be done on fretless but requires more practice and natural ability. The good news here is that you may posess the natural ability, the bad news is your learning curve will most likely be elongated. The end result is, if you are patient, willing to put in alot of work, and will be spending time playing a musical style that will greatly benefit from that fretless sound you can become a great asset to your fellow musicians w/ a fretless. Follow your instincts...the nice thing is just because you make your bed a certain way, you don't have to lie in it forever..
  16. Ok, thanks a LOT everyone for your really helpful replies. I realise now the different characteristics of each and in truth that I will probably eventually try both. So I am just going to go into a couple of stores (I live in NZ so I'll have to do with what's in stock), try both fretless and fretted basses and go by instinct like you guys said.

    I'll report back 'bout how it goes.

  17. lhoward


    Apr 27, 2003
    Western NY State
    As far as whether you start with fretless or fretted, I'd consider where you're coming from. When I started on electric bass, I'd been playing double bass for about 20 years. The fretless electric has alway felt more comfortable for me. I think the fretted bass can be as much of a challenge for someone who learned on a fretless instrument as the fretless seems for someone who started on fretted one. At least I find that true for myself in going from fretless to fretted.

    About your comment on fretless being primarily finger style, I'd say that's probably true, but I'd suggest you also give a listen to Michael Manring regarding his fretless concept and sound. Whereas I'd say most finger-style, fretless players aren't fond of slap, for example Gary Willis, who is an exceptional player, Manring can get some very interesting things with slap on his bass. If you get a fretless first, the Warwick is a quality instrument that should server you well. The world of fretted basses gives you choices of 4+ strings. So do fretless, but not to the same extent. A nice 4-string fretted bass that I have and use frequently is an Ibanez SR300DX that has a low action and plays great. I think I paid about $218 for it new. Where I've only had one fretless bass (it gives me what I want), I find I've experimented with fretted basses alot. Between a 5 and 6 string fretted, I'm actually more comfortable with the 6 string, although I haven't bought one yet, just borrowed one from a friend.

    However you decide to start, electric bass is a great instrument and you'll have great fun and satisfaction. Enjoy!
  18. Suburban


    Jan 15, 2001
    lower mid Sweden
    Actually: perfect intonation! Because you seldom find a fretted bass with more than one fret om the exacpt right position. And you can compensate where the tempered tuning is less accurate, if there are no pitstops.

    I say b). Coming from trumpet, guitar and contrabass, I went for fretless from the start. I hve never been really comfortable with fretted bass guitars, since then. I can't make them sound right, and I can't maintain a proper technique on them. I get sloppy and lose intonation on fretless, and have to re-train over again.

    Only when I want a really sparkly and brutal attack, I put my fretless away for my fretted BassLab. I never touch the P, any more.

    BTW, welcome onboard, and enjoy! (Both Talkbass and bass playing)
  19. Hi,

    Yeah, you brought up one reason why I originally found the fretless to be appealing. Since I've been playing guitar I've been really annoyed that I couldn't achieve perfect intonation and that no matter how I tweaked the guitar there was just something "not right". I never had this problem on the violin as I think you adjust where you put your fingers by ear, whereas on a fretted you can't change it at all once you start playing (i.e. no one adjusts their intonation mid-song on their bridge). So right now, it's about 70% fretless and 30% fretted for me.

    This is not really in the right forum, but since I'm continuing on the same line of thought I'll ask it here. With regards to a bass amp - many people say just go ahead and get a 300W-400W combo amp so that you don't have to upgrade for a long time. What if I'm on a budget? Is it possible to get acceptable sound from a small practice amp (for the entire frequency range of the bass)? Or would it just not do a bass justice (e.g. a $1000 US+ bass) to put it through a small practice amp?

  20. I don't think a little practice amp will deliver the sound you're looking for. I favor high powered combo's that will accept an extension speaker, but that's me. If you run direct and use the practice amp as your stage monitor, you might be okay with a practice amp but I don't think I'd bother.