Having trouble playing fretless bass with equal tempered instruments and starting songs out of tune.

Discussion in 'Technique [BG]' started by Said Bisher, Feb 4, 2021.

  1. Hello TB.
    I started playing bass three months ago. I went with a fretless for various reasons. I put in an average of about 20 hours of bass per week, so I haven't exactly made the most of those three months.

    With that in mind, here's the challenge I'm facing:
    When playing a song, as I start, the bass doesn't exactly sound "sweet". But as I continue to play it gets "sweeter". I have a few possible explanations for this:

    1. When I start playing, I'm dependent on fingerboard (scale, chord,etc) shapes entirely. But as I play over a progression, notes, scales, area of fingerboard etc, I adjust my fretting finger positions appropriately to result in a more just intonation.
    2. When I start playing, I'm out of tune with the other instruments (mostly guitars in backing tracks) and as I play I adjust and play in tune with these instruments (equal tempered).

    It usually takes me a few bars (two to six) to get to the "sweet" sound. It used to take much more but this is gradually improving.

    I have two questions:
    1. How do I play in tune with a fretted guitar? Because guitars are equal tempered, doesn't it mean that the more in tune I am with the guitar, the less in tune the bass is internally? (i.e intervals sound off) If I play right on the dots which is also just about right according to the tuner, I would imagine that that the intervals on the bass wouldn't sound as "sweet". It would basically be playing equal tempered on a fretless. I assume that there must be some kind of balance? A way of playing "sweet" intervals on the bass while also being in tune with the guitars and other instruments. How do you guys do it? Is it that this balance of being in tune with the guitars while also being in tune "internally" is what my ear interprets as "sweet"?

    ***I should mention that this is most relevant when playing music in which the bass dominates, such as reggae. In other genres I play, in which the bass isn't so central to the music, this sweetness, TO MY EAR, mostly comes from being in tune with the guitar, rather than attempting to have just intonation.

    2. How do I play intervals in tune right from the first beat? Slow intros help make this issue less noticeable, because I can use vibrato as a cover up. But this isn't always an option.

    3. How do I use the information from your responses to the above to improve my playing by reducing the number of bars before the sweetness kicks in?

    4. Is all this just compromise? Would fretless basses sound way better with fretless guitars and other fretless instruments (the oud comes to mind)?

    PLEASE don't tell me to just play by ear because that's exactly what I've been doing, or at least trying to do. Don't get me wrong, it helps. But, I was hoping for something more helpful. Like what to focus on when playing by ear. Or is it just too simple or too complex to explain further than, "Play by ear, what works, works"

    PS: Most people (who don't play music and fellow amateurs) who listen can't tell that sound is off at the start of the song. But when the sweetness kicks in, they definitely feel it. I'm guessing that if I had a music teacher or knew someone with a good ear, he/she would clear this up in no time. But, alas, I do not know any musicians and I can't really afford to take classes right now. So the TB community is all I've got to go on, they haven't let me down so far:D.
    PsyDocHill and mexicant like this.
  2. mexicant


    Aug 28, 2012
    Mid Michigan,USA
    Try to start off with open strings that are in tune with the other guitars. That is what I do. Then try to match the open notes to the closed notes. And playing by the dots on the neck isnt always going to work. Use your ear more and your eyes less. Good luck!
    mcnach, Kubicki Fan, Luigir and 3 others like this.
  3. SteveCS


    Nov 19, 2014
    Hampshire, UK
    First up, intonation of any fretted instrument is a compromise, so I wouldn't get too bent out of shape if you feel you are being too 'accomodating'. As for true 'just' intonation, most guitars don't come close. If and when you get a horn/brass section then it may become more important. As for the dots/lines on the fingerboard, they will never be more than a reasonable approximation, IMHO/IME.

    But the main point is that good intonation doesn't happen over night. Here's my £0.02.

    IME, intonation is a function of two elements;
    1. Knowing what 'in tune; sounds like, and
    2. Putting your finger down in the right place, time and again.
    On point 1, from what you say, you have a good sensitive ear, which means you are at least a few steps ahead of the game here. But really, you have to develop your internal sense of 'in tune' to the point that you are really intolerant of anything even slightly out of tune. In practical term that means ±3 cents. If you accept something like ±8 or 10 cents as an internal baseline then you will struggle with the next element.

    On point 2, the key is 'posture'. By which I don't mean standing with one foot on the wedge whilst pointing to the ceiling and gurning a demon face! It is about how you hold your hand. It is tempting to think only about the position of each fingertip in relation to the string and the pitch you are producing. IMHO this is a mistake. The most important thing is the position of the hand. Specifically the spatial relationships between the instrument, the arm, thumb, the hand and the fingertips, as follows;
    1. The positions of the notes on the fingerboard exist in simple ratio to each other. The hand should be positioned in such a way that the fingertips can locate the notes, according to the simple ratio, on any string within the position without distorting or contorting the overall shape of the hand.
      1. Pad of the thumb in the middle of the back of the neck, pointing somewhere between perpendicular and 45° to the centreline
      2. Wrist below and behind the thumb
      3. A nice smooth curve from the back of the wrist all the way around to the fingertip, which should approach the fingerboard so that you touch with more tip than pad.
      4. No knuckles should be collapsed or reverse-locked.
    2. With the hand and fingertips working as a single unit, the shoulder, elbow and forearm (not the wrist) are used to move the hand up and down the fingerboard, and the thumb is used to reliably locate and stabilise the hand in a position.
    3. Now, for any given position, you have to train your fingertips to find the notes without changing the overall shape of the hand. Due to the simple ratio relationship of notes, the fingertips can be positioned and spaced in relation to each other according to the simple ratio, where the overall span of the fingers is dictated by the position of the hand in relation to the instrument, i.e. where the thumb is placed - smaller as you go up and larger as you go down, but always in the same ratio.
    4. You should practice finding the notes in each position for a all of the 3-note methods (1-2-4, 1-2-3 and 1-3-4) and the 4-note (OFPF) method. If you are having to change the shape of the hand then try to reposition the thumb on the instrument rather than adjust the fingers around the thumb.
    5. As you get more advanced, you can introduce thumb pivots and forwards and backwards extensions, but I would suggest not until the default position is ingrained.
    In time you will get to know how each position feels and where it is on the instrument, and you will start to trust your thumb to locate it. It helps to use a good strap or consistent seating position that can reliably set and hold the instrument on your body in exactly the same position at all times. Once in a position, the hand shape is used to place the fingertips according to the known spatial relationship with full confidence that they will be 'in tune'. But none of this works without a highly critical tight-tolerance sense of 'close enough'.

    One final note - if you can't quite hit the pitch perfectly every time, it is always preferrable to start slightly (i.e. a few cents) flat and approach pitch from below that to start slightly sharp and approach pitch from above.

  4. JeezyMcNuggles


    Feb 23, 2018
    Santa Maria, CA
    I suck, but nobody really notices
    Well, playing on the dots is going to make you out of tune. You need to play exactly where the fret is supposed to be. Or, at least where your bridge saddles are set to tell it exactly where the fret is supposed to be on each string. Play with a tuner man. Stay in tune. I suggest getting a lined fretless. There's a reason why Fender named the electric bass, "The Precision Bass"
    He put frets on it.
    ashtray, EricssonB and Les Fret like this.
  5. Les Fret

    Les Fret

    Sep 9, 2009
    Do you have a lined or unlined bass? If unlined play on the side dots. If lined play on the fretlines.
  6. Mushroo

    Mushroo Supporting Member

    Apr 2, 2007
    Massachusetts, USA
    You should always practice in tune with equal temperment i.e. the fret lines on your bass i.e. the tuner says you are "in tune."

    If you are practicing deliberately "out of tune" with equal temperment (i.e. you are "sweetening" the intervals) then that's going to screw you up big-time when you play with other musicians.

    A really good way to start the song in tune, is to use a digital tuner pedal that "mutes" the signal. Step on the tuner to mute the signal, check that your first note is in tune, and then step on the tuner again to un-mute. You'll be ready to go, and your first note will be in tune.

    tl;dr Stop practicing "sweet" and start practicing "in tune" with your tuner.
    Last edited: Feb 4, 2021
  7. Samatza


    Apr 15, 2019
    It takes time and playing with others to develop a sense of tuning, dots and lines get you in the ballpark but your fingertips are soft so you really need to use your ears.

    When I bought my first fretless it took about six months of solid gigging and persistence to get a good feel for it.
    jallenbass and JettBlaq like this.
  8. You have to shoot for what would be the fretline, unless your fretless has lines on the frets.
    If you aim for the dot, it's in the middle of the frets, you'll always be flat and consistently at least.

    As said above open strings can indeed help.

    I've been playing fretless for over 40 years, and even then some days seem more succesful than others.
    Also I'd suggest using your ears and not looking at the fingerboard.

    Good luck,
    gebass6 likes this.
  9. misterCRUSH

    misterCRUSH It's all jazz...it's ALL jazz... Supporting Member

    Dec 27, 2015
    All of the above suggestions are all really good, especially the post about hand and body positioning. I thought of something else that hasn't been mentioned yet, and that is to take your bass to a good shop and have them check it's intonation. It could very well be that your fingers are hitting the right spots, but the bass's intonation is off and then you are subliminally compensating with your hand to be more in tune. This usually isn't very expensive to do, and is worth it to know that you have a bass that is intonated correctly.
  10. OP, you are supposing that what you perceive as "sweetness" has to do with intonation. All other posters here have supposed your supposition is correct. But what if it isn't?

    What if your perceived "sweetness" is, for instance, good tone? You say the "sweetness" kicks in after a few bars, and it used to be longer. That to me is consistent with it being a tone issue. You've come this far, a few more months of dedicated work may even solve your problem entirely.

    Do you have a smartphone? Can you shoot a video of yourself playing? It might make it easier for all of us to know what's really going on.
  11. SteveCS


    Nov 19, 2014
    Hampshire, UK
    The term 'sweetening' is most commonly associated with intonation - sharpening the leading tone and/or major third a little, or flattening the minor third, are typical 'sweeteners'.
    Papageno, gebass6 and Bushmaster like this.
  12. I know! But that doesn't make it necessarily true in this case. I'd say, given the OP's beginner status, and the fact that months of practice have given a noticeable improvement, and the fact some outsiders can hear it, that it could be intonation, could be tone, and maybe other things as well.
    gebass6 and SteveCS like this.
  13. SteveCS


    Nov 19, 2014
    Hampshire, UK
    Agree. The real problem at this stage of the game will be consistency in all of those things. Even a badly set or damaged string with high inharmonicity can play aural tricks that make us believe our intonation is off.
    Kubicki Fan and instrumentalist like this.
  14. devnulljp

    devnulljp Supporting Member

    Oct 13, 2009
    BC, Canada
    Admin on the D*A*M Forum
    use open strings as guides
    Put a visual always on tuner in line and chec your tuning before you start -- that's what I did when I started playing upright. Still have 3 tuners on hand ... a TU12 and a strobe on the board and a clip on I use to triple check.
    The TU-12 is great for keeping things straight

  15. drumvsbass


    Aug 20, 2011
    Last edited: Feb 4, 2021
  16. bfields


    Apr 9, 2015
    Ann Arbor, MI
    Yes. Or it could be something none of us have thought of. Or it could even be entirely subjective--maybe it just takes a little time for your ears to lock in on the sound of your bass and the backing recording.

    Also agreed, recording yourself somehow is a great idea. If you're not comfortable sharing it, it would be useful even just to listen back yourself.

    When you're playing you're so focused on the playing that it can be surprisingly hard to listen carefully. Listening to a recording can give you a more objective (or at least a different) perspective.
  17. aprod


    Mar 11, 2008
    Sounds like you need to learn how to tune your bass. Maybe get a fretted bass and get familiar with where the notes are on the bass. It sounds like you are trying to run before you can walk.
  18. Killing Floor

    Killing Floor Supporting Member

    Feb 7, 2020
    Austin, TX
    Mostly been said already. I like to practice with a tuner running sometimes. OK, I don't really like it. But I do it.
    When I am playing with other musicians I find my own intonation is way better than when I am playing alone. You can only assume the first note is in tune with everyone else. But if you're within a few cents you are within the range of a chord as it's being struck. So first, don't panic. You're playing a lot.
    My fully garbage advice is to practice at home landing your position with a tuner on. Start fingers off and hit your mark repeatedly. Then when you're with your group focus on them instead of your left hand. My bet is you'll relax and your brain will police your left hand into pitch. Don't get frustrated.
    Said Bisher and misterCRUSH like this.
  19. ficelles


    Feb 28, 2010
    Devon, England
    Dude 3 months on fretless bass and you're worried? Don't be because you already passed the most important test of playing any fretless instrument - you know when you're off tune. So the fact that you know that means you have the pitch sense you need to be a good fretless player, but you need to keep at it for a whole lot longer and practice every day. I've been playing fretless for decades and still have off moments. Other than that, all the advice given here about tuning, setting up the intonation etc is good. Also if your bass has side dots or whatever find out if they are where the frets would be or in-between where the frets would be as that's important. But whatever else you do, keep playing! And trust your ears.
  20. BarfanyShart


    Sep 19, 2019
    DC Metro
    practicing scales and arpeggios while checking against the open strings is how DB players get it down, and it takes years to get to the point that you just reach out with your eyes closed and grab a note perfectly in tune. My suggestion for getting your ear tuned up is to focus whatever technique exercises your are doing in one key per day, and just do all the technique stuff for that day in one key. A lot of people do just the opposite and try to do all their exercises in every key each day, but for me, personally, that always seemed counterproductive to developing a good sense of intonation.

    But, seriously, it takes time. You are always going to adjust pitch after sounding each note, but over time you will be able to get it so close to the right pitch and make the adjustment so quickly that nobody could hear it as a mistake.

    Also, fretless vibrato, where you rotate from the forearm (classical strings style) - if you can get goodish at that, then you can obscure the exact pitch at the start of a note in spots where your (possibly poor) intonation will be exposed. Don't want to overdo that kind of thing, but it can be done regularly.
    Said Bisher likes this.
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