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How plausible is a converting fretted/fretless bass?

Discussion in 'Luthier's Corner' started by Taylor Livingston, Jun 7, 2003.


  1. Taylor Livingston

    Taylor Livingston Supporting Member Commercial User

    Dec 25, 2002
    Louisiana, US
    Owner, Iron Ether Electronics
    After the rubber fret thing (bad idea to start a thread like that a week after registering), I'm a little wary of asking about this, but here goes...

    Is it possible that there will ever be a bass that converts from fretted to fretless with the flick of a switch? Would there be any way to put mechanical apparati in the neck that could raise and lower the frets? Graphite would make it less likely to fall apart from not being solid. Maybe a hollow composite neck like BassLab basses? It seems very awkward to have a doubleneck fretted/fretless if there was some way to develop a converting bass. Anyway, let me know your opinions from a luthiery and engineering POV.
     
  2. FretNoMore

    FretNoMore * Cooking with GAS *

    Jan 25, 2002
    The frozen north
  3. Taylor Livingston

    Taylor Livingston Supporting Member Commercial User

    Dec 25, 2002
    Louisiana, US
    Owner, Iron Ether Electronics
    !!!

    I am amazed on a consistent basis at how genius Ned Steinberger is. More of these must be made! Thanks, FNM (Billy Gould? ;) )
     
  4. Richard Lindsey

    Richard Lindsey

    Mar 25, 2000
    Metro NYC
    I played one of those once. Played like **** and was impossible to set up; my guess is that was because you didn't have the FB lending strength to the neck, but what do I know, I'm not a luthier ....
     
  5. pilotjones

    pilotjones Supporting Member

    Nov 8, 2001
    US-NY-NYC
    They were called "SwichBoards," if you'd like to try a search.
     
  6. "Novatone Switchboards", if that helps...I couldn't remember the "Switchboard" part, but did remember "Novatone" for some reason.

    Mike
     
  7. Taylor Livingston

    Taylor Livingston Supporting Member Commercial User

    Dec 25, 2002
    Louisiana, US
    Owner, Iron Ether Electronics
    I just did some searching, and, apparently, the switchable fretboards were not terribly well-done. I say we petition Ned to make a graphite-necked bass with the retractable frets. Anybody in?
     
  8. pilotjones

    pilotjones Supporting Member

    Nov 8, 2001
    US-NY-NYC
    You might note from the web page cited that

    -NS didn't remember it
    -it was made after the sale to Gibson
    -so maybe he didn't have anything to do with it??
    -it is said to sound bad (at least that prototype)

    It seems to me that retracting normally crowned frets until they are flush with the board surface would leave a very irregular surface, which would be just what you would not want on a fretless. So maybe squared, flat-topped frets were used? If so, these could potentially give you a nice, flat surface if retracted just right. But I would guess they would be pretty harsh on your hands when raised to play fretted.
     
  9. Taylor Livingston

    Taylor Livingston Supporting Member Commercial User

    Dec 25, 2002
    Louisiana, US
    Owner, Iron Ether Electronics
    I considered the shape of the frets, too. My guess is they were not very wide [not as wide as typical bass frets, more like the "mandolin" frets some guy (Lee Sklar?) has on his bass]. Probably flat on the top.

    It's odd that he doesn't remember it, and maybe he really was not involved, but, with all the things he's done, I wouldn't be surprised if some of the less well-known innovations were less well-known to him as well. But even if he didn't do it (especially, actually) I think he has the ability to do one out of graphite and have it come out well. But I'm not a luthier, or engineer, so what do I know? It's a cool idea, though, and I think it would be worth pursuing.
     
  10. Richard Lindsey

    Richard Lindsey

    Mar 25, 2000
    Metro NYC
    My bias is that although it sounds like a nifty space age idea, it would take some pretty tricky engineering to come up with something that, at least on the fretless side, probably wouldn't feel or play half as well an average garden variety $600 fretless. Think about the exactitude with which the frets would have to rise and fall to avoid high frets in fretted mode and an irregular surface in fretless mode. Think about what fret wear would do to your fretless mode. Think about the possibilities for the mechanism to get out of whack (the closer the tolerances, the easier it would be to slip out of spec).

    For me it would seem far more trouble than it's worth. YMMV, as always.
     
  11. pilotjones

    pilotjones Supporting Member

    Nov 8, 2001
    US-NY-NYC
    From this engineer's point of view, there are a great number of factors that would make it near impossible to do well. Not looking to rain on any parades, but I will gladly elaborate on what I see to be some of the difficulties, if anyone is interested.
     
  12. JP Basses

    JP Basses

    Mar 22, 2002
    Paris FRANCE
    Awlays interested in what you have to say Pete!!
    I can too see many things that would make it hardly doable!!

    In a french music show some years ago a crazy old guy came with an all metal, butterfly shaped bass that you could lower the frets by moving the butterfly wings (could you guess taht ?:D)

    This was a total mess of course but I have to add that even the "standard" instruments of his were completly unplayable.

    Peace, JP
     
  13. FretNoMore

    FretNoMore * Cooking with GAS *

    Jan 25, 2002
    The frozen north
    Hmm. New facts emerge with every post.

    So Mr W. is French, and he used to work in metal.

    :D
     
  14. JP Basses

    JP Basses

    Mar 22, 2002
    Paris FRANCE
    lol

    you don't know how much this french guy cale to my mind again when I saw Wish's work!!!

    JP
     
  15. pilotjones

    pilotjones Supporting Member

    Nov 8, 2001
    US-NY-NYC
    Hopefully without too much depth to bore anyone (pagedown can be your best friend!), here are the problems I see that would have to be overcome:

    1. Fretless surface quality:
    For a fretless to play right, the surface must be dead smooth. I am not a fretless player, but I have played a bass where the inlaid lines were pushing out the fingerboard finish coat (due to shrinkage of the board, but not the lines) by only a thousandth of an inch or two, and not only could you feel it, but it ruined the tone. Therefor my conclusion is as follows (see (2) below):

    2. Fret form:
    As a result of (1) above, this would mean that the frets would have to exactly match the fingerboard when retracted. I believe the only way to do this would be to sand the finished fretboard with the frets in place, retracted. This might be doable. However, this would result in square frets. This I believe would be very uncomfortable to play when raised, and perhaps even cut your hand.

    This discomfort might be minimized by raising them just barely above the fretboard. But, this would result in you having to fret very close the the fret. Thus it would require a change in technique from normal fretted playing, instead of being "just like playing a normal fretless, then just playing a normal fretted."

    Further, with a dead square fret, the witness point would occur at the "back" edge of the frets (away from the bridge) - until the frets wore in, and the witness point would move the the "front" of the frets. Intonation catastrophe! Plus, the more worn frets would be one way, and the rarely-use frets would be the other way. !!!

    All this is the reason crowned frets are the norm.

    3. Action height differential
    The bridge saddles, combined with the neck relief, set the action height. Without getting into the problems with neck relief on an instrument like this, consider that the action height in fretted mode would be by necessity lower than the action height in fretless mode, by the amount of the distance of the projection of the frets. (This is if you used a fixed nut. The situation would be somewhat different, but mostly similar, if using a zero fret) Now, consider that one height may be the "perfect" height for playing fretless, and another height is "perfect" for playing fretted. The only way you can get both of these right is if a) your desired fretless height is higher than your desired fretted height, and if at the same time b) you are able to raise the frets by that exact distance, and have a playable bass (i.e. not ridiculously high or low frets).

    4. Mechanical issues
    Without getting too deep into specifics, these are the general problem areas:
    a) it would be difficult to raise the frets evenly across the length of the neck, with both ends raised the same amount, to keep the frets parallel to the neck surface. I think it's doable, but it might be tough to make the mechanism small enough (see (4d)).
    b) all components, whether joints in linkages or any gears or screws would have to be zero-backlash in order to maintain both alignment and repeatability.
    c) all these components would have to be of materials that would have no significant wear over the intended life of the instrument, in order to maintain conditions (4a) and (4b).
    d) all this stuff would have to fit inside a neck - not only all the moving parts, but also all their mounting components
    e) both the neck and fretboard, and the frets and whatever thay are mounted to, would have to be very rigid in order to maintain their physical relationships despite the changing forces due to playing, and due to thermal and possibly humidity changes.
     
  16. pilotjones

    pilotjones Supporting Member

    Nov 8, 2001
    US-NY-NYC
    4.
    f) The equipment required by (4a) - (4c), and possibly (4e), is not at all cheap.
     
  17. Taylor Livingston

    Taylor Livingston Supporting Member Commercial User

    Dec 25, 2002
    Louisiana, US
    Owner, Iron Ether Electronics
    Well, there you have it! Thanks for the input guys. Too bad; maybe one day!
     
  18. pilotjones

    pilotjones Supporting Member

    Nov 8, 2001
    US-NY-NYC
    For what it's worth, the Novatone SwitchBoards concept might be doable if someone tried it using a graphite composite neck. I think the key would be to make a neck that has sufficient structural rigidity even without the fretboard on, and then just add the fretboard.
    In a conventional neck, the fretboard carries a nearly all of the compressive load caused by the bending moment caused by the string tension.
     
  19. Suburban

    Suburban

    Jan 15, 2001
    lower mid Sweden
    Well, Pete, thanks for the elaboration. Very enlightening, indeed.

    The major issue is to get the proper action for the different modes. Usually, you want lower action without frets, and that would impose major difficulties.

    Finally, I have to state, as being a mech engineer:
    it is doable! One could make this equipment.

    However, nobody would be interested in bying it - "pricey" would suddenly get a new meaning:rolleyes:

    And it would be very heavy and/or misbalanced.

    But impressive...
     
  20. Tim Barber

    Tim Barber Commercial User

    Apr 28, 2003
    Serenity Valley
    Owner: Barber Music
    I seem to recall seeing a bass with wedge-shaped steps in the FB instead of frets. I wonder if you could adapt that to some kind of cam-activated system? Like this maybe:

    [​IMG]

    Just a thought. Now stop browsing TB and get back to work! ;)