Lined or Unlined - Which fretless neck is more popular?

Discussion in 'Basses [BG]' started by TriumphRider99, Feb 26, 2024.

Lined Fretless or Unlined?

Poll closed Mar 27, 2024.
  1. Lined...

    107 vote(s)
  2. Unlined...

    86 vote(s)
  1. TriumphRider99

    TriumphRider99 Supporting Member

    Feb 28, 2013
    Eugene Oregon
    Hi -

    My question is directed to luthiers more experienced than I am in defretting basses.

    I am a rank amateur who specializes in modifying and upgrading Sterling by MusicMan (SBMM) Ray4 and Ray5 basses. At or around this price point, there are almost no good playing good sounding fretless basses, so I feel I am addressing a niche, however minor.

    Generally, what I do (only to rosewood neck basses), is to change all the hardware to black, change the pickup to either the GFS MM pickup, Aguilar 4 or 5 M, or (most commonly) the Nordstrand MM4.2 or 5.2, and replace the preamp with a clone of the original pre-EB Stingray 2-band preamp. I also defret the bass, and usually cover up the lines and dots.

    I have been a bass player for over 50 years and now play mostly unlined fretless bass, so my bias is to create unlined fretless necks on these projects.

    At the moment, I am studying under John Clarity who creates mostly lined fretless defrets, so it made me wonder if I am shooting myself in the foot by just sticking to unlined boards.

    My question, stated in the subject line above, is would most people interested in buying their first fretless bass (my target market) want a lined or unlined one?

    I do NOT wish to start any sort of debate. I just wish to know if those of you who do both have found that there is a distinct preference for one or the other.

    Thanks in advance for your opinions.
    LadyLoveStingRay5 and B-Mac like this.
  2. Slidlow

    Slidlow The Human CNC Supporting Member

    Apr 15, 2009
    Oshawa, Canada
    I haven't seen any majority either way. Totally up to the end user.
    esa372 and 31HZ like this.
  3. Bruce Johnson

    Bruce Johnson Gold Supporting Member Commercial User

    Feb 4, 2011
    Fillmore, CA
    Professional Luthier
    In my experience, that decision depends completely on the type of customer that you are trying to sell the bass to. Players who have long experience playing fretless, uprights or electric, will usually prefer an unlined fingerboard. Players who are just getting into fretless, maybe buying their first one, will usually like them lined. There are exceptions.

    If you are specializing in fretless conversions of Sterlings, then your customers will probably mostly be "beginners" at fretless. They may already own a fretted Sterling, and like its feel and sound. And they want to try a fretless one. They probably want lines, to help them feel more comfortable initially.

    As they gain experience, they may no longer want the lines. Bring the neck back and put on a new unlined ebony fingerboard for them.
    Last edited: Feb 26, 2024
  4. J Posega

    J Posega Cat Dad and Dingwall Enthusiast Supporting Member

    Jul 16, 2005
    Portland, OR
    I like unlined better. I find lines distracting, but that's not the case for many other players. And if the lines aren't an equivalent hardness as the fingerboard wood then they expand/contract at different rates and then become little annoying bumps.

    I defretted an OLP 5 string, filled the slots with maple veneer, and coated the fingerboard with CA glue. Again, other players want raw wood, not finished.

    Lines are probably more appealing to most players with little fretless experience.

    Either way, you miss some segment of the "market."

    Honestly though, it sounds like a fairly expensive first fretless that might not get actual fretless newbies interested. Most want to spend a couple hundred on their first foray into fretless.
    Auspuff likes this.


    Dec 12, 2013
    + 1 For lined. I play with frets, but I've had a few fretless basses over the years. I bond quicker and tend to keep them longer with lines.
    DrThumpenstein likes this.
  6. For myself I like partial lines. I have 2 basses like the one below. For less experienced fretless players I’d guess lines.

  7. Gilmourisgod


    Jun 23, 2014
    Cape Cod MA
    Unlined is definitely more popular, but unless fretless is your primary instrument, and you want to play in tune more or less right away... get a lined fretless. It's no more a "crutch" than the fret position markers that appear on 98% of basses. After a while (a few years), you might not need the lines to play in tune, but if that's the case, you probably aren't looking at the board much anyway. Check out this notable Bass Slacker, Mark Egan playing a lined fretless Pedulla, and notice that he looks at the board ALL THE TIME, and subsequently, plays in TUNE. If your major criteria is aesthetic, rather than playing in tune, an unlined fretless is the one for you.

  8. I voted lined. I learned to play on fretless & have always had one in the arsenal (almost 35 years). I have excellent ears & very good intonation...& I still prefer a quick reference glance every now & then.

    I have owned both over the years & prefer lined.
  9. TriumphRider99

    TriumphRider99 Supporting Member

    Feb 28, 2013
    Eugene Oregon
    I guess everyone has a different definition of what "fairly expensive" might be. I think over $1500 is fairly expensive. I have been selling defretted and modified Ray4s for around $500 and Ray5s for around $600. For a bass that sounds and plays like a "real" Stingray, that doesn't seem "fairly expensive" to me. So far, I have sold about a half dozen of these with nothing but excellent feedback.
  10. TriumphRider99

    TriumphRider99 Supporting Member

    Feb 28, 2013
    Eugene Oregon
    Interesting. I would have thought equally popular or lined being more popular.

    My bias toward no lines is based on how I learned to play fretless. My best friend, who also plays fretless, told me, when I was just starting, to practice in the dark or with my eyes closed. I have always had a good ear, fortunately, so I took his advice and never looked back (or down). I now have three fretted basses and four fretless (one for sale), and they are all unlined. In my experience, using lines or dots for reference does not always ensure playing in tune.

    I play a lot at home by myself, listening to tunes on my MP3 player (as well as playing live in a duo, and other bands in years past), and what I find is that a fair number of tunes were not recorded in standard pitch, so if I just went by the lines or markers, I would be out of tune.

    Like so many things in life, it just depends.

    But this wasn't about my personal preference. I want to thank everyone who contributed. This has really helped me decide how to proceed.
  11. JRA

    JRA my words = opinion Gold Supporting Member

    i'm not a luthier. however, i do pay attention to fretless news/'trends'/stuff on multiple social media platforms (including TB).

    the fretless choice is more popular now than ever, and lined fretless is responsible. obvious: new players are drawn to fretless more readily if they can depend upon the lines. experienced players prefer what they prefer, but regardless: they are a smaller fixed segment of the otherwise slow-growing fretless market.

    although i don't want lines on my fingerboards, i voted the obvious: "lined."
  12. TriumphRider99

    TriumphRider99 Supporting Member

    Feb 28, 2013
    Eugene Oregon
    The question is, how do I go about finding an unlined ebony board that will fit the Ray4 or 5?

    John Clarity suggested that, since I am starting out with a very inexpensive bass, and spending a LOT of time processing the neck, that instead I should just buy a fretless neck to begin with instead of defretting the original neck. But that led right back to the same question. How do I find a good affordable board for a bass that cost just $250 (Ray4) or $350 (Ray5) to begin with? I generally add on about $100 for processing the board. Most of the boards I have seen cost way more than $100 and that sure doesn't include the time to install and adjust the new one.
  13. J Posega

    J Posega Cat Dad and Dingwall Enthusiast Supporting Member

    Jul 16, 2005
    Portland, OR
    Given the parts and effort you're putting in, I was assuming a higher final cost. You're underselling your efforts!

    You'd have a much easier time finding parts for Fender-shaped-basses than Rays. Some folks have had good experiences with Glarry basses and cheap, no-name necks from overseas. They won't sound or feel like a Ray, but it may be a way to generate interest in your work that's quicker, cheaper, easier, more flexible, and allows you to also offer the more bespoke service for the Rays. Just a thought.
    LadyLoveStingRay5 likes this.
  14. TriumphRider99

    TriumphRider99 Supporting Member

    Feb 28, 2013
    Eugene Oregon
    I appreciate your advice re Glarry and other basses like SX, and I will look into those options for sure.

    Why I do this is a combination of hobby, service, and therapy, more than it is a way to make extra money. I am a 75 year old retired electronics tech with over 50 years experience modding basses and amps.

    I have never been great at woodworking of any sort, which dates back to the negative experience I had in dealing with an antisemitic woodshop teacher back in junior high school. It took a long time to get over the trauma and damage to my self-esteem. For years, I purposely stayed away from any kind of woodworking because it would remind me of my experience with that horrid person.

    Gradually, and with the help of therapy, I managed to move beyond it and tried to learn to overcome my lack of confidence.

    I had pretty much learned how to defret instruments by reading a booklet prepared by a couple of guys who published it on the 'Net years ago. One of them has since passed away. The booklet got me on the right track and I have been working on improving my skills ever since.

    I paid John Clarity a very modest fee to learn his methodology and gain his invaluable assistance and knowledge. I am working on two necks simultaneously using his technique now.

    I make the basses look great by changing all the hardware to black, and up until these two necks, have always coated the necks (CA or dye), covering the lines.

    The service I think I provide is to offer great looking, great playing basses for under $600. SBMM does not offer low cost fretless basses, so that's the niche I am trying to fill.

    I enjoy doing the work, and getting better at it, improving my self-confidence, so the money aspect really doesn't enter in very much. If I can make about $100 for defretting the neck, that's fine with me, regardless of how long it took me.

    The other thing I do that is also part hobby and part extra income generator is that I fabricate clones of the original pre-EB 2-band Stingray preamp. I sell these on the usual platforms (not on TB) for around $100 and guarantee them for a year, parts and labor. I also install these in the modified Rays.

    So, when I resell one of my Rays, the purchaser gets a fretless bass that looks great and sounds almost exactly the same as a vintage Stingray for WAY less money than a "real" Stingray.

    It is generally easier for me, because I don't have a complete woodworking shop, to do lineless defrets. To do lined ones, I have to do a better job of preparing the fingerboard and that is why I am paying John Clarity to learn his method as he has figured out how to produce great looking boards without any sort of coating at all.

    There is no doubt that I am underselling my effort, but, so far, that is okay. I only have been doing one or two of these a month. In order to meet my resale price, I need to pay $250 or less for the Ray4 and $350 or less for the Ray5, and those don't come up all the time. It also depends on finding good prices on the pickups.

    Anyway, it's a lot of fun, and it's great to receive such wonderful feedback from my customers.

    Thanks again to all of you who have answered my poll and contributed your points of view. Very much appreciated!
    DrThumpenstein, Matt-J2 and MudHead like this.
  15. Topkat13

    Topkat13 Supporting Member

    Feb 5, 2004
    Have you checked Wikipedia?
  16. Geogio


    Jan 15, 2013
    I've played both, they all had side dots and I found as I advanced in age and I'm not rehearsed as much as I used to be that the lined fingerboard allows for less error. Errors are primarily due to hand issues not having the stretch that I used to have due to damage done to my fretting wrist which was quite extensive at one point which forced me into a short scale fretted, however my fretless is a fender lined 34" and the lines have been helpful. My other is a no name build that is unlined.

    My old Fender jazz unlined fretless wore badly and a nephew dinks around on it with a southern fried cw outfit. At this stage of the game I find the fret lines helpful at times.
    When I got my first Fender Jazz fretless, lined fingerboards were not an option.
  17. ardgedee


    May 13, 2018
    I play a defretted for which the lines are visible if you're close, or under a really good light. The luthier mixed sawdust with epoxy to fill the lines. I like this because I can see the lines but they're not obvious or distracting, even to me while I'm playing. For the most part I do not watch my fingers, but I'm not good enough to be able to be strict with myself about it, particularly above around the 8th stop.

    IMG_4771.jpg IMG_3420.JPG

    I'm curious what you mean by covering the lines and dots on the fingerboard.
  18. packhowitzer

    packhowitzer 155mm of pure destruction

    Apr 20, 2011
    I like that my CR5 has dots to indicate where the frets would be. I selected this pic (not mine) that really shows them off, BUT in reality, the dots kind of hide behind the strings. This means that while the audience can't really see them, I can easily get a sense of where I am on the neck with a quick glance down at the fingerboard. It sort of feels like the best of both worlds - I get most of the clean look of an unlined neck, but still have visual reference points when I need them.



    For comparison, here is a pic that demonstrates the "subtle" view of the dots somewhat - like what the audience would see from a distance:

    MrAB4003 and Beej like this.
  19. ryco


    Apr 24, 2005
    I learned on upright, but my first "good" electric was an EB3 that had the frets yanked out - poorly - that left lines. Was good for learning on, I guess. When that bass was stolen in high school bought a new '77 Ripper fretless with an unlined ebony board. Personally prefer unlined cosmetically, and who has time to look at the fingerboard when reading or entertaining.
    Good luck on your projects!! :bassist::hyper:
    Kubicki Fan and Auspuff like this.
  20. juancaminos

    juancaminos Supporting Member

    As far as fretless...I started on lined necks then graduated to unlined. Got rid of three lined basses and now have 12 unlined basses. I find lined bass fingerboards to be more of a distraction. YMMV...