Playing Fretless - finding the balance?

Discussion in 'Technique [BG]' started by kesslari, Jun 23, 2008.

  1. kesslari

    kesslari Groovin' with the Fusion Cats Staff Member Gold Supporting Member

    Dec 21, 2007
    Santa Cruz Mtns, California
    Lark in the Morning Instructional Videos; Audix Microphones
    I'm finding that in my effort to avoid "overdoing the fretless sound" (you know, the fretless players who smear mwah over everything, gliss all over, slide harmonics in every song, etc.) I've been leaning pretty far the other way - heard a playback of myself today and I sound pretty much like I'm playing fretted.
    While that leaves me feeling pretty good about my intonation :D
    I also feel like I'm not really utilizing the expressiveness of the instrument as fully as I might.

    If you play fretless, how do you find that balance for yourself (do you even try)?
    What bassists do you think achieve that balance - who do you hear that you think "yeah, that's niiiice..."??
  2. john_g

    john_g Supporting Member

    Sep 14, 2007
    I have had the same problem! When I first got the fretless, the action was really nice and low, but I was mwahhing all over the place without even trying (part of that was also playing a fretted so long and the techniques I used to get more expression out of it). I raised the strings but now am finding that its hard to tell Im even using a fretless.

    So my solution was to lower my strings a little, but really choose my spots to unleash something like a well placed mwahh, and then play normally the rest of the time. IMO, a great fretless player wont let you know he is playing one until he WANTS you to know. Its really been more about restraint for me than anything else.
  3. Chasarms

    Chasarms Casual Observer

    May 24, 2001
    Saint Louis, MO USA
    I would have to say that I don't really try. I don't play fretless exclusively, so if I am playing it, I have most likely selected it for a reason.

    I would guess that do probably tend to "overdo" the fretless sound with the way I play passing phrases, fills and such. But, when I am just keeping my line in the pocket, I play pretty straight. I guess I would sound "fretted" as well in those cases.

    I wouldn't worry too much about it. Play what the fretless makes you feel. Just play it in tune!!
  4. Mark Wilson

    Mark Wilson Supporting Member

    Jan 12, 2005
    Toronto, Ontario
    Endorsing Artist: Elixir® Strings
    I've played my fretless enough to know where it fights me.
    I know where the mwah is stronger, I know where it's weaker.

    I adjust my playing to compensate for how my bass acts.
  5. I still think it's hard to find the right balance, one of the reasons I also take a fretted bass to the gig (I can get all the sounds I want from the fretless, I need the fretted one to keep me 'disciplined').
    Pastorius is one of the guys that overdo it, but he can, he's the man...
    I kinda like Palladino in his period with Paul Young, saw one of his shows in Germany and he was very versatile, sometimes lots of mwhah (and the all present octaver) then again just rocking. Great show.
  6. In trying to minimize bass swaps at our next gig I used my smoothie for several decidedly not-really-ideal-for fretless(driving rock)tunes; I didn't get any unfavorable comments, but I found myself getting more mwah than I wanted to. I was not able to make it sound fretted- at least not to my ears, so I'm thinking I'll only pull it out when the song totally calls for it.
    So for me, balance comes in the form of the R-word: restraint. :D
    To the OP, I think the fact that you're aware of the(potential)issue says that you'll use the various available tones judiciously.
  7. Buskman


    Apr 13, 2007
    Jersey Shore, USA
    For a long while my only bass was a fretless (MusicMan 5 string) and during that period I played with a singer/songwriter who's material didn't really call for lots of 'mwah'. It really helped me, not only with my intonation, but playing only what was really needed for a given song. It was nice to know that I could break out a slippery line here & there (in this case more Danko than Jaco ;)), but otherwise I played it straight most of the time.

    I ended up leaving the band after about 9 months (the singer's ego was way too much to bear :D), but I do look back on the whole experience fondly due to my learning how to really sit in the pocket, how to really lock in with the kick & (most importantly, for the sake of this thread :D) how to "pick my spots" when it comes to fretless playing.
  8. Buskman


    Apr 13, 2007
    Jersey Shore, USA
    Slightly off-topic, but here's a photo of the previously mentioned singer/songwriter, jamming onstage with some guy named Bruce... :smug:

    It turns out that I'd left the band a few weeks before this took place. He sent me the photo, I guess as a little dig - "Look what you missed out on?" :)

    Sorry 'bout the hijack - back to the topic on hand!
  9. Ed Goode

    Ed Goode Jersey to Georgia

    Nov 4, 2004
    Acworth, GA
    The thing I like most about fretless is the flexibility. Since I use high tension flatwounds on all of my basses (fretless or fretted) there isn't that big a difference using only the fretless. If slapping was a major requirement, or if I was looking for a more modern hi-tech tone, then it'd probably be more noticeable.

    While I like being able to throw in some gratuitous fretless junk now and then, I mostly play a fretless just like a fretted bass. Once you get your technique down it becomes pretty easy to switch your tone back and forth on a naked neck ... :cool:
  10. Bakithi Kumalo had a very nice tone on Paul Simon's Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints to me, that's a sound I aspire to have.

    I don't find myself trying too much fancy sliding on fretless either, I use it for upright-esque tone without the huge mass and micing requirements. It's hard to describe how I find the balance, I just tend to be able to achieve one naturally. When there's a spot in the music where a slide would just fit like a glove, I do it. When I'm just grooving, it's pretty stupid to be doing all sorts of crazy sliding and false harmonics.

    I hope my input made even slight sense. :p
  11. I think that there is definitely more than one way to approach this.
    The fretless is a different kettle of fish than the fretted bass. There are things you can do with the fretted bass much easier, and there are sounds you can get on the fretted that are frankly damned hard to get on a fretless.
    On the other hand, I play fretless BECAUSE I love the sounds it is capable of. To have a fretless that doesn't effortlessly produce the characteristic fretless tone seems a waste.
    I have found that there are a couple of bass players who really seem to use the fretless as a tool, exploring what is possible to do with it, and taking advantage of the things that a fretless can do that a fretted bass cannot.
    That's the direction that am trying to move. So I am careful about who I try to emulate.
    One of my favorites is Jon Gagan. He basically approaches the fretless electric bass as an alternative to the upright bass. Many of the same techniques are used.
    I love the tone he gets, I love how well in tune he plays, and I really admire the fact that in live performance he still gets that singature tone and does it while playing VERY in tune and on time!
  12. KwinS


    Oct 30, 2006
    Dallas/Ft. Worth
    + a bunch on Jon Gagan. He's one of my favorites as well. Beyond tasteful. to the "balance" on fretless, I don't think there could possibly be a universal one. Each one of us has a different idea about how much "mhwaa", etc. is appropriate at any given time. I may choose to play the same song differently each time I do it depending on how I feel.

    If more people are talking to you after a performance than are ignoring you, I think you have it "right" for you.

  13. lambro


    Jun 1, 2004
    don't edit yourself, do what you need to do to get the idea in your head out of the instrument

    rather than take stock of how many harmonic slides you do vs static note playing etc

    ask youself how accurately did you capture the idea in your head?

    it's like the follow thru on Federer's backhand, it goes where it needs to

    let your playing go where it needs to to follow thru with your idea

    if it turns out its 3,000 harmonic notes in a row, only you can judge how accurately you captured your idea and how necessary the technique was to achieve your goal
  14. KwinS


    Oct 30, 2006
    Dallas/Ft. Worth
    There ya go. I think that is what I was trying to say. Thanks.
  15. I finally, after 30+ years of playing fretted bass guitar went out and recently bought a Squier FVM Fretless. After getting a good setup on the bass, I've started playing with the approach of expression that a fretless bass allows. It's been interesting to say the least. I find myself wanting to achieve the "mwah", but at the same time wanting to be tasteful about it. I haven't recorded myself yet and probably should just so that I can hear the progress that I've made trying not to overdue the mwah sound. It's going to be a process of learning how to play the fretless with the expression that I want along with the tastefullness that I'm trying to achieve.:smug:

    You've brought up an interesting point, one that I will keep in mind as I have fun with my new fretless.:)
  16. When I got my first fretless, I really seemed to mwah everything to death. It was kinda like when I got my first five string I was tempted to play that big B string way too much.
    Fretlesses can be used in punchy songs as well, but it won't have quite the punch of a fretted. You can get close if you play between the pups and not over the neck. Fretless does seem to have more of a sound suitable for ballads and slower tracks. Yet I say this and Tony Franklin uses it almost exclusively in the world of metal!
  17. Hoover

    Hoover Inactive

    Nov 2, 2007
    New York City

    A terrible haircut?
  18. Hoover

    Hoover Inactive

    Nov 2, 2007
    New York City
    One of the issues that becomes evident when you start talking about the iconic sounds of fretless bass as "artifacts" that you might want to eliminate from your playing is this:

    We as bassists have been encouraged, cajoled, & berated for decades to provide this uniform, unwavering foundation that sounds consistant from moment to moment...which is not only antithetical to all those things fretless bass does so well, but also seems anathema to almost every other musical instrument on the planet!

    A sensetive musician uses expressive devices to shape every note or passage in a way that enhances the dramatic arc of the music. Which almost by definition means each note will not sound uniform & consistant. Fretless bass seems to excel at allowing the musician to put subtle "body english" on every note...apparently to the producer's or bandleader's chagrin. If a violinist or saxophonist played every note with the uniform consistancy of a bedrock grooving bass player they'd sound like a machine. Or an elementary school marching band.

    I say Embrace The Mwah!
  19. Rules to live by!!! Figure out what tones and techniques work for the given tune and do it. Simple as that.
  20. I think of the fretless more as a voice. If I can, I try and make singable bass lines and use a lot of flam semitone approach notes so that it is in contrast to fretted. Vive la difference. You have to use judgement of course. Just the same as there is a right time to use root V and right time not to.

    My 2 cents (4 pence)