The lines are messing me up! (or not?)

Discussion in 'Technique [BG]' started by osciphex, Aug 1, 2003.

  1. osciphex


    Jun 1, 2001
    In my guitar shop browsing latley I've tried a few lined fretlesses, and a few unlined fretlesses, and I've made the strange observation that fretlines seem to hinder my playing more than they help.

    When I'm playing on a lined fingerboard I seem to have a tendency to stop listening to the sound and only focus visually on the lines themselves. This leads to dissapointment when I'm not sure how the instrument is intonated, etc. Additionally, the lack of position markers on the fingerboard of most fretlesses messes me up as well, I find myself counting the fretlines and making all sorts of crazy mistakes.

    On the unlined boards, I use the side position markers as guides and subdivide the fingerboard in my head. I seem to be much more able to focus on the pitch of the notes I'm playing, and thus I seem to play more in tune over time.

    However, this greater focus on pitch has it's price: slower playing. considerably slower. And on occasion I'll still mess up horribly and have to slide up/down towards the note i want.

    So what's better? Having to learn not to lose focus on pitch and become accostomed to a lined fingerboard? Or playing slower and becoming frustrated by the occasional mishap with an unlined board?
  2. Wrong Robot

    Wrong Robot Guest

    Apr 8, 2002
    I think a reason that lined fretlesses can hinder your playing, is because you become more focused on trying to put your fingers on the line, and less focused on listening and feeling for intonation.

    I'm not a fretless player(read: I don't own a fretless) and most of the fretlesses I've played have been lined, but certainly I always felt less constrained when playing unlined.
  3. Howard K

    Howard K

    Feb 14, 2002
    The problem I find with fretless is that if the instrument is poorly intonated you'll have serious problems learning to play it over a period of time.
    I used to own an Ibanez Musician unlined fretless, it was nice except the G string was poorly intonated and the all notes above the octave on the G needed to be played slightly higher than the other strings - this basically means that over time you'll be learning incorrect muscle memory which would screw you up when you move to another instrument.

    I think, possibley, because your experiences are of picking up a bass in the shop are quite limited you havent really experienced playing the instrument a lot. Dont get me wrong, I have very very little experience also, but I do own a fretless now - albeit a crap one - so I have maybe a bit more experience of it, in that I've jammed with it in a band situation and practiced on it a fair amount.

    Remember when you 1st played fretted? You continually stare at the neck because you're getting used to it.. then as your muscle memory improves you can find your way around without looking. Exactly the same thing will happen with fretless.

    Personally when I buy another (half decent!) fretless, I'll buy lined.
    Because if the instrument is properly intonated (which it will be!) there wont be any problem...

    The lines will be there to a) help me learn and b) in case of emergencies, like quick jumps right up the neck and back!!

    You can hear when the notes are 'out', but if the instrument is correct set up the notes will be precisely on each line, so the lines are there as a back up if you need it.

    Mind you the last lined fretless I played in a shop was a £2000 hand-made SEI bass with lightwave pickups... so it had the clearest sound known to man :) - I want one :D
  4. Richard Lindsey

    Richard Lindsey Supporting Member

    Mar 25, 2000
    SF Bay Area
    I don't mean this personally, or as a flame, but I don't know where this idea comes from that lined fretlesses "hinder" your playing. IME they don't do anything of the sort. The only things that hinder our playing on a fretless are ourselves. If you focus more on looking than on hearing, that's not the bass's fault, that's the player's.

    True, some people may find lines a bit more confusing at first, or harder to adjust to, but all you have to do is look at people like Jaco or Gary Willis or Steve Lawson to realize that lines, in themselves, they don't hinder playing at all.

    Look at things from the other angle. A lot of people would find unlined FBs to be harder to get used to to or work with--I know that's true for me--but that doesn't mean they necessarily hinder playing either.

    Whether you play lined or unlined, you still have to learn to *listen* to get your intonation right.

    That said, if you really aren't that comfortable with a lined board, play unlined. It really doesn't matter how you get where you're going, as long as you get there. Understand, I'm NOT saying everybody should play lines, I'm saying don't get caught up in the BS idea that lines are bad for you. This is a myth that should really go away.

    The only reason it gets up my nose, this myth about lined FBs being bad for you, is that it can discourage people who would be more comfortable with lines, and make things needlessly difficult for some players who aren't comfortable with unlined. (Not to mention giving unlined players unrealistically optimistic views of their own intonation ;) j/k j/k!) I just don't think we help our fellow bassists by giving them mythology rather than reality.
  5. embellisher

    embellisher Holy Ghost filled Bass Player Supporting Member

    Great post, Richard.

    The reason that I prefer a lined board is because there are times when I play in a situation where I cannot hear myself. With a lined board, you can look at the lines and be confident that you are playing reasonably in tune.

    When I first started playing fretless seriously, I looked at the lines a lot. Now, I just use my ears and muscle memory. The only time I need the lines is if I am making a huge intervallic leap up or down the board, or if I can't hear myself.
  6. Christopher


    Apr 28, 2000
    New York, NY
    In my experience, lines are basically useless as far as intonation is concerned. Even if you're finger is right on the line, a slight roll of the fingertip will bring you on or off pitch. I don't notice any big difference in my intonation when I'm playing a lined or unlined board.

    Thus the only question that enters my shallow little mind when I look at a fretless is whether the instrument looks prettier with or without lines etc.
  7. Steve Lawson

    Steve Lawson Solo Bass Exploration! Supporting Member

    Apr 21, 2000
    Birmingham, UK
    ..Ah, one of my favourite topics... :D

    Fretlines don't get in the way of listening to what you're playing. You might choose to focus more on the visual aspect when playing a bass with lines, but that is either a matter of choice, or unfamiliarity with the instrument.

    There are SOME people who play unlined fretless consistently in tune. My overwhelming experience is that those who have lines are more likely to be in tune, and to be consistently in tune, and be free to play up the top end of the neck, to play melodies, to play double and triple stops without the fear that they are going to be horribly out of tune.

    Intonation on any instrument has to be measured to an external reference. Developing good intonation is not just a matter of playing a lot - on an unlined board it's easier to convince yourself that you're in tune when you're not, because there's no visual reference to contradict what your ear is telling you.

    Try this - put on a CD, listen to the first verse of a song, pause the CD, sing the chorus and the second verse to yourself, and see how close you are to being in tune restarting the track. For most people, you'll have slipped out, quite possibly without you actually noticing, because your internal reference has shifted as well. If you're playing or singing to an external reference, it's easier to measure. Try duetting with a pianist or guitarist (take drums out of the equation for now, as they can mask a lot of what's happening down the bass end) - record it. How close are you? experiment with different techniques and ideas, how consistent is your playing? how many times are you sliding into a note to correct where you put it to start with.

    playing purely by sight is generally not the best way to go, though it does as has been said bail you out if you're in a bad monitoring situation and allow you to get closer than you would otherwise.

    However, using a comination of sight, sound and muscle memory to map out the neck does, as a general rule, produce better results than playing a bass with no lines.

    As I said, there are some people who can play unlined fretless bass in tune. However, a lot that I've heard that claim to be in tune wouldn't be close enough if I was producing the record. And those with lines that I've heard, played with, listened to, taught. etc. tend to play more in tune...


  8. moley


    Sep 5, 2002
    Hampshire, UK
    I think Richard & Steve are right on the money here. My fretless is unlined, but given the choice, I would go for a lined one next time around.
  9. Brooks


    Apr 4, 2000
    Middle East
    I agree with Richard's post 100%. I have one lined and two partialy lined fretless basses. At first, I used the lines, but now when I gig, at least 80% of the time I don't look at the fingerboard at all. However, I did find lines very helpful to get started on a fretless.