Look Ma, no frets!

I didn’t expect to be a “musical” person when I was very young. There was a sort of tacit acceptance that my sister was the only member of the immediate family who could sing, and I frequently joked that I was tone-deaf. Granted, my ear lacked training: even by the age of 16, I can remember struggling to tell the sound of a fifth from the sound of an octave – which was a bit dispiriting when at the same time I knew people who had perfect pitch!

So I was understandably terrified by the idea of playing a bass which had no frets – a feat which requires the player to depend on their ear. And that fear didn’t go away until very recently. I knew that my ear had improved a great deal with experience, but I wasn’t prepared to let go of the comfort of having all the notes marked out for me by nice big metal bars. Oh, I had aspirations that one day I’d have enough time and money I’d be able to give the double bass a shot, but that remained a pipe dream. Besides, if it were ever to happen, I’d probably have to have a serious stab at playing a fretless bass guitar first of all.

One evening, talking to another bass player, an enviably accomplished player of both the bass guitar and double bass, he asked me whether I’d ever tried playing upright, and I explained my fears about my ear and the trouble with intonation. His response?

“It’s easier than you might think.”

Oh, all very well saying that, you might think, he can already play the thing. It probably seems easy to him in hindsight. But my interest was already piqued. I’d probably raised a quizzical eyebrow by that point, because he followed it up with the killing blow of

“You just need to try the right fretless.”

A few weeks later, he proved his theory irrefutably. During an evening in his studio with a group of other bass players, he directed me to a truly beautiful instrument – a Wal MkII fretless – and for the first time I attempted to play a bass guitar with no frets. Well, bugger me. He was right.

The trouble with starting on “the right fretless,” of course, is that it was a prohibitively expensive instrument. And, if I were to venture into completely uncharted territory, which I might later decide was not really for me, it would not have been sensible to sink upwards of £2,000 into such a journey!

It turns out shopping for fretless basses is a bit of a challenge. It’s one of those you don’t tend to notice until you go looking for one, but for all the gorgeous bass guitars that might be hanging off the walls of a well-stocked guitar shop, there may only be three or four that are fretless. I might even go so far as to say you’d find it easier to go shopping for left-handed guitars in a lot of shops. Fretless bass obviously remains a bit of a niche market. Perhaps doesn’t help that it’s so closely associated with Jaco and Weather Report, which are hardly enjoying an enormous audience besides other bass guitar enthusiasts. Well, that and the bassline on Paul Young’s Wherever I Lay My Hat, as played by the inimitable Pino Palladino. But then, how many people realise that it’s played on a fretless bass? (How many even realise it’s the bass part?)

Fortunately, I found one. Well, not just one; I was fortunate enough to be able to compare a couple of Squier VM Fretless basses against a second-hand Warwick Rockbass Corvette. I was well aware that I had my preferences with fretted basses: I like passive 4-strings with big, heavy bodies, a good neck or middle-position pickup, and roundwound strings. Fretless was such a different beast, and such a different sound, I decided to start from scratch and pretend I knew nothing about bass guitars. Hence I ended up the active, small-bodied, twin-pickup Corvette, strung with flatwounds. (Still only four strings, mind.) It’s not in the same league as my friend’s Wal, but it does sound glorious.

Now I just need to work on my intonation. Assuming the cat will allow to me to practise at some point…


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