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Mastering Fretless Electric Bass

Starting out on a fretted Fender Precision and listening mainly to rock music, I had an epiphany the first time I heard Jaco Pastorius' playing on Pat Metheny's first album, Bright Size Life. Bass guitar suddenly offered whole new sonic vistas of musical expression that I wanted to explore. I wanted a fretless as soon as possible, but I couldn't afford a new bass.

What to do?

At the time I was playing in a top-40 band in a club six nights a week. On my day off, I drove to Orlando and had Mike Tobias' shop pull out the frets from my Fender Precision, replace them with rosewood markers and replace my pickup with two Bartolini pick-ups arranged as on Fender Jazz. I drove back home and played the gig that night, now on fretless. I soon developed a crick in my neck from staring at my hands while playing on what had become a totally different instrument!

For the rest of my adult life I've been hooked on playing fretless bass, and almost never touch a fretted neck unless it's required for a gig. I'm happy to say that I can now take a gig that requires sight-reading and play in tune enough that often no one realizes that I'm not playing a fretted instrument.

All this points to the obvious price for the payoff in expression: difficult intonation. Because so many fretless players don't play in tune, The fretless has acquired a poor reputation in some quarters. This goes for upright players as well as fretted electric players who switch to fretless bass guitar. But this doesn't have to be! With practice, you can play fretless with excellent intonation. And while learning to do so, you'll improve your technique and hand position on any fretted instrument, too, and improve your sense of pitch.

Here are some things to consider as you begin your travels on your fretless bass:

Vibrato: Now that you have a fretless neck, you can easily get vibrato, so make using vibrato part of your practice routine. A good warm-up is to play a single note with as many different rates and depths of vibrato as you can. Start out in the middle of any string and play the note without vibrato. Introduce slow vibrato by gently moving your hand from side to side, using your elbow as a pivot. Notice the position of your hand and arm - your elbow needs to be away from your body so it can move freely, and you need to extend your fingers enough that they are not interfering with the other strings. Now try a note higher up the neck and notice that it's easier to obtain vibrato of greater depth. Try a note in the first position and notice how much more you have to move your hand side to side to obtain the same depth of vibrato. Remember to practice without vibrato! Nothing's more annoying than someone who always plays with vibrato to cover up poor intonation.

Pitch accuracy: Here are some tricks to help you improve the intonation of your playing. Play a scale or arpeggio slowly, without vibrato, and check frequently against an accurate pitch. For example, if you are playing the modes of a major scale, it's great to have a drone on the tonic playing in the background. Hand position on fretless is crucial for good intonation; see my article "Position is Everything" for some pointers on this.

Practice shifting: Shifting, especially downward shifting, needs to be practiced regularly. Play scales and modes on each single string, using a drone. This will help make your shifting more accurate.

Open strings: When playing, practice using open strings whenever possible. On fretted, it's often easier to avoid using open strings, but open strings provide an accurate reference that helps tremendously on fretless. This is why upright players are constantly using open strings in their lines. And notice that by introducing open strings in walking lines, you can more effectively emulate an acoustic upright bass, and you can introduce larger leaps into your lines.

Hand position: In the upper register you will need to play more on your fingertips than below the 12th fret in order to play in tune. Try playing an F major scale very slowly, without vibrato, using the harmonics at the 12th fret on the A, D, and G strings as references. Play the F against the A harmonic, the Bb against the D harmonic, and the E against the G; each of these forms a third -- you'll know immediately if it's out of tune, so you can adjust your hand appropriately.

Double stops: A double stop is playing two notes at once. Try playing a G major scale on your E-string, using only your first finger. Now play on the G-string all the notes in G major from B to b. Put the two scales together, fingering the scale on the G-string using only your 3rd finger. Then try the same thing, fingering the scale on the G-string like this: 3,1,l,3,3,1,1,3. It's difficult to play a minor 10th using only the first finger, but with practice it becomes easier.

Playing a fretless bass is certainly more difficult than playing a fretted one, but if you stick with it, you will broaden your musical horizons and find many more ways to express your musical identify. It's definitely worth the effort!

Matthew Brown lives in Worcester, Massachusetts with an under-used fretted bass, and is a frequent contributor to ActiveBass.