A quick history of the fretless bass

Marcus Miller playing fretless bass
(Image credit: Andrew Lepley/Redferns)

It’s every bassist’s nightmare. Tossing and turning in the middle of the night, you dream that you’re on stage, bass in hand, on the point of performing to an audience of people you want to impress. Trying not to look scared, you reach your fretting hand to play the first note, feeling for the comforting metal ridge of the fret you want. But to your horror, there are no frets — your hand slides meaninglessly down the neck, with nothing to hold it back. You try again. And again. But there’s nothing to tell you where you’re going.

Welcome to reality — in this case, the world of the fretless bass, where even bassists who have been playing standard fretted instruments for decades are reduced to snivelling weaklings by the mere sight of that strangely smooth, smug-looking fingerboard. Why would anyone want to remove those useful bits of wire, you may well wonder? After all, the first thing they told you when you started playing bass as a spotty teenager was “Press the string against the fretboard a bit to the left of the fret you want and it’ll be in tune. Press harder. Harder!” Well, you mused as you sucked your blistered fingertips, it may well hurt but at least you know the note is going to be in tune if you hold it vaguely left of target.

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