Do you want to expand your musical horizons and try something new?
If you’re a guitar player, consider picking up a fretless guitar.
In this article, we will explore what makes a fretless guitar different from other guitars, the pros and cons of playing on one, and in the end, we will share some tips on how to master the technique.
Plus, we’ll take a look at some famous musicians who’ve made this instrument their own.
What is a fretless guitar?
A fretless guitar is a guitar without frets. Frets are metal strips that divide the fingerboard into even octaves with 12 different semitones. These serve as tension points to alter the guitar’s sound and as guides for musicians.
Without frets, a guitar produces a unique, warm, less amplified sound that works across all types of music.
Playing a guitar without frets offers players increased fluidity and a truly unique sound. However, it adds a new layer of difficulty to playing and requires extensive training and practice to truly master.
Fretless guitars come at a premium from specialized luthiers but offer more comprehensive range of potential musical options compared to traditional fretted guitars.
A brief history of fretless guitar
Back in 1976, a Turkish musician named Erkan Oğur faced a challenge while playing traditional Turkish melodies on a Western music scale. To overcome this, he came up with the idea of removing the frets from his classical guitar to achieve the desired sound range.
The unique and smooth sound of this fretless guitar caught the attention of other guitarists, who were intrigued by the new tonal possibilities it offered.
Why do guitars have frets?
Frets divide a guitar into small sections and create a roadmap for your fingers to follow. Here are five reasons why guitars have frets:
- Frets lay out octaves and semitones of the Western music scale
- Visual cues make it easy to find the correct position for notes and chords
- Bending strings over frets creates a unique sound
- Frets add richness to acoustic instruments
- Most guitarists learn on a fretted guitar before attempting an unfretted one
What’s the difference between a fretless guitar and regular guitar?
There are a few main differences between fretless guitars and regular guitars. Here they are:
The difference in frets
Fretless guitars, obviously, lack frets, allowing for a more natural sound and more fluid transitions between notes. This produces a more expressive sound, especially when playing legato.
The difference in volume
Fretless guitars require more forceful plucking or modified amplification to reach desired volume levels, as the absence of frets can affect sound projection.
The difference in sound range
Both types of guitars are capable of producing a wide range of sounds and tones. Still, fretless guitars offer a unique sound and expressive capabilities that make them popular among jazz, fusion, and experimental musicians.
The difference in difficulty:
Playing a fretless guitar requires more skill and precision due to the lack of frets, making it more challenging to master than a regular guitar.
Pros of playing on a fretless guitar
As we already said, playing on a fretless guitar offers a unique and warm sound that can’t be replicated by traditional fretted guitars. But there are other advantages this instrument provides. Here are the main ones:
The lack of frets creates a softer, warmer tone that is often compared to the sound of an acoustic double bass. This flatter or more muted sound is perfect for certain types of music requiring a subtle touch.
With the ability to produce exotic sounds and a more fluid playing experience, mastering an unfretted instrument offers musicians an unparalleled range of creative options.
Great for Masters
If you’re an experienced player looking for a new challenge, the fretless guitar’s a great option.
With its huge range of potential sounds and lack of traditional frets, it requires a high skill level to master.
But for those who are up to the challenge, playing a fretless guitar can be incredibly rewarding. It allows for greater artistic license and more freedom of sound than a traditional guitar with frets.
So if you’re ready to take your guitar playing to the next level, consider trying out a fretless guitar and see where it takes you.
You can request markings where the frets would be on your new instrument. These visual guides are great for those who are new to playing fretless guitars and can help with finger placement until they get used to the feel of the instrument.
The markings can also serve as a reference point when playing in different positions on the neck or when switching between instruments. Keep in mind, however, that relying too heavily on these markings may hinder your progress in developing good intonation skills.
As you become more comfortable with playing without frets, you may choose to remove these markings altogether or leave them as a subtle reminder of how far you’ve come.
With these helpful visual cues and some practice, you’ll soon be smoothly sliding up and down the neck of your fretless guitar like a pro.
Fretless guitars offer a unique advantage in the form of smooth sliding techniques, resulting in a better and smoother sound. The absence of frets allows the vibrating string to move freely from the bridge to the point where it is attached, creating an unhindered vibration that results in a more natural and fluid sound. To fully understand the technique, consider a table with two columns and four rows.
Hear the amazing sound of the fretless guitar in this video:
Cons of playing on a fretless guitar
After we described the advantages of the fretless guitar, it is fair to reveal its weakness as well.
Here are some drawbacks to consider:
It will take some time and practice before you can confidently play chords on this unique instrument.
Fretless guitars require precision when playing multiple notes at once, making it harder to adjust your fingers for small changes in position.
This means that you may struggle to play both rhythm and lead guitar within one song, limiting its use in certain genres of music.
However, with dedication and patience, you can learn to accurately place your fingers on the fretless neck and create beautiful chords.
Smaller margin for error
Moving on from the challenges of playing chords on a fretless guitar, it’s important to note that there is a smaller margin for error when playing individual notes.
Without the inch of space provided by a fret, you’ll have to be extremely precise in hitting the right note. Just a touch left or right can lead to an entirely different (and incorrect) note.
Expensive and hard to find
Fretless guitars are not as common as traditional guitars.
At times, guitar players may need to purchase a regular fretted guitar and then seek the services of a professional to remove the frets, which usually comes at an additional cost.
Furthermore, only a small grouping of luthiers specialize in making fretless instruments, which come at a premium price.
As such, it may take some time to find the right instrument that suits your needs. However, with patience and persistence, you can find the perfect unfretted guitar to help you create unique music that exemplifies your creativity and skill.
You need to protect your instrument’s fretboard from damage by adjusting how you play the strings and using the sliding technique more often.
The fretless guitar lacks the protective frets that are found on traditional guitars, making it more prone to damage the fretboard if played improperly.
When playing a fretless guitar, you must be mindful of how much pressure you apply to the strings when bending or pressing down. If you apply too much force, it can cause grooves in the fingerboard, which can lead to buzzing or even make notes difficult to play accurately.
To avoid damaging your fretboard, it is recommended that you use a lighter touch when playing a fretless guitar. Rather than relying on bends and vibrato, try incorporating slides and glissandos into your playing style instead.
These techniques not only help preserve your instrument but also add unique characteristics to your sound that cannot be achieved with traditional guitars.
If you were playing in a band and switched from a fretted to an unfretted guitar, your sound might become lost or dampened in comparison to your bandmates. Though the softer sound can be an advantage in certain musical contexts, it can also be a disadvantage when competing with other instruments.
However, you can use tricks and techniques to enhance your sound on a fretless guitar, such as using heavier gauge strings for more sustain and projection or adjusting your finger placement for better intonation. These tips will help you get the most out of your instrument and ensure that your unique sound is heard loud and clear.
With a fretless guitar, tuning is especially important as you’ll need to rely on your ear and technique to ensure each note is in tune. Fretted guitars have the benefit of the frets guiding players to exact placement for correct intonation, but with a fretless guitar, it’s all about training your ear and finger placement.
This can be challenging at first, but once mastered, it allows for greater flexibility and creativity in playing. However, this also means that mistakes are more noticeable and require precise adjustments.
It’s essential to practice intonation exercises regularly and have patience when learning how to tune without frets.
Tips and tricks for playing a fretless guitar
If you’re looking to play a fretless guitar, here are some tips and tricks to help you get started:
Practice your intonation
Without frets to guide your fingers, playing in tune can be challenging. It’s essential to develop a good ear and practice precise finger placement.
Use visual markers
Adding visual markers, such as tape or small dots on the fretboard, can help you locate notes and maintain consistency in your playing.
Experiment with different playing techniques
Fretless guitars offer a unique sound, so experiment with different techniques such as slides, vibrato, and bending notes to make the most of this feature.
Develop a light touch
With no frets to stop the string, it’s essential to develop a light touch to avoid producing unintentional harmonics or buzzing sounds.
Playing a fretless guitar requires more skill and precision than playing a fretted guitar. Don’t get discouraged if it takes some time to get used to it. Consistent practice is key to mastering this instrument.
Listen to other fretless guitar players
Listening to other musicians who play fretless guitars can help you learn and develop your own style.
Famous guitarists who play the fretless guitar
Many renowned guitarists, such as Ron ‘Bumblefoot’ Thal and Steve Vai, have embraced the unique challenges and possibilities of playing an instrument without traditional frets.
Their dedication to their craft has helped push the boundaries of what is possible with a guitar.
Guthrie Govan, another well-known guitarist who plays a fretless guitar, has also made significant contributions to the world of music through his innovative use of sound.
These famous musicians have demonstrated that playing a fretless guitar requires extensive training and practice to master. However, the reward is a truly unique sound that can’t be replicated on any other instrument.
Aspiring musicians looking for inspiration should check out these talented guitarists shredding away on their fretless guitars.
While mastering the fretless guitar may present its challenges, it’s a rewarding journey that can enhance your musical experience.
Playing on a fretless guitar allows for more fluidity and expression than playing on a fretted guitar.
So go ahead and give it a try! Whether you’re an experienced guitarist or just starting out, playing on a fretless guitar is sure to take your music to new heights.
What is the best tuning for a fretless guitar?
Tuning a fretless guitar follows the same process as a fretted guitar. However, some experienced fretless guitarists prefer to tune their instruments down a whole step from the standard E tuning (E A D G B E) to D tuning (D G C F A D). This alternate tuning allows for greater control over individual notes and sustain.
Do fretless guitars need special strings?
Fretless guitarists typically use flatwound or halfwound strings, which have a smoother surface and a reduced winding that is less likely to damage the fingerboard. These strings also produce a warmer, smoother sound that is well-suited to the fretless guitar.
It is important to choose strings that are specifically designed for fretless guitars to ensure the best possible performance and longevity of the instrument.