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Prior to joining the Rolling Stones, bassist Bill Wyman wondered if the unique sonic qualities of the stand-up fretless bass could be put to use on an electric bass guitar. Removing the frets from a cheap Japanese electric bass, Bill invented the fretless bass guitar.
Without frets to press the string against, precision becomes critical when playing such an instrument. As the string’s vibration is dampened somewhat by the fretboard and by the player’s fingers, it is muted and also produces some string buzz. This creates a unique tone that some players like, as well as enabling the use of true glissando technique and quarter tones. Mostly used by jazz players, fretless electric basses are sometimes played in other genres of music.
Famous Fretless Players
Porcupine Tree’s Colin Edwin is one example and Rick Danko, bassist for legendary Canadian group The Band, used fretless basses extensively. The 1960s psychedelic group, Electric Prunes, release “Mass in F Minor” in 1968, which featured distinctive fretless bass work on some pieces. Due to their limitations as musicians, however, most of the album was actually performed by studio musicians and Canadian band The Collectors (later called Chilliwack) whose bassist, Glen Miller, added fretless bass to the album’s unique sound.
Ampeg introduced the first production model fretless bass in 1966, and now many electric bass guitar manufacturers offer fretless instruments.
If you aren’t sure what a fretless electric bass guitar sounds like, check out this video of fretless master Jaco Pastorius, a pioneer who died in 1987 at 35 years of age: