I’m not bass player. I’m a guitar player. “Two very different things”, to quote a small, furry, fictional, insurance-peddling meerkat. However, I play bass well enough to get by in recording my own demos and such. I don’t spend much on bass guitars because I see them as utilitarian tools. I have “good enough” bass guitars. They do the job.
One sound that I love is the sound of a fretless bass, but I never felt I knew how to play bass well enough to find the correct pitches accurately on the fretless bass fretboard, unless I were to dedicate the next decade to practicing and getting better, as a fretless bass player. I felt I would always be doomed to playing just slightly off key, the whole time.
(What’s the definition of a minor second? Two fretless bass players attempting to play in unison.)
Fretless bass, played well, is a highly emotive instrument, to my ears. I love the range of wails, slides and glides, the subtle tonal swells and the buzzes, pops and clicks that can be produced. With a chorus or flanger, the fretless bass takes on a liquid, almost ethereal quality. I love that sound.
One solution to being able to record fretless bass sounds in my own demos is to get a decent sample library of fretless bass, played well, and stitch bass parts together, using a MIDI editor or keyboard. That’s ok, but it’s very slow. It lacks immediacy. There is a lot less spontaneity. Arguably, I am a worse keyboard player than I am a bass player. At least on bass, some of my guitar playing skills, which I have been trying to perfect (or at least make adequate) for four decades, might find a use.
I have a couple of basses that have frets – so called “precision” basses, in the nomenclature of Leo Fender. By “precision”, Leo meant that any old bass player could pick up one of these instruments and play in tune. And so you can, but you lose so many of the subtle glides and tonal variations of a stand up, acoustic bass. A fretless bass is really the only thing to have, if you want to play bass lines of beauty.
When the electric fretless bass was first popularized in jazz, one of the leading proponents was the late, legendary Jaco Pastorius. The story goes (and I don’t know whether it is true or apocryphal) that Jaco had a regular Fender Jazz Bass, which being a standard design from the Fender catalogue, had frets, but he got it into his head to strip the pick guard off, take out the frets with a pair of pliers and fill the slots with epoxy, sanding down the neck, when it was dry, to produce a smooth fretboard. With this even deck, he more or less invented his own style of playing fretless electric bass.
The advantage of going this route, in creating your own fretless bass, is that the fret slots, now filled in and flattened, actually provide highly visible markers for where to put your fingers, when you play, so that you play in tune. That’s a very useful feature, so long as you keep looking. Eventually, you might learn the positions autonomically, through repetition and muscle memory, but in the meantime, you could, with a little application, play fretless bass on an instrument like this and not make a total fool of yourself. That’s what I need.
Christian Thomas, of Space Studios in the UK, actually blogged a very good and informative post about doing the same thing to a bass guitar that was going spare in his collection. http://www.spacestudios.co.uk/resources/defret.htm It’s an interesting article, but it seems like a lot of work, for something that may or may not turn out successfully. Too hard for me.
There are decent, playable, low-cost, fretless basses on the market. You can buy them for around one hundred and fifty quid, at the very low end. Made in China, from considerably less-than-triple A-grade materials, they still represent decent value for money, especially if you are a fretless bass dabbler, like me, rather than a devoted zealot to the art. However, these are fretless bass guitars that just have a flat, featureless deck. I was sure this was not for me, as I would flounder looking for the right notes for years to come. I was sure of it.
Then I found the compromise I was looking for. Fender’s budget Squier range has something called a “Vintage Modified Jazz Bass Fretless” (model number 032660). Not a poetic name, I grant you, but it’s still quite a bass. Here is a link to the product page: http://www.fender.com/en-GB/products/search.php/?partno=0326608500
Here is a picture of this beauty:
The cognoscenti amongst you will immediately recognise this as a blatant copy of Jaco Pastorius’ own home-modified Franken-bass. The lovely thing about this bass is that it was just over two hundred quid – a steal for a handsome and playable work-horse of an instrument like this. Perfect for a home, project studio. Perfect for imposter guitar players pretending to be bass players, like me.
If you have never played a Squier, you might be pleasantly surprised. Costs are low because these guitars are made in Indonesia, but Leo Fender was a good designer. His guitars are simple, robust and elegant, by design. It’s very hard to make a bad one, to his design. Ergo, most guitars made in this design pattern are actually pretty good. The Squier Vintage Modified Jazz Bass Fretless is no exception. It’s a lovely instrument and a delight to play. Sonically, it’s exactly what the doctor ordered.
The difference between this and the more expensive Fender-branded version of the same thing is an additional four hundred pounds (approximately) but the sound you get, the playability, the quality and the road worthiness is definitely not three times the value, at that price. For me, the budget model is just the ticket.
So for not a great deal of outlay, I have ended up with a fretless bass that even guitar players can play and still sound like passable bass players. I also now have a way to generate those gorgeous, lush, evocative bass parts, with some semblance of facility. I didn’t have to futz around for hours with pliers, epoxy and sand paper. And I can play in tune…just about.
Bring on the quiet, spare-time hours I need to lay down some juicy bass parts! I cannot wait.