Fretless instruments are not uncommon in the world of music, however, a fretless guitar is an instrument that isn’t often mentioned. The fretless guitar lacks the frets that one would traditionally see on a guitar. This means that there is no interruption in the string from the bridge, up the neck of the guitar. The lack of frets create an entirely unique, warm, but less amplified sound that works across all types of music.
In order to truly understand what a fretless guitar is, it is first important to understand the purpose of the fret. The fret segments the neck of the guitar into multiple sections. The frets serve as the tension point to alter the sound of the guitar. The fretted guitar adheres to the Western standard of semitones. They also serve as a guide for musicians.
Unfretted guitars, while uncommon, are incredibly rewarding instruments to learn to play. With that being said, these fretless instruments have specific advantages, disadvantages and tricks that must be considered before heading out and picking one up.
The fretless guitar’s greatest advantage is the range of sound it can produce. Without frets to space the strings, the guitar is capable of producing sounds outside of the Western music scale. Fretted guitars, while traditional and beautiful in their own respect, have limitations imposed upon them by the frets. The freedom of a fretless guitar is especially useful for those who are interested in Eastern music and more exotic sounds that are difficult to reproduce on a traditional guitar.
The fretless guitar also offers players a chance to truly perfect their craft as the removal of frets force students to rely on their own skill, technique and ear while playing. It also offers players a fluidity and a truly unique sound. Slide guitar, a method of guitar playing that relies on a cylinder slide across the strings, produces the same “fretless sound.” This sound is warmer and more fluid, with almost no stop between pitches, which creates a truly full and aesthetically-pleasing sound.
Learning to play fretless guitar is an incredibly rewarding endeavor and something of particular interest to many who have mastered the traditional guitar. Fretless instruments add a new layer of difficulty, along with greater freedom of sound, that many avid musicians enjoy immensely.
While the fretless guitar offers musicians more flexibility and a wider range of potential musical options, there are also disadvantages to consider. The fretless guitar following remains relatively small, and much of its underground popularity is rooted in the difficulty that accompanies the instrument. Fretless guitars are difficult to come by and difficult to truly master.
The fretless guitar, because it lacks the typical guidance of a fret, requires a great deal of training to truly master. Ear training is required for all players to denote the differences in sound between the notes. While this can be accomplished with the correct instruction and practice by any guitar player, it is not a particularly easy skill to master and leaves some students feeling frustrated.
Additionally, it should be noted that the fretless guitar is far less common than the traditional, “fretted” guitar, and few outfitters ship fretless versions of their more popular items. While the fretless bass has gained popularity and many outfitters ship them as part of their normal inventory, this simply is not the case with fretless guitars. In many cases, a consumer must purchase a “fretted” guitar and have a luthier remove the frets. There is a small grouping of luthiers who specialize in fretless guitars, but they come at a premium.
Tips and Tricks
When buying a fretless guitar, you can request that the luthier make markings were the fret would normally be. These painted (or notched) “frets” allow users to employ the marking as a guide while they learn unfretted techniques. As your skill progresses, markings can be removed, or a new neck can be used.
Instead of bending strings to achieve sounds, the fretless guitar enables easier slide mechanisms. Avoid bending strings as it can damage the fretboard. Instead, focus on learning slide techniques.
Before heading into the world with a fretless instrument, it is important to train the ear and fingers to play on an unfretted guitar. Intonation exercises and pitch exercises are necessary. While fretless instruments allow for more fluidity they also allow for users to make bigger mistakes that are more noticeable.
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