Fretless Guitar – In The Press
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By Vincent DeMasi | January, 2006
“There’s no such thing as a fretless guitar. You’re bloody making it up.” —Nigel Tufnel, This Is Spinal Tap
From the Seventh Century 11-string oud to the traditional symphony orchestra string family to the electric bass, fretless instruments are certainly nothing new. Yet, for a surprising number of guitarists, the fretless guitar seems as mysterious and mythical a beast as the Loch Ness monster.
Sure, fretless guitars briefly surfaced Nessie-style on well-known records such as Frank Zappa’s One Size Fits All and King Crimson’s Three of a Perfect Pair, but artists who were doing a substantial amount of their composing and performing unfretted—most notably Elliott “E#” Sharp, Franck Vigroux, Yan Vagh, and Tim Donahue—were generally swimming the murky depths of the musical underworld. Until now.
After hearing a Ned Evett/Franck Vigroux-produced compilation called Fretless Guitar Masters, recent fretless convert Jeff “Jahloon” Berg was inspired to launch unfretted.com, an extensive online database and resource center for all fretless guitar activity. A history of fretless guitars was outlined, discographies compiled, and fretless instruments reviewed, and discussions on the Web site’s forum became a major channel for uniting the worldwide community of the fretless faithful.
Enter composer Michael “Atonal” Vick, whose deft Internet organizational skills led to the massive double-CD compilation, Village of the Unfretted [Unfretted], and the NYC Fretless Guitar Festival, which was held at New York City’s Knitting Factory and iO restaurant on September 9 through September 12, 2005, to celebrate the CD’s release. Both the festival and the compilation CD featured players from around the world, including Vick, Tom Baker, Gunnar Backman, and Ratko Zjaca. Many in the fretless community point to the CD release and festival as proof that the fretless guitar is at last coming of age.
“I feel we’re at a turning point where the fretless guitar is shedding its novelty status and becoming a viable instrument in its own right,” gushes Vick.
Although united by that common desire to remove fret wire, the artists on Village of the Unfretted are a pretty eclectic group. Evidence the Steve Vai-like pyrotechnics of Ed DeGenaro’s “Hip to Hop,” Vassilis Ketentzoglou’s Flamenco-flavored nylon-string workout “Balcan Fire,” the barrel-house blues of the Eric Rhodes Band’s “Barely Makin’ It,” and the Tom Baker Quartet’s trippy, jazz-hued soundscape “Nook.”
Many fretless practitioners seem to be using standard harmony and the 12-tone system as a springboard for exploring the microtonal realm, incorporating quarter-tone, sitar-like slides, bends, and other ornamentations—collectively called gamakas—to their lines. Others see the fretless as a way to present a truer representation of the traditional 12-tone world, where just (or untempered) intonation is possible.
“The lack of fixed pitches lends itself more to just intonation, allowing you to control notes like a cellist or singer would,” explains DeGenaro.
“In our tempered system, a major third is 400 cents, but the natural third from the overtone series is 386 cents,” adds New York fusion stalwart David “Fuze” Fiuczynski. “On a fretless instrument, that can be corrected.”
Most fretless artists have learned to exploit the unique advantages of their instrument in creative ways. Listen to the Franck Vigroux/ Cècile Rives duet “La Traversata” from Village of the Unfretted, where Vigroux uses an Ebow on his Delta Metal fingerboard-equipped Vigier Surfreter to coax a human voice-like obbligato around Rives’ haunting soprano aria. Meanwhile, Ned Evett, whose contribution to the album, “Evidence,” is a Peter Gabriel-ish pop song with world music overtones, believes even singer/songwriters using the guitar for basic accompaniment might benefit from fret-removal surgery.
“Chording on a fretless gives you the ability to manipulate intervals within the chord like a pedal-steel player would,” he says. “So a songwriter who uses a lot of open grips would benefit from these expanded voicing options.”
To the uninitiated however, picking up a fretless guitar in search of new harmonic horizons might seem a daunting task.
“You’ve got to realize you’re dealing with a totally new instrument,” cautions Sharp, “and your usual guitar stuff isn’t going to work. A fretless is more than just a transformed guitar. It’s a whole new world of musical perspectives.”
“If you’re just starting out on fretless, practice intonation first,” counsels Fiuczynski. “I recommend finding an instrument with fret markers, playing basic pentatonic scale patterns, and getting used to fretting with 1/3 of your finger ahead of where the fret normally is. If you play behind the fret like a regular guitar you’ll be flat, and if you play on the fret you’ll be sharp.”
Both Evett and Berg also suggest practicing intonation by playing scales up one string, while droning the notes against an open string, and listening to how the intervals ring against each other.
“You’ll learn more about scales in five minutes playing them that way then most people will in a lifetime, because you’ll see them in a new way—as a series of harmonic intervals above the tonic,” says Berg.
One noticeable difference between the fretted and unfretted experience is tone. Generally, fretless guitars have less sustain than regular instruments, but many see this as an advantage.
“I find the decay and attack of lower-register notes much easier to control on a fretless,” says DeGenaro.
“Some people talk about taking years to develop a good tone on fretted instruments,” notes Berg. “But, to me, tone is immediately available when your finger is directly stopping the string [on a fretless instrument], because you can vary the degree of sustain and vibrato, and even alter the way the string sounds with just minor finger adjustments.”
Most of the artists mentioned here began their unfretted forays in true pioneer fashion—on instruments that were custom-built or self-modified. Elliott Sharp still swears by the Norma hollowbody he scored at a garage sale for $13 and de-fretted himself back in 1975. Tim Donahue built his first fretless electric in 1980, and crafted a fretless electric harp-guitar in 1984. In 1986, one of his designs became the basis for the first production model fretless guitar: the Japanese Selva Tim Donahue Model.
Today, more and more companies are offering high-end fretless models. Patrice Vigier made his first fretless—a classical model with a glass fingerboard—in 1979, and, today, the Vigier company manufactures an entire line of both fretted and fretless guitars and basses. Ned Evett has been the sole distributor of Fernandes fretless guitars (with Sustainer pickups and wood or glass fingerboards) through his fretlessguitar.com site since 2000. One particularly groovy fretless production model is the Godin Glissentar. Modeled after the oud, it’s tuned like a traditional guitar, but sports 11 nylon strings—the first five being unison pairs.
As fretless guitars begin appearing on the racks of local music shops, and information on playing them is more widely disseminated (Franck Vigroux’s Fretless Guitar Secrets instructional DVD is slated for release in late 2006), the notion that fretless guitars may become as commonplace as fuzzboxes isn’t as far fetched as it may seem.
“Soon the fretless guitar will just be another weapon in the guitarist’s arsenal,” predicts Berg. “Most players own several types of guitars already—electrics, acoustics, 12-strings, archtops—so why wouldn’t they want a fretless, too?
If you want to start playing fretless, you can always remove the frets on a cheap guitar. Usually, frets can be pulled out with pliers, although you might need to heat them with a soldering gun first if they’ve been glued in. After you’ve removed the frets, immediately fill the slots with slow-drying epoxy. Then use heavy-grade sandpaper for the rough edges, and fine-grade to smooth things out. You can leave the neck as is, or finish the entire fretboard with a thin coat of slow-drying epoxy. I recommend stringing your guitar with flatwounds, as roundwounds can chew though the fretboard pretty quickly. Also, once you’ve removed the frets, a guitar neck can’t handle normal string tension and still hold its tuning, so I find it’s best to drop everything down at least a whole step. – Michael “Atonal” Vick