Fretless Guitar Neck, Fingerboard, Strings and other Hardware
Types of fingerboard
One of the questions most asked by prospective owners of fretless guitars is which type of fingerboard is most suitable, what are the properties, sounds, playability, costs etc.
This is easily the most popular, as many fretless guitars are created by removing the frets from a fingerboard that will inevitably be made of wood.
The usual choice is ebony, as it is a hard wearing wood and looks great on a fretless. Currently ebony is on the Cites III endangered list, so you will need a certificate stating the source if travelling across borders.
Some necks are “ebonised” technically the name for getting a cheaper wood and staining it black. Apply a wet finger and rub, if your finger appears black, it has been ebonised.
Bloodwood, a very dense hard wood from South America, is also an excellent material, as good as ebony and, at the time of writing, not yet on the endangered species list.
Rosewood is common on converted fingerboards but not as hard wearing as ebony.
Resin Coated Wood
Not often used on fretless guitars, more common on fretless bass, particularly those of Jaco Pastorius, who used marine epoxy (Pettit’s Poly Poxy) with round wound strings, which he reported “eat the neck up”.
Lined or Unlined?
Lined fingerboard – Yamaha SA1500
Guitars that have been unfretted generally have the fret slots filled with wood filler or epoxy. This leaves marker lines that are helpful for intonating notes correctly.
If the fingerboard was fitted without being defretted, there will usually be no marker lines. Personally I think the latter looks best. Usually there are edge lines marking the note positions.
Most standard guitar necks terminate at the 22nd fret, so if you convert one of these to a fretless you will have a total span of 22 semitones, just short of a two octave span of 24 semitones. This is quite significant in fretless terms as with the longer fingerboard you can do two octave slides. Interestingly, if you bolt a baritone neck onto a Strat style guitar you get a two octave span fingerboard.
The most popular production fretless guitar, The Vigier Excalibur Surfreter (1999-2009) had a fingerboard made of Delta Metal.
Vigier Delta Metal
This metal was fabled to be a specific mix for Vigier, some said it was bell metal, others the metal used for drummer’s cymbals. Whatever the compound was, the rumours are that it is no longer produced. (Supplied by the French Company Delta Metal, though they made many compounds so we cannot be sure which was incorporated on the Vigier) Now from 2012, the Vigier Excalibur Surfreter uses a stainless steel fingerboard, called I-metal. Claimed to be more hard wearing and not requiring so much polishing.
Stainless Steel Neck – Yamaha SA2000
Aluminium is readily available and easily worked, a good alternative to brass or steel if you are covering an existing fingerboard. We have also seen 24 gauge copper used on a neck. If you have the money, you could try Titanium.
Glass is very distinctive, sound-wise, giving an almost singing quality to the notes.
Glass does not suit everyone, if you have damp fingertips, you may find it hard to slide notes. A quick test is to run your fingertips over a pane of glass (you may even have these in your own home, often referred to as windows) if your fingers stick, or make a rubbing noise, glass fingerboards may not be for you.
Ned Evett has converted many guitars by adding glass to the fingerboards of Fernandes, Strats, and Dobro guitars. Sometimes he has used mirrors to spectacular effect as on the guitar, named Fender Blue Creamsicle. The fingerboard is made from peach coloured mirror.
Glass, mirror, peach.
Hence Ned claims the name “The Glass Guitarist.”
Glass is a great material for converting fingerboards though we do recommend a professional glass cutter to shape the material and round off the sharp edges.
Phenolic / Trespa
This material has been around for some time. As far as I understand it is made by coating paper with adhesive, then compressing multiple layers under very high pressure. The resultant product is very hard wearing, reasonably easy to work, like very tough wood.
In some ways this could be the ideal fretless guitar fingerboard material.
There has been some discussion on the best neck construction for a fretless guitar. Set-neck (where the neck is fixed to the body) or Bolt-on. Certainly with a Bolt-on neck you do have the opportunity to purchase a fretless neck (from Warmoth Custom Guitar Parts for example) which is a really easy way to do a conversion. The consensus is that a Set-neck will give you better sustain, but there are exceptions, the Vigier Surfreter has a Bolt-on neck and fantastic sustain.
Fixed neck O’Donnell
Fixed neck Yamaha
Bolt on Fender
One other consideration for the fretless neck is dot markers. While simple dots usually don’t give much trouble, being in between the third and fourth strings, trapezoids or fancy inlays might. In conversions these should be sanded down to the shape, or curvature, of the neck itself.
Not terribly critical in the fretless world, quite a few fretless guitars have done away with the headstock completely.
(but not this one)
Note that the locking system on this Custom 48 is behind the nut itself, this allows the nut to be cut very low, increasing sustain.
Usually a tremolo type bridge is often not needed on a fretless guitar as you can achieve this effect using the fingerboard hand. As a tremolo can reduce the sustain of the guitar, if one is fitted as standard (like on the Fender Stratocaster guitars) players will often lock these out with a wooden block, so that the bridge becomes effectively fixed.
Tremolo lock-out modification – Fender Stratocaster
The Kahler tremolo systems offer excellent sustain, keeping the strings firmly planted on the body of the guitar.
Kahler 2300 series tremolo
Electronic Sustain Devices
One of the key tools to be applied to the fretless guitar is an electronic sustainer. The working principle of all devices is the same; the vibration of a string is picked up, amplified, and then fed back to the string to keep it vibrating. Essentially a feedback device. In addition, the feedback need not be the fundamental note originally sampled, it can be a harmonic, to drive the string to vibrate at a higher frequency, usually three times the original frequency, an octave and a fifth above the string fundamental, for example A at 220 Hz would vibrate at 660 Hz which would be an E.
The original sustainer was developed by Steve Holland, who also held the original patent. Steve made five fretless guitars with sustainers before his untimely death in a motor cycling accident. The most famous of these was made for Randy Roos, a double neck featured on the Mistral album. All guitars featured stainless steel fingerboards.
The popular sustaining device, fitted to many Fernandes Fretless guitars, which can be purchased as a retrofit, see our full details on the Sustainer being fitted in the DIY section. See full review here.
Fernandes Sustainer – Neck pickup (driver)
Similar in design to the Fernandes unit but the control is rotary the Sustainiac has a very even response across all the strings.
Sustainiac – Neck pickup (driver)
The EBow, or Energy Bow was designed in 1969 by Greg Heet, hand held and capable of sustaining fundamentals and fifths it brings affordable sustain to the fretless guitar.
EBow buzzing the A string
Steel / metal strings
One thing that can make a big difference to how a guitar sounds and performs is its strings.
One plus for fretless players is that strings do not need changing as often as strings on fretted guitars.
If you are using steel strings, do make sure that the third string is wound, this will increase the sustain of that string.
Heavier or lighter?
The fretless community is certainly divided on this. Some players prefer lighter strings, opting for round wound nines.
Personally, I’m with the heavy camp. 12’s or 13’s are the preferred weight, this gives you far more control over the string and much better sustain.
Tuning strings down by a whole tone (two semitones) slackens up the strings giving you more control over the tone and sustain. (Vigier Fretless guitars are supplied tuned down one tone to D G C F A D)
Heavy tops, light bottoms?
Worth a consideration, guitarists usually go the other way, heavy bottoms (for lots of grunge) and light tops for lots of bends. As bending the top strings is not a consideration for fretless guitarists (we can just slide far better than anyone can bend) we have the luxury for fitting heavy top strings which will give us more sustain, and matching those with light bottom strings, balancing the overall sound of the instrument.
So here is a suggestion:
1st (E) .011 to .013
2nd (B) .015 to .016
3rd (G) .018w to .020w (w = wound)
4th (D) .025 to .027
5th (A) .030 to .034
6th (E) .040 to .044
Round wound or Flat wound?
Flat wounds in general are pretty good, you can slide without screechy noises. Some players, including Gunnar Backman, opt for the half-round strings which retain the brightness of round-wound and play rather well.
Round wounds can damage the fingerboard, even if it is metal, depending how you play. If you pass a fretless guitar strung with round wounds to an inexperienced player, they will inevitably try to “bend” notes, not by sliding the fingers up or down the board but by pulling the string sideways, like you would on a regular guitar. This will dig into the fingerboard causing cosmetic damage. The guitar will still play ok, so panic not.
Round wounds do have the advantage of “Growl” hard to describe, but evidentially a great sound, if you can take advantage of it. Round-wounds are best on glass and metal fingerboards as they can damage delicate woods like rosewood.
My Godin Multiac Nylon SA came strung with standard Nylon classical strings.
Pros: They sound nice, just like they should.
Cons: The top three nylon strings can give you friction burns on fast slides, no kidding, and the bottom three being wire-wound not only screech when sliding your fingers but also had a residual resistance, or stiction, to overcome before you can slide a note.
Help is at hand however, as there is a set of tape-wound nylon strings; Thomastic Infeld Classic S series, a rope core flat wound nylon string with the order code: KR116.
Nylon flat wound strings.
Absolute perfection. If you ever wanted to totally transform an instrument this is was the way to do it. No more friction burns, all the strings are silky smooth allowing genuine expression, making accurate intonation much easier.
The strings are about three times the price of a normal nylon set but worth every penny.
One of the amazing things about the above mentioned Thomastic Infeld KR116 strings is that they have a steel rope core. This means they will work with conventional magnetic pickups, including Roland GK type pickups.
I’ve also fitted these strings to my Glissentar which made a remarkable difference to the playability of the instrument. A Roland GK pickup can then be used on the Glissentar, it works perfectly, even if one of the dual course strings is slightly out of tune.
Adrian Ouarar on Nylon Strings
The original set of strings supplied by Godin on the Glissentar had a very stark contrast between the two nylon courses and the four wound ones. This was very disturbing for me playing fast runs. I even started to avoid mixing them in the same melodic lines.
Since changing the strings this discrepancy has almost disappeared.
About the new strings,I finally settled for the following combination:
LaBella Nylon flatwounds: low E, A, D, Savarez Nylon Flatwound: G, Godin’s obscure default set for the Glissentar : B, high E.
I compared the LaBellas and Savarez to the D’Addadrio’s in the shop.
Here’s what I found out: All three sets where supposed to be “Studio-sets” flat-wounds. But, it appeared that only the LaBellas were wound with a real flat shaped wire, the Savarez and D’Addarios were round-wound and then polished to varying degrees (to be fair, I have to add that upon closer inspection, Savarez mentions this on the packaging). Nice, but not as smooth as the LaBellas.
This applies only to the three low strings which are usually wound on classical nylon guitars, because the G strings can apparently only be found in a flatwound version from Savarez – and these are real flatwound (feels almost as smooth as nylon).
I somehow feel I’ve tried all there is in “flatwound – nylon – for -accoustic – guitar” strings. My impressions on the sound are; First, it’s a major improvement, the volume is a bit lower, left hand finger noise is not totally removed but is much lower than with round wounds. Second, mechanically, glissandi are much smoother now, especially on fast & long octave-and-more spanning glissandi or very slow half-tone and less spanning moves.
The sound, even with three different sets combined, seems well balanced to my ears. I had feared the worst combining strings, but it really sounds like one set.
The particular fretless “growl” when sliding is a bit less pronounced due to the smoothness of the strings, and it blends in much better with the overall sound of the fundamental(s).
The strings give more of a silky “howl” now than a sputtering bassy growl. It’s hard to describe, but I like it.
— Adrian Ouarar
Take care unravelling the strings from the packet. Any slight kink in the string will severely impact the playability on a fretless guitar.
When fitting the string, take the string from the nut, pass it through the tuner head while holding the string itself about four inches above the fingerboard, keeping tension. Wind the string at the tuner keeping tension with the other hand while winding down the string. This is especially important with the wound strings to prevent any kinking or spiral unwinding producing inadequacies in the string itself.
Generally not recommended, too much with a low action and this will stick your strings to the fingerboard. However with a metal fingerboard a light application of “Fast Fret” or D’Addario’s XLR8 will give good results. Just wipe off any excess with a cloth and don’t apply lube above the twelfth fret. That will stop the strings glueing to the fingerboard and sapping sustain at the higher reaches of the fingerboard.
There is also a spray on product called “Fingerease” see how “Consider The Source’s” guitarist Gabriel Marin demonstrates how to use the product.
Recorded by Clinton Vadnais on 30th October 2015 at Pearl Street Ballroom, Northampton, MA
Talc (Talcum Powder)
Always worth a try, especially if you have sweaty fingers, having your fingers dry (and clean) will help a lot. An example is the Ashbury bass guitar. A fretless bass strung with silicon strings, it is unimaginably small (30 inches / 77cm in length) but sounds like a double bass.
Ashbury Fretless Bass
One of the key things for a player of the Ashbury bass is talcum powder, you need it with the silicon strings, otherwise your fingers stick to the strings and the bass becomes impossible to play. Because of the need for talcum powder and the fact that most players carry this around in a small bag (usually used for mountaineer’s chalk) they get dubbed “The coke player’s bassist”.