Fretless 6-String Guitar Technique – Tim Donahue
I. Guitar Setup
Guitar Setup is as important as anything else in fretless playing. An improperly set up guitar will yield results that can be detrimental to the learning process. The instrument must respond to the slightest nuances of one’s musical expression. Merely removing the frets from a previously fretted guitar and filling in the holes will not suffice. Many bassists do this with good results due to the nature of their instruments (fat strings, long scale). but the shorter scale of the guitar, along with its thin strings make fingerboard requirements greater and set-up more critical than that of bassists. Without going into the actual construction aspect of fretless guitar, the instrument should be set up as follows:
Fingerboard – The most critical area is the fingerboard, which must be perfectly free of bumps or dips. Since the fretless guitar’s action must be kept extremely low, a high or low spot the thickness of a piece of paper can create unwanted buzzing in that part of the neck. Therefore, “fret removal and filling in” is not recommended unless expertly done and planed completely flat by a repairman who has done it before. Violin or cello repairmen are best since it is common for them to plane and surface fingerboards.
Of course, the best way to make your guitar fretless is by completely removing the old fingerboard and replacing it with a new, clean board ready for surfacing. Again, surfacing is best left up to a professional.
Neck adjustment – The neck should be adjusted as straight as possible. Slight buzzing is necessary to produce good sustain that is even up and down the neck. If neck adjustment cannot remedy a warped neck, planing the fingerboard is necessary and is a process the fretless player must get used to occasionally having to do. I do it every month!
Determining Straightness – Although sighting down the neck is helpful, it is not the best way of determining a neck’s straightness. Since (tuned) strings are straight to begin with, they serve as a good guide. By simultaneously fretting any string at its 1st fret and last fret, any dips or high spots on the neck should be evident along the fingerboard’s length. A straightedge is also useful by laying it along the fingerboard, but the method just mentioned is quick and can be done anywhere, anytime. I have occasionally checked my neck’s straightness this way the day of a performance and have had to quickly plane it without the use of a straightedge.
The Nut – assuming that the neck is straight and fingerboard properly planed, the next area of consideration is the nut. It should be cut so low that ideally, a sheet of paper cannot be wedged between the string and nut area. Buzzing on the open strings can nevertheless result, and too much is not good. Each guitar is different in nut set-up but in each case, it should be cut as low as possible. Here lies the heart of good fretless sound.
Bridge Height – Adjust the bridge to make the strings as low as possible to the fingerboard. If the fingerboard and nut are set up properly as previously described, the strings can now be adjusted very low. One consideration – on stratocaster-style guitars with individually adjustable string heights, each string can be adjusted to the contour of the fingerboard and produce a “balanced” slight buzzing across the neck. Remember, having the action very low is the only way to get this buzzing which, in turn, creates sustain.
On Les Paul style guitars with a tune-o-matic bridge, string height is not individually adjustable for each string, which makes planing of the fingerboard’s curvature all the more critical. A good way to determine if both the fingerboard curvature and bridge curvature are the same is to adjust the action of only the G and D (3rd and 4th) strings to the lowest possible height. Now compare the evenness of height of the rest of the strings by playing something across the fingerboard. Also, listen for the small degree of buzzing that should be evident on all the strings at any one place on the fingerboard. Not enough buzz on the E and B (1st and 2nd) or A and E (5th and 6th) strings means that the fingerboard has too much of a radius and must be planed mostly in the middle of that radius to flatten it out. After that, all six strings can be lowered past the original height of the G and D strings.
On the other hand, if the G and D strings’ height are set correctly and the outer (1st, 2nd, 5th, 6th) strings buzz too much, then planing of the fingerboard under these strings is necessary.
As with any guitar, bridge and fingerboard radiuses should always be compatible, again, leave fingerboard adjustments up to a professional.
String Selection – to achieve a balanced sound, heavier strings can be used for the E and B (1st and 2nd) strings and lighter gauged strings for the D, A, and E (4th, 5trl, and 6th) strings. I prefer using an .018w (wound) for the G (3rd) string, since the action will be set extremely close, there is not much space to depress the strings down onto and tension becomes less important than sound. Go by the sound when determining string gauges. No string bends are employed (sliding the notes is used instead) so heavier (,010 – ,012) gauged strings can be used for the E and B (1st and 2nd) strings. These strings are normally weak in their output when compared with the other wound strings, so increasing their thickness helps to bring about a balanced sound.
Recommended gauges are:
1st (E) .010 – .012
2nd (B) .012 – .013
3rd (G) .018w
4th (D) .020 – .025
5th (A) .030 – .034
6th (E) .040 – .044
Note: Be sure to wipe all strings clean after playing. Using the fingernails inside a rag to run up and down string is best. Believe it or not, the smallest deposit of dirt or rust on a string can create a dead spot or an unwanted buzz.
Also, be careful that when changing strings, do not accidentally bend or kink any of the new strings. Although it could have used on a fretted guitar, this new, slightly kinked string will cause headaches on a fretless fingerboard. I have actually planed a fingerboard many times frustratingly, only to realize that the string causing the unwanted buzz, was actually kinked. Check for trueness of a string before putting it on.
Changing Strings – How often is enough? Since there are no frets to bend or wear the strings, they can last a lot longer before they need to be changed, provided they are cleaned regularly.
I try not to change my strings often since a new set of strings usually means that the intonation must be re-adjusted too. Re-adjusting the intonation changes the places along the fingerboard where the string is depressed, you can actually become accustomed to a particular intonation setting and lose it (along with certain intervals and chords you know you can play in tune) when changing a whole set of strings, the topic of intonation will be discussed, but to minimize the problem of re-adjusting bridge saddles all at once, change each string over a period of time. Deal with the intonation adjustment of each string as you go.
Intonation Adjustment – Adjustment of the bridge saddles has a direct effect on the placement of the fingers on the fingerboard which makes the adjustment even more critical than that of fretted guitar, on fretted guitar, the saddles are adjusted in order to give correct intonation for each string as it is depressed down on the frets, that is, the frets are the actual places where pitch is determined and saddle adjustment merely “zeroes in” on the correct pitches. Since on the fretless guitar it is our fingers that determine pitch, saddle adjustment serves to vary the places at which the fingers are placed to give good intonation. It follows that there is no standard way to adjust the saddles since one’s ears and the way one plays varies from person to person, this makes intonation adjustment a very personal thing for each player.
Knowing the adjustment is the best way of determining how to set it up. Therefore, not even a skilled repairman can set it up for you. You must do it yourself and get used to adjusting the bridge saddles occasionally.
For me, a good adjustment is:
To me, this setting gives consistent positions for intervals and chords across the neck, it may not work for everyone, but let it serve as a guide for the beginner. (This setting works only if the 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th strings are wound and the whole set is gauged as described in String Selection, Recommended Gauges.)
Suppose that the bridge were adjusted as such:
You may notice that when playing a passage going from the G (3rd) string to the B and E (2nd and 1st) strings, a slight shift in position toward the nut may be necessary to keep the passage in tune. I found this to be true on my instruments which led me to use variations of the setting in fig. 1.
Sometimes I will play perfect fifths or fourths on the 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th strings making sure that each interval is in tune without changing the fingers in any way as I go across (perpendicular) the neck:
This can also help determine whether the saddles need adjustment or not. As you can see, saddle adjustment itself takes a lot of patience and practice, but how nice it is to be able to really tune the instrument to our ears much like the musicians of india do.
Pickup Adjustment – since the E and B (1st and 2nd) strings have a substantially lower output than the other wound strings, raise the polepieces (if any) on the pickup, also, adjust the pickup so that the bass side is approximately 1/8″ lower than the treble side, this should provide a somewhat balanced output across the strings. Again let your ears be the final guide.
…section endsback to Table of Contents Tuning