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History of the Fretless Guitar

History of the Fretless Guitar

We have tried to be as accurate as possible writing up this history.
Some of the information is difficult to authenticate and any help
with contributions, additions or amendments is much appreciated.

Before we hit the timeline there are a few notes to dwell on. It is hard to determine if there is a point in time where we could say, this is the first fretless guitar or this guy definitely invented the fretless.

It does seem that from time to time many guitarists have unfretted their instruments, tinkered around, maybe recorded a track or two before hastily refretting. It may be that Western music is so well adapted to the fixed scale it is safer with frets, while influence from asian / eastern music is more suited to an unfretted philosophy.

Another anomoly is; why do fretless banjos keep turning up? All in the early part of the 20th century.

Where were the fretless guitars?

Pre History
The Forties
The Sixties
The Seventies
The Eighties
The Nineties
The New Century
---- // ----

2000 BC

3,500 to 4,000 years ago - Tanburs (early fretless forerunners of the guitar) were being played in Egyptian ensembles. (That's a group, then?)


2,000 years ago - Nangarhar, The Rabab, a skin-covered fretless lute is in common use.


Around the turn of the century - Ball Beavon of, Bishopsgate, London, sold a 7 string unfretted banjo made by Matthews and Houghten of Birmingham.


The Larson brothers - Manufacturers of Guitars, Mandolins and Harp guitars produced what looks very much like an acoustic doubleneck, fretted and unfretted. The unique model is actually a harp guitar with the sympathetic bass strings spaced so that all strings pass over the board and thus become playable.


Harry Partch - To use guitars with his 11-limit just intonation scale, Partch experimented with microtonal fret positions from 1934-1942, but eventually he decided on fretless necks with amplification to make up for lack of resonance. These described versions were completed in 1945 at the University of Wisconsin.

The Adapted Guitar I (right in photo) has a smooth fingerboard with polished-down pinheads and other engravings to help the player locate ratios. The guitar uses a pickup for the strings and an additional custom microphone to amplify tapping effects. The guitar can use 3 strings tuned to 8/5 1/1 5/4 (low to high) or 6 strings in double pairs of the same ratios.

The Adapted Guitar II (left in photo) is a 10 string guitar which can be tuned to either major or minor sets of ratios. The nut is raised high so that a metal rod can be used to stop the strings, or used lightly for gliding effects. The triangle patterns identify places to stop the strings, and they use a color scheme to show tonal relationships. This guitar also used an electronic pickup (not pictured).

Harry Partch - fretless guitars

Source: Genesis of a Music - Harry Partch (1949)

Note: These guitars were modified further by Partch in later years, Adapted Guitar I was eventually replaced with a different design in 1952. It is this modified design that is pictured in the 1974 second edition of the book, in which both guitars are designed to be played hawaiian style. These final versions are used today along with Partch's other surviving instruments in Dean Drummond's Newband.
Larger image and editor's comments.


Track from 1965 - "Stainless Steel Gamelan" by John Cale & Sterling Morrison: (Cembalet / fretless guitar)


6th June - John Lennon (with the Beatles) appears on the Kenny Everett radio show. Recorded at Abbey Road studios, this was broadcast by BBC Radio One on 9th June between 10.00am and midday.
The entire, uncut interview appeared on a 1986 album called "The Golden Beatles"
Kenny: "What kind of guitar is that? It's very strange looking."
John: "A fretless guitar."
For a long time we thought this was just one of John's smart arse quips until we purchased a rare copy of the Japanese album:

The Golden Beatles, Japanese Album

All over the 13m45s interview John is doodling away, no question it is anything but a fretless guitar. Its sounds very much like he had just started playing it that day.
Full transcript of interview

Listen to a clip of the interview: Lennon Fretless Guitar MP3

In an interesting addendum to this information Mark Moffat contacted us with this snippet:

I came across your site while searching for info on a Hohner black widow fretess six string guitar which I restrung and set up for Apple corps in 1973 along with numerous other guitars (Rocky, Lennon's Epiphone, rosewood tele, the original Ric twelve). I worked at a store and repair shop in Denmark St in Soho, London, called Top Gear which was pretty much guitar central during the "golden era". All of the guitars that came in to be cleaned & set up were George Harrison's with the exception of John Lennon's Epiphone casino which, given the condition of all the instruments (bad - rusty strings, oxidized frets etc.) had been stored in the same place for some time.

I can confirm that there was a Hohner Black Widow fretless among the guitars that came from Apple to be worked on.- Mark Moffat
(updated 20/December/2011)

The Late Sixties

Jimi Hendrix's fretless - by Dave Peckels - In the late 1960’s, my Dad, Ted Peckels, manufactured electric guitars in Riverside, CA. He produced some of the Black Widow’s for Acoustic there, and also made guitars with the St. George and Hohner names. (Mostly fretless basses for Hohner.) He died several years back, but a story he often told was about a fretless guitar that was built especially for Jimi Hendrix. According to the story, Hendrix really liked the guitar. It was probably an Acoustic or my Dad’s own brand, Bartell. At some point, it was stolen and Hendrix ordered another one. It was in the process of being built when Hendrix died. I always wondered what happened to that second one, but maybe it was the one that ended up in the Guitar Center with the name scratched off !

Another contributor Dave writes - I was in Ace Music in Santa Monica in the late 60's when I saw an "Acoustic Black Widow" fretless guitar. I think the black widows were made in Japan back then. As I recall it had a "mother of bowling ball" fretboard. It was designed by Harvey Gerst I think.


USA 1973 - Frank Zappa purchases a Acoustic Black Widow fretless. (info Jim Kimsey)
Excerpt from an interview with Steve Rosen One Size Fits All, from Guitar Player, Jan. 1977
Frank Zappa: I do have a fretless guitar, and I'm pretty good on that. At one time Acoustic manufactured a fretless guitar, they made a prototype and tried to interest people in it, but nobody wanted it. So the prototype ended up at Guitar Center. I walked in there one day and asked them if they had anything new, and they said, "Have we got one for you!" And they brought out this thing, and it was really neat, so I bought it for $75. The only restriction was they had to take a chisel and some black paint and scratch off the word "Acoustic" on the headpiece, because Acoustic didn't want anybody to know that they had made such a grievous error as to make a fretless guitar. I've put a Barcus-Berry on that, too, and I send the magnetic pickup to the left and the Barcus on the right The thing that sounds like a sllde guitar on "The Torture Never Stops" is actually a fretless. It's also on "San Ber'dino" and "Can't Afford No Shoes" (both from One Size Fits All). It's different than a regular guitar; you don't push the strings to bend them, you move them back and forth like violin-type vibrato, which is a funny movement to get.

Our contributor Dave comments - No that was a production guitar, I worked at GC (the only one at that time) in Hollywood in 1973 and I remember having that / those guitar/s I'm pretty sure it was a guitar made for Acoustic by the Hohner Company..there was also a production run made in Japan I do not remember which ones were made first. The guitar was modeled on the "Esposito" guitar (the first prototype 335 style guitar) owned by Harvey Gerst (he played in a band called Sweetwater). He was the mastermind behind the Acoustic company in the 60's. The ones that they imported from Japan had wicked cool thin flat necks! and played like buttah!

Acoustic Fretless in the Vintage Gallery


USA 1975 - Elliott Sharp defrets a $14 Norma, which still remains his favourite.

USA 1975 - Frank Zappa fretless track "Down in De Dew" released on a Guitar World cassette. Originally destined for a four album boxed set "Läther" which was later released in 1996 with a second re-issue in 2012.


Turkey 1976 - Erkan Ogur makes his first fretless guitar.

San Francisco 1976 - While on a two week tour of the States, Norwegian guitarist Terje Rypdal is interviewed for the May 1977 edition of Guitar Player Magazine and mentions he has a fretless guitar, which doesn't sound too good, just for experimentation.


Sweden 1977 - Gunnar Backman enters the fretless scene when he rips the frets off his Hopf acoustic.

Guitar Player, May 1977 - Excerpt from the Terje Rypdal interview...
Q. Do you have any unusual guitars?
A. I have one without frets. It doesn't sound too good though. It was just for experimentation, and I used it for some things with a bow. I also have a quarter-tone guitar which I tried but found it's better to just bend to get microtones. For one thing the spacing between the frets gets pretty small.


France 1978 / 79 - Patrice Vigier makes his first fretless guitar, a classical model with a glass fingerboard

USA 1978 / 79 - Guitarist Randy Roos and Steve Holland modify an SG guitar with a stainless steel fingerboard and infinite sustain device. The sustain device was patented by Steve Holland. They later modified a twin neck Ibanez to stainless steel fretless which Randy regularly gigged with and can be seen on the front cover of his album - Mistral.

Randy Roos - Mistral

This 1978 album's liner notes (by Mike Gibbs, composer/arranger & Berklee prof who, btw, arranged McLaughlin's symphonic Mahavishnu LP) mention the double neck as having the infinite sustainer. (Spoonfed records)

Randy Roos - Headstock detail

Album images and info; Kai Matthews


1979 - This fretless guitar (Yamaha SA-1500) was one of 12 prototypes (this one was offered to Lee Ritenour but he declined). The model never made it into production. Picture and info courtesy of Gary Bender.

Yamaha SA-1500


USA 1980 - Tim Donahue designs & builds his first 6-string fretless guitar.

France 1980 - Vigier makes the first commercially available fretless guitar with Delta Metal fingerboard. This was part of the Arpège series.


USA, Spring 1981 - Jim Kimsey willfully unfrets a Supro 'Super model 3/4 size guitar.

May 1981 - Andy Summers features on the cover of Guitar World magazine with his Custom Fretless Hamer.

Andy Summers - Custom Fretless Hamer


Quote from 1984 film - "There's no such thing as a fretless guitar. You're bloody making it up. Get out." - Nigel Tufnel, This Is Spinal Tap.

Adrian Belew - uses fretless guitar on "Three Of A Perfect Pair", track; "Sleepless"
source: Toby Graves


Japan 1986 - The Selva Guitar company license one of Tim Donahue's designs and produce the first production fretless guitar; the Selva Tim Donahue Model. Tim also produces the first ever fretless guitar tutorial book, published in full, in Unfretted's Masterclass section.


Guitar Player / May 1987 - Tim Donahue, Pioneering Fretless Guitar.

Tim Donahue - Guitar Player / May 87

This is the first page of a Guitar Player article from May 1987,
click here to read the Complete Article.


USA 1990 - Ned Evett unfretted his Strat with a pair of pliers.


USA 1991 - A Chicago luthier modifies Jim Kimsey's fretless Supro making the bottom 4 strings fretless and the top 2 strings fretted and the Fretless Super Buzzmaster is born.


USA 1992 - Chet Atkins plays "Summertime" on a Fretless Nylon Chet Atkins Gibson that the company made specially for him. This features on the DVD "Chet Atkins & Jerry Reed at the Bottom Line in NYC."


Guitar Player / May 1993 - Dan Stearns, two handed fretless.

Dan Stearns - Guitar Player / May 93

One of Dan's many appearences in Guitar Player. Complete article.


Poland 1996 - Ryszard Latecki creates the semi-fretless guitar The LATAR a cross between a fretless and a fretted guitar. Ryszard now holds the patent for the semi-fretless Latar.

USA 1996 - Jon Szenics begins experimenting with various polymers for fretless guitar fingerboards; in 2000 he receives a US Patent for use of a specially surface treated polymer as a fingerboard for stringed musical instruments.


France 1997 - Vigier releases the Excaliber Surfreter (Supra and Special) fretless guitars.
Two prototypes had been made in 1995, one allegedly bought by John Paul Jones


January - NAMM - Ned Evett debuts his Fernandes glass-neck sustainer fretless guitar.

May - The UK magazine "Guitarist" reviews the Vigier Excaliber Surfreter (standard).


January - NAMM - The Aram company bring the 2001 model fretless to the show. Specially designed as an eye catcher in deep transparent burgundy, the guitar retails at $695, about 100 were made.

September 9th - La Nuit de la Fretless (1). The first fretless festival held in Mende, France.


Patrice Vigier - Celebrates 20 years of guitar making by building a special Excalibur Surfreter (fretless). The guitar is tastefully decorated with gold and diamonds and has a price tag of $30,000.

The book "Totally Guitar - The Definitive Guide" (Tony Bacon / Dave Hunter) states it was made in a limited edition of two. The Guitar Designer, Patrice Vigier, confirms that only a single guitar was made and that is currently in his possesion.

Fretlessguitar.com - launches as the official distribution channel for Fernandes fretless guitars, products of the company's US Custom shop.


April 7th - La Nuit de la Fretless (2). The second festival held in Mende, France.

Mid year - Godin release the Glissentar a cross between an Oud and an eleven string fretless guitar.

December 7th - Fretless Guitar Masters compliation CD released.


February - California patent #6,350,940 - Fretted/fretless stringed musical instrument.
Abstract: A stringed instrument intended to be alternately played in a fretted mode or an unfretted mode by raising a separate fingerboard to the tops of the frets for the unfretted mode and lowering it for the fretted mode. A pair of meshed rack-and-pinion assemblies are driven back and forth by a lever the motion of which racks are translated to rails that cam the separate fingerboard up and down through pins protruding inwardly from the rails into slide slots in flanges of the fingerboard.

Mid year - Godin release the Multiac Fretless Nylon SA guitar.


June - Ned Evett wins the North American Rock Guitar Championship.

December - Unfretted website created.


September - A few items surface on ebay described as; Takamine fretless guitars, with the first three frets intact, so you can still play chords. The guitars are Jumbo types with no cutaway, and while they are made by Takamine they are actually the Jasmine S35, a students model that can be purchased new for around $99 One offer on e-bay had a buy now price of over four times that! Don't know who removed the frets, if it was a factory job or not, but given the first three frets are still there it is going to be difficult to set up action for good fretless operation.
About a dozen were sold in the USA and three or four in the UK, see the Forum for the full history. Careful with your money out there! --J


August - A working fretted / fretless, switch on-the-fly, guitar is born using a rolling fret type technology. www.mikeyguitar.com

September 10th - 12th - The largest Fretless Guitar Festival in history takes place in New York, USA to launch the CD Village of the Unfretted.

October - Some cheap copies / versions of the original ARAM 2001 Fretless Guitar start appearing on ebay in the UK. These are black with chrome hardware and have bolt on necks. The headstock bears the ARAM logo and the words; "Technologies by USA" (Originals were deep burgundy, through neck with black or pewter hardware)
Read the full story in the Forum before you buy.


Spring - Ned Evett appears in Guitar Player.

August 12th - The first Dutch Fretless Festival takes place in Den Haag.

September 26th - Ed DeGenaro is one of the ten finalists in Guitar Player's Guitar Hero Competition.

September 29th - 30th - The second NYC Fretless Festival takes place in New York.


February 1st - Eric Rhodes' track from the Village of the Unfretted CD, "Barely Makin' It" was played aboard the International Space Station. Full Story and MP3 on Unfretted.

March 17 - Unfretted ZEBOX site opens to host fretless videos and large soundfiles.
Now closed due to the demise of Zebox

November 16/17 - Dutch Fretless Guitar Festival 2 takes place at Haags Pop Centrum and The Musicon, Den Haag, Netherlands.


September 20th - 21st - The third NYC Fretless Festival takes place in New York.

October - Ed DeGenaro appears as "The Outsider" in Guitar Player

November 5/7/8/9 - Dutch Fretless Guitar Festival III takes place at The Musicon (5th), Haags Pop Centrum (7/9th), De Pater (8th) Den Haag, Netherlands.


May 29th - 31st - Dutch Fretless Guitar Festival IV takes place at Haags Pop Centrum (29th), De Pater (30th), Haags Pop Centrum (31st) Den Haag, Netherlands.


May - Dutch Fretless Guitar Festival V takes place at Den Haag, Netherlands.

June 26th - Glastonbury Festival UK - Muse concert on the Pyramid stage, in the song "Resistance" Matthew Bellamy played a custom doubleneck, top neck fretless - used in the intro and outro with sustainer. The guitar was custom made by Manson guitars and has the model name "Casinocaster"

Matthew Bellamy - Manson Casinocaster

December - Tim Donahue Produces the World's first Fretless Harp Guitar.
Review of Fretless Harp Guitar 17/Jan/2011


May - Dutch Fretless Guitar Festival VI takes place at Den Haag, Netherlands.


January - Vigier release the Second Generation of Surfreter at Winter NAMM. The fingerboard is now made of imetal, a chrome coloured metal that is harder than the previous Delta Metal, it is also more resistant to wear, does not tarnish and will shine forever.

June - Dutch Fretless Festival VII takes place in Den Haag, Netherlands featuring: Mika Niehorster, Jahloon, Tellef Ogrim, Craig Scott Band, MTS Trio, Wonka Live, Barend Tromp Band Melle Weijters, Dream Flight, Scott McGill

October - The planned 2012 Fretless Festival in NYC has to be cancelled due to lack of funding.


June - Albert Dambeck along with Inge and her group organise and present the first Austrian Fretless Festival.

Pre History
The Sixties
The Seventies
The Eighties
The Nineties
The New Century
---- // ----

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Fretless Guitar - The Definitive Guide

Recently Updated / New Pages

3rd Austrian Fretless Guitar & Just Intonation Festival 10/Aug/2015
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Review of "Had To Say" Jack Mazzenga's Space-Time Trio 21/Jan/2014
Review of "Dirty Math" Tom Fryer 20/Jan/2014
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CraigScotts Lobotomy 11/January/2014
Updated Quotations page 9/January/2014
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