In his own words…
I first heard Jaco Pastorius on Pat Metheny’s Bright Size Life record in 1976. Later that year, I saw the trio play at the Jazz Workshop in Boston. Soon, my brother switched to fretless bass, and I loved the singing tone and freedom of pitch that was available to fretless players. Although fretless guitar was much less common then, I did see Randy Roos playing a fretless guitar, with an early sustainer system.
I got my first 31-tone equal tempered guitar in 1979, and because there were so many frets, I could finally slide around much like on a fretless bass. I also found out how to identify 31 different pitches in the octave. By the mid 80’s, I had an Interchangeable Fingerboard guitar, which included a radiused fretless Stainless Steel fingerboard, as well as a 49-tone Just Intonation fingerboard of my own design. I found it was much easier to play fretless guitar in Just Intonation, because it was derived from the Harmonic Series and, when playing an interval, you could actually hear the beats slow down as the interval became more in tune, and then the beats stopped when the interval was purely tuned. I also learned to listen for the difference tones, which would come into focus and really let you know when you were in tune.
In 1999, I struck a deal with G&L Guitars where they would send my company, FreeNote Music, guitars without any frets, dots, or position markers anywhere on the neck. We could then fret the guitars in various microtonal tunings, such as the new 64-tone Just Intonation design, or make them into Fretless Guitars, using an extensive process that required applying layers of epoxy and radiusing the fingerboard after each layer. The result was better tone and sustain than I had on the Steel fingerboard, and also a more slippery, easy playing feel.
I used the Steel fingerboard for recordings including the Catler Brothers ‘Crash Landing’, Birdhouse, and on ‘Just Stompin’ with La Monte Young and the Forever Bad Blues Band. It was great to tour with, as I only had to bring one guitar, and then pop in fretted or fretless fingerboards in just a few seconds.
Recordings done after 2000 with the G&L Fretless include 3 CD’s with Willie McBlind, ‘Find My Way Back Home’, ‘Bad Thing’, and ‘Live Long Day’.
I also put together a new Fretless Sustainer guitar for use in La Monte’s Just Alap Raga Ensemble. The sustaining tones and 2 1/2 hour length of the piece allowed lots of time to fine tune the pitches. In my group Fretless Brothers, the current 2 releases have focused on Harmonic Series jazz, using instruments fretted in 12-Tone Ultra Plus, but everyone plays fretless and we are working on some new fretless material. Most recently, I used the Fretless Sustainer on a new duo recording, ‘Ultra Minor’, with drummer Ra Kalam Bob Moses.
I think that it’s helpful for fretless guitar players to have a good understanding of the Harmonic Series. Listening to the beats is the best way to tell if something is in tune. Also, having a guitar with Harmonic Series frets, such as the FreeNote 12-Tone Ultra Plus or the 24Fret JI, gives the player a way to hear what these pitches sound like, which helps when dealing with the infinity of pitches offered on the Fretless Guitar.
Here’s some pics:
Babe Borden and Jon Catler with FreeNote Fretless Sustainer
A FreeNote Fretless neck on a G&L Legacy
Freenote Fretless neck on a G&L S-500
Willie McBlind Live at Bowery Electric, NYC
Willie McBlind CD release show for ‘Bad Thing’, Live at Triad, NYC
Fretless Brothers Live at The Cutting Room, NYC
Jon Catler on guitar, Hansford Rowe on bass, Brian Chase on Drums, Dane Johnson on guitar (not pictured)
Live with the 64-tone Just Intonation guitar, Mat Fieldes bass, Jim Mussen Drums