Origins of the Fretless Guitar in the Twentieth Century

Yamaha SA-1500 Fretless Guitar (1979)

Many fretless instruments have existed throughout history and it could be argued some of these are the precursor of the fretless guitar. The fretless guitar is, however, an adaptation of a conventional guitar and could be said to be a “discovery” rather than an invention.

These seeds of discovery are peppered over the twentieth century, occurring in different places at different times, with individual musicians with little or no contact with each other.

I strongly suspect, as with the banjo in the nineteenth century, home made instruments had to be made cheaply, so there must have been early fretless guitars around at that time, with the cost of adding frets or just the technical difficulty of fitting frets made it easier to leave them off.

Early Days

In 1912 the Larson brothers created the Maurer Harp Guitar, Which had one playable fretless neck (August Larson held a patent for this), with one conventional fretted neck.

Maurer Harp Guitar
Maurer Harp Guitar

Harry Partch experimented with a fretless guitar in 1945 at the University of Wisconsin, USA, specifically for microtonal pieces, but his was a limited field at the time and nothing more was seen until the 1960’s.

See More at: Unfretted History Early 1900’s

The 1960’s

In 1965 John Cale and Sterling Morrison released an album with a track “Stainless Gamelan” citing the instruments as Cembalet and Fretless Guitar.

In the late 1960’s, 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 made a Fretless Guitar for Jimi Hendrix, it was probably an Acoustic or Ted’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. John Lennon also had a Fretless Guitar made by Acoustic which we think is now owned by George Harrison’s family.

Acoustic Fretless
Acoustic Fretless Black Widow Guitar

Greg Segal bought this Black Widow Guitar in 1985, more info here.

We do know some Acoustic Black Widow Fretless Guitars were made in Japan back then, possibly from a specification by Harvey Gerst.

See more at: Unfretted History the 1960’s

The 1970’s

Frank Zappa laid down five fretless tracks in the early 1970’s using an Acoustic Black Widow, but a major breakthrough came in 1976 when Turkish master musician Erkan Oğur made his first fretless nylon acoustic guitar. This sparked the flashpoint for the fretless guitar in Turkey where it is now a popular instrument. The reason for this is that the traditional Turkish scales cannot be played on an instrument with equal temperament tuning. (12 equally spaced notes to the octave)

Indian Musician Vasant Rai, a Sarod and Sitar Player moved to New York in 1972 and developed the Sur-Guitar, basically a classical guitar with a steel fingerboard, sadly he died in 1985 aged only 43. More information and interview with Vasant Rai here.

The latter part of the 1970’s saw NYC resident Elliott Sharp defretting his $14 Norma Electric, Gunner Backman of Sweden and Norwegian guitarist Terje Rypdal with Fretless Guitars while in France Patrice Vigier made a Classical Nylon Fretless Guitar with a glass neck. In the UK guitarist John Etheridge took the frets off a solid Guild guitar in ’76 and usually plays at least one fretless track at gigs.

Back in the USA Randy Roos and Steve Holland were converting regular guitars with steel fingerboards, though only five were ever made. Randy Roos’ work inspired Adrian Romero to go fretless.

Fretless Yamaha SA2000

Steve Holland Yamaha SA-2000 Stainless Steel fingerboard conversion.

Japan also saw a Yamaha Fretless Guitar the SA-1500, though twelve were made it did not make it into production.

See more at: Unfretted History the 1970’s

The 1980’s

In 1980 Tim Donahue built his first fretless guitar and after his studies in Berkley College USA left to live in Japan. This inspired a whole raft of Fretless Guitar players there, including Luna Sea guitarist Sugizo, by 1986 Tim had his Selva Fretless on sale as a production run, eighteen guitars were made.

Selva fretless guitar front
im Donahue Selva Fretless (1986)

Patrice Vigier in France made the first Vigier Fretless Guitar with a Delta Metal fingerboard in 1980 but it would be 1995 before he made another two and 1997 before a full production run and launch at NAMM 1997 featuring demonstrations by the greatly missed guitarist Shawn Lane.

Hamer made a fretless guitar for Andy Summers of the Police and also made a five neck guitar for Rick Nielson. (one neck was fretless)

By the mid 1980’s Jon Catler in New york, USA, was using a Fretless Guitar with a stainless steel removable fingerboard that could be swapped with a 49 fret just-intonation neck. Meanwhile in Greece George Zikos had gone fretless electric in 1986 and went on to present fretless guitar on Greek Television in 1998.

Adrian Belew also became a convert playing fretless in King Crimson and we know Robert Fripp has also played fretless from time to time.

See more at: Unfretted History the 1980’s

The 1990’s saw an upturn of interest in the instrument. Ned Evett took out his pliers and Unfretted his Strat in 1990, six years later he had an acoustic guitar converted with a glass neck, and in 1998 debuts his Fernandes glass-neck sustainer fretless guitar at the NAMM (North American Music Manufacturers) show. Ned continues to be a huge influence in the fretless world and made Boise Idaho quite a hotspot for players, for example Tom Baker, Morgan Kraft and Ben Burdick.

In Japan 1994, Sugizo first starts using Fretless Guitar in the band “Luna Sea” they were very Metal in the early days but went on to create more eclectic music.

As traction continued Edward Powell made his first fretless in Canada while in the USA Jim Kimsey went fretless in Chicago, Neil Haverstick went fretless in Denver,  Gibson made Chet Atkins a Fretless Acoustic, Dan Stearns was featured fretless in Guitar Magazine and Michael Vick Unfretted his Telecaster. In Turkey Cenk Erdogan took up fretless while in Poland Ryszard Latecki creates the semi-fretless guitar called The LATAR. Swedish born Lutte Berg moves to Italy and takes up Fretless Guitar.

In the UK “Guitarist” magazine features a review of The Vigier Fretless Excalibur Surfreter
and Gary Moore used a Vigier Surfreter (fretless) on the track “Go on Home” from the CD “A Different Beat”.

Ron Thal plays Fretless Guitar for the first time at NAMM 1998. (Vigier Excalibur Surfretter Supra)

Darby Slick declared himself “King of the Fretless Guitar” on his 1998 CD using perhaps the first fretless / fretted double neck guitar.

January 1999 at NAMM the Aram company bring their 2001 model fretless to the show – and in the closing days of the Twentieth Century Franck Vigroux hosts the First Fretless Guitar Festival in Mende France: “Nuit de la Fretless”

See more at: Unfretted History the 1990’s

Coming soon: Fretless Guitar in the Twenty-first Century.

History Timeline More Fretless Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.