Partially Fretless Guitars

If you thought Fretless Guitars were rare, there is a rarer beast, the Partially Fretless Guitar, which means it has some frets and some fretless sections. These do vary, so let’s take a look at the examples we have found in chronological order.

Fretless Super Buzz master (1991)

This is a guitar that started off fretted, became fretless and then became partially fretless. Here is how it happened…

Back in 1981 Jim Kimsey unfretted a Supro Super model 3/4 size guitar and he played this fretless for the next ten years, not even bothering to fill the slots left by the frets. In 1991 he got a Chicago luthier to modify the Supro again making the lower four strings fretless and the top two strings fretted. In addition  a sitar style buzz bridge fitted to the top two strings and the Fretless Super Buzzmaster was created.

Fretless Super Buzzmaster
Fretless Super Buzzmaster

More Jim Kimsey (Unfretted)

The Latar (1996)

Step forward Polish guitarist Ryszard Latecki the inventor of the LATAR, which could be described as a semi-fretless guitar. In 1996 he wanted to buy an acoustic fretless bass guitar. To feel the sound under the finger and use articulation, colourity and interpretative possibilities of a fretless instrument. He could not find such a guitar in any shop in Warsaw.

Then he had the idea to turn a regular acoustic guitar into a fretless bass,  and thought of combining the advantages of a regular and a fretless guitar. He made the first instrument from an old guitar bought at a market, and it really worked well!

That was the cue to patent the idea, his philosophy was that he was happy for anyone to make a Latar, but if they manufactured the idea, at least he would make a little return from it.

Rysard and Latar
Ryszard Latecki and The Latar

Interview with Ryszard Latecki (more info on the Latar)

Gunnar Backman’s 33 frets per octave Partial Fretless

This is a regular strat converted into baritone scale length, there are 33 frets per octave up to where you’d almost find a fifth on a regular guitar, then the rest is fretless, the reason was to be able to play just intonation in all keys and everything in between plus leaving it fretless on the top to have both worlds.
It featured on Gunner Backman’s tune C.O.L.D. from “Village of the Unfretted” in a couple of interludes with shenai, on the fretless double album , he later made a 33 fret octave where he made frets all the way to where you’d find the octave.

Gunnar's 33 fret semi fretless guitar
Gunnar’s 33 fret semi-fretless baritone guitar

Takamine (Jasmine S35) Partial Fretless Guitars (2004)

These first appeared in September 2004 through to May 2005 and were Jumbo types. They were actually the Jasmine S35, branded Jasmine but made by Takamine, at the time the retail price was $99 as it was considered a student’s model. On eBay prices partial fretless models reached $399! (This was at the time when phantom bidders could artificially bid and push prices and interest up. There was only one guy selling them, one at a time and the same phantom bidders pushing things.) Around a dozen where sold in the USA and 3 or 4 in the United Kingdom, again from a single seller with an identical advert, from Poole, Dorset, with an e-bay starting price of £75 and a buy now price of £150.

The guitar itself had the first three frets intact, so you can still play chords. (The advert said.) What’s really ineresting is that while the first three frets are fitted, the fret slots are cut for the other frets and not filled. We 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 playing.

So whatever reason may exist it certainly wasn’t meant to be a fretless guitar! We suspect these were actually school guitars – not intended to be fretless at all, as if you pass out guitars in class there are all the show offs zooming dischordantly up and down the fretboard. With only three frets you can concentrate on Cum-Bai-Yah without any interference. Negatives for students are you cannot tune adjacent strings – no fifth or fourth frets, so every student needs an electronic tuner.

Takamine Fretless Alert – The Forum Thread

Justin’s Ibanez

Unfortunately I’ve lost the original information on this partial fretless, which is a cross between the Takamine and The Latar. The first three frets are complete, the remainder cover the top three strings. I would be very grateful if anyone has any further info.

Justin's Ibanez


Ash Mandrake 10 String (2006)

It is not often you turn up to a gig and find a Fretless Guitar, even rarer to find a Partial Fretless Guitar.

The Ashmandrake10string is a customised Yamaha APX 12 string. It outranges a normal guitar by one octave. The ratio of the intervals between the strings is standard, but they range from a bass A (7 frets below a bass E on a normal guitar) to a high A (5 frets above the high E on a normal guitar!) The strings are: 4 Bass (flat wound nickel) plus three pairs of strings in octaves (3 bronze wound, and three nickel). The bass strings feed through hot Seymore Duncan, Bass Lines pickups (wired as humbuckers), and the original piezo under the bridge; The 12 string end feeds through the piezo.

Ashmandrake partial fretless guitar
Gradually vanishing frets of the Ash Mandrake 10 string with attached 6 string

The guitar is a 16 string that has evolved from the original 10 string and yes, it is covered in leather! The whole assembly includes a vocal microphone which along with the guitar feeds a looper.

Ash Mandrake – the man himself

Ash Mandrake is based in Bath, United Kingdom and is both a performing artist and hat designer. He worked  with Andy Manners, of Rare and Vintage Guitars on Bath’s Saville Row, to develop this new guitar. He won a competition to become The Bard of Bath and has played eight times at Glastonbury Festival. Often specific songs will need different hats, he is quite an entertainer with a varied repertoire of comedy, poems and music. I was so impressed I bought three CDs straight off, at times he can sound quite Celtic and has a great voice and vocal range, sometimes so sweet it makes you think of Robert Wyatt.

Ashmandrake 2
Ash Mandrake performing



OZMA #22: double necked 16 string guitar for Dave Bernabo. (2013)

In luthier Jeffrey Schreckengost’s own words: This instrument was constructed for experimental artist Dave Bernabo. The original idea was to build a double neck that wasn’t a traditional six string / twelve string orientation – an instrument that could create extreme high and low notes. We got together a few times and talked about what it might be- it could be fretted, fretless or fanned fret and the number of strings was still up in the air. Before I started designing the instrument, I actually took rough measurements of Dave sitting and standing and what would be a comfortable size for the instrument in either position. I did a few rough drawings and then we met again to refine the ideas.

ozma 5

Each neck is a 3 piece flamed maple construction with rosewood fretboards. One neck features a 25.5 inch scale (2 bass courses in octaves, 4 treble single courses) and the other has 2 separate scales, one side of the fretboard is a 30 inch scale fretless and the other side is an 18 inch scale fretted with three dual courses, octave tuned. The combination of scales and fretted/fretless fingerboards really opens a lot of sonic possibilities that just wouldn’t be possible with another instrument. This side of the instrument also features a movable pickup that can amplify behind the bridge playing and drones from the high strings. The main body is made from poplar and is semi hollow with a rosewood top.

ozma 22 headstocks
OZMA #22 Headstocks

ozma 22 with case

I’m interested in recycling and re-use and had Pittsburgh Artist Jody Perigo create the custom soft case from reclaimed billboard material.


OZMA Instruments – Facebook page – More images and guitars from Jeffrey Schreckengost

James Fenn’s 22-edo Partial Fretless Guitar (June 2016)

Like Gunnar Backman’s 33-edo (frets per octave) guitar this features 22 frets per octave and the frets end at the octave point. The neck was put together by the luthier Ian Robinson, in Bognor Regis, United Kingdom.

James had several reasons for the partial fretting, in his own words: I love the sound of fretless guitar, fretless chordal playing is a challenge, microtonal fretless chording is a helluva challenge and tiny-fiddly-frets annoy me!

James Fenn 22edo partial fretless
22-edo Partially Fretless Stratocaster
More Fretless Guitars

2 thoughts on “Partially Fretless Guitars

  1. Added 33 fret to the octave partial fretless from Gunnar Backman.
    Added OZMA #22 16 string partial fretless guitar.
    Added James Fenn’s 22-edo partial fretless.
    10 June 2016

  2. I was the guy making the 3 fret guitars (not the UK guy). I thought it actually solved the problem and was truly unique. I actually have a provisional patent on it and looking to team up with someone. I haven’t made them in 10 years but it was really unique. They were just sort of a prototype at the time. If someone could build a real one they could be sick.

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