Tim Donahue Fretless Selva Model – Review

1986 Selva Model – Review

Selva fretless guitar front

Selva fretless guitar, rear

It may seem strange to be reviewing a guitar made in 1986, some thirty years back, but this is a definitive guitar, the very first production fretless guitar. Only eighteen guitars were made, and the example we have was the first off the production line, made of a solid block of walnut with an ebony fingerboard and a Bartolini hex divided pickup. Later models were mahogany with a standard humbucker. There were variations, but the early models were walnut, the later ones mahogany. Two neck-thru mahogany / maple versions were made and some variants had the volume control on the lower bout of the guitar.

I had searched for many years for one of these guitars, so when one became available, and given it was the first one to be made, I snapped it up pretty quickly.

The guitar arrived after the usual over-the-top customs and import charges, as it came from Japan these charges seem to be very high, don’t really know how they make them up.

Tim Donahue was my intermediary in the purchase as the seller was Japanese and spoke no English.

Renovation (minimal)

The guitar was in remarkably good condition, hardly played, with a few dings but nothing serious. Tim was very helpful and recommended some modifications like reshaping the neck profile and sanding out the odd ding but I wanted to keep the guitar as close to original as possible, the cat (always a connoisseur) kept sniffing it, very interested. So I took all the hardware off and lightly rubbed the surface down with wire wool. I then sourced some genuine tung oil, which comes at a price, about £20 for half a litre. Applying this lightly and allowing the wood to soak this up, drying took about two days. Genuine Tung oil has no dryers or solvents, if you imagine olive oil, you are close, there is no nasty smell, it is pleasant to work with. It took three coats so I guess the guitar had never been oiled in the interim years. Tung oil is a great finish and can be polished with just a lint free rag. I treated the ebony fingerboard (after the Tung oil) with lemon oil.

Selva fretless guitar, neck, dots

One of the remarkable things about the guitar was the condition of the neck, it was still die straight, with no need for planing or adjustment. I took the height of the nut strings down as per the Unfretted Recommendations and adjusted the bridge accordingly.

One thing that me and Tim both noticed was that the guitar was quite loud acoustically, more so than the mahogany versions.

Electronics / Bartolini Pickup

I got in touch with Doug Somervell at Bartolini and his colleague Clyde said: “That is a rare bird there. The pickup is called a 36L. I don’t think we made the mounting plate or volume controls. DCR is in the realm of 6K, resonant peak is ~4dB @ 6KHz”

Selva fretless guitar, bartolini pickup

The Bartolini pickup has six individual coils, all with their own volume control.

Selva fretless guitar pickup pots

You can see these in the picture, I’ve raised the pickup a little to show the pots. They all look to be 33K.

Selva fretless guitar bridge, winders, jacks

There are two jack outputs, the lower one is a mono output feeding all six pickup outputs simultaneously. The top jack is a stereo output, strings 1-4 on one feed and strings 5-6 on the other. I balanced the pickup outputs using the mono channel, very useful and there was no noise from the pots, great considering their age.

Other equipment; the string winders are nice and chunky with a 16:1 ratio.

Headstock (or lack of one)

Selva fretless guitar, nut

As you may have noticed there is no headstock, the strings run through a brass retainer onto the low profile nut.

Strings are D’Addario NYXL Round-wound 9.5, 13, 18w, 24w, 35w, 43w (w=wound)

Selva fretless guitar neck down

Once again you can see the ebony neck is in great condition, hardly played at all. The Scale length is 24¾ inches or 63cm.


This Guitar plays very well indeed, with great sustain, it has that unique growl off the round wound fretless strings, reminiscent of Jaco Pastoriuos’ sound. It might well be my favourite fretless guitar (and I’ve got a few) basically I cannot put it down, it is a testimony to Tim Donahue that he got this design right from the start. It is a wonderful instrument, if you ever find one of the other seventeen made, buy it immediately! (before I do)

Review – Jahloon, October 2015


Tim Donahue plays “Tie Your Mother Down” on his Fretless Selva on stage live at Nihon University, Japan in 1997.


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6 thoughts on “Tim Donahue Fretless Selva Model – Review

  1. Thanks to YOU Jahloon, the TD Selva is still making music 30 years after it was conceived! I play mine regularly as well. Your in-depth review is very appreciated mate. We must have a TD Selva fest in the UK someday!

  2. There are at least 10 of them in Japan (plus the 2nd prototype I own). There are 2 in the USA, and then there are yours and Christophe’s. I don’t know who owns the ones in the USA & Japan, but I do know that Greg Hurley in LA owns a beautiful Red Paduk fretless I made in 1986, which was the first Selva prototype. I’d like to post a photo of it here but don’t know how…

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