Schecter Stiletto Studio-5 Fretless Bass
NS Design CR5 RADIUS Fretless Bass
Fender Player Fretless Jazz Bass Guitar
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Have you ever heard a bass line that just sounds incredibly smooth and fluid?
Sure, we’ve all heard bass players that are simply amazing from a technique standpoint, but I’m talking about those tones that just seem to float on water.
If you listen to anything from the late great Jaco Pastorius and more commercial tunes like ‘New York Minute’ from Don Henley or ‘Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes’ from Paul Simon., you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.
We’ve already covered a long list of the best bass guitars out there, but in this review, it’s all about the fretless bass. We’ve got 5 models which stand out from the crowd in different ways, from affordable to iconic and rare, plus there is a load of information towards the end covering commonly asked questions.
So let’s slide and groove through them all, shall we?
The Best Fretless Bass Guitars:
Ibanez Bass Workshop SRH500F Fretless Bass
If you think that a fretless bass is just a fretted one without frets…well, the Ibanez Bass Workshop SRH500F may make you completely rethink that impression. It’s loaded with a ton of distinctive features that easily places it at the top of my favorites pile.
First off, this fretless bass has a semi-hollow body design (complete with an f-hole), using spruce for the top and mahogany for the sides and back. That alone is something you won’t find in most other fretless basses (heck, even fretted ones), and it produces a full tone when played unplugged.
The neck itself is made from a jatoba and walnut combination, and the fingerboard is made from Panga Panga (another rosewood alternative).
You can tell that the SRH500F is geared to make fretless bass players out of any good bass player, and that’s thanks mostly to the unique design of the fingerboard itself. Not only does it have dot inlays to act as ‘fret markers’, but it has small black lines that are visual indicators of where to position your fingers to get the right note intonation.
Electronics on the SRH500F are out of the ordinary as well, as it uses an AeroSilk piezo setup in the bridge (somewhat similar to those found on an acoustic guitar). That alone produces an atypical tone, and it can be shaped even further with single volume and tone control knobs. Further adjustments can be made via trim pots under the rear cover that let you tweak the gain for each individual string.
In my opinion, all of these features make the SRH500F simply out of the park when compared to competing fretless bass models, regardless of the price range.
Fender Player Fretless Jazz Bass Guitar
If the Ibanez SRH500F is among the most ‘different’ models on my list, the Fender Player Fretless Jazz Bass will put us firmly back into ‘Vintageland’ – and that’s certainly not a bad place to visit…
The Player line is Fender’s first market entry above the Squier models, but it would be a mistake to think that means ‘low quality’. On the contrary, what you get for the relatively low price is impressive. Starting out with the alder body, it’s a Fender Jazz – ‘nuff said. It’s an iconic design that has been a Fender hallmark since it’s initial release in 1960.
The modern ‘C’ neck is constructed from a strong piece of maple, and it has a Pau Ferro fingerboard as well. ‘Pau Ferro’ doesn’t roll off the tongue like ‘rosewood’ does, but it’s a more than capable alternative with a similar tone structure.
Featured pickups on the Player Fretless Jazz were specifically designed for the Player series, using Alnico magnets in a single coil configuration (one in the bridge and one in the middle position). Controls are decidedly vintage with two volume knobs (one for each pickup – a great option for blending the two signals) along with a master tone.
The chrome plated hardware carries on the vintage vibe, with open gear tuning machines and a bridge that features individual string saddles for action and intonation adjustments.
The Fender Player Fretless Jazz Bass combines classic Fender styling in a very functional mid-level fretless bass model – well worthy of being a part of any discerning bass player’s collection.
NS Design CR5 RADIUS Fretless Bass
Ned Steinberger came to prominence in the ‘80s with his innovative headless guitars. While they aren’t found on every stage these days, there’s no doubt that his tradition for shaking things up continues – and proof positive of that is the CR5 RADIUS Fretless Bass.
Pretty much every aspect of the CR5 (it’s a 5 string, just so you know) is unique when compared to the competition. Starting off with the body, it has a maple construction with a flamed top for visual effect, while having a convex radius on the back for comfort along with an extremely well balanced design.
The neck is just as impressive, featuring a solid piece of maple with a super strong carbon fiber core. The fingerboard is true ebony, and the headstock…wait – what headstock?!? As with most NS Design instruments, there isn’t one – the ball ends of the strings seat into an aluminum headplate.
So how do you tune it, you may ask? The patented tuning mechanism is incredibly stable, and it’s integrated into the bridge assembly (think a ‘big brother’ version of the fine tuners found on a Floyd Rose guitar trem bridge and you’ll get the idea).
NS Design partnered with EMG to create a combination of magnetic pickups along with a piezo element (mounted close to the bridge). That, coupled with an 18V preamp, provides a tonal range that may be beyond what most other basses can deliver.
Overall the CR5 is a top tier, pro level instrument – there’s no mistaking that. Usually when you hear ‘you get what you pay for’ that means a cheap bass for a cheap price. The exact opposite is true here – it costs more, but it’s hard to debate the level of quality and craftsmanship that the CR5 has in its possession.
Schecter Guitar Research Stiletto Studio-5 Fretless Bass
With the Stiletto Studio-5 Fretless Bass, Schecter gifts the fretless bass community with a sleek fretless bass with enough tonal options to fit within just about any style of music.
Featuring a neck through construction, the body of the Stiletto is made from mahogany with a bubinga top along with a laminate maple and walnut neck. The result is a very attractive bass (I was particularly pleased with the Honey Satin finish) which has excellent vibration transfer.
This is a bass that’s designed for the beginner level fretless player, as the true rosewood fingerboard has lines in it to depict fret locations.
Intonation on a fretless bass is one of the hardest things to pull off, and having the lines as a guide is a great help to keep things sounding in tune.
The Stiletto offers a great deal of tone shaping, starting off with two EMG Hz pickups that are controlled with a blend control, a master volume, and an active 3-band EQ.
Aiding to the visual impact is the satin gold hardware, featuring a Diamond bridge along with Grover tuners for maximum stability.
The Stiletto Fretless may not be the ‘flashiest’ bass out there, but it’s a great combination of good looks and impressive features that emits a mojo which is hard to deny.
Ernie Ball Music Man Stingray H Fretless BFR
The Ernie Ball Music Man is an absolute icon when it comes to bass guitars, usually for their fretted models which countless famous artists have played on records for generations. The fretless model, however, is something quite special.
The first thing that catches your eye is the unusual figured neck made from roasted maple back to front. Normally, guitar makers tend to stick with the more traditional oil and wax coating, however, this model includes a polyester coating which will ensure it stays in pristine condition for decades.
The double cutaway body is made from ash, which is rarely used on modern production bass guitars today. Ash is a harder tonewood known for producing a good balance between brightness and warmth, it’s harder to work with as manufacturing goes, but delivers an incredible sustain and blend of tones.
Ernie Ball are known for their high-end electronics, and the featured humbucker on this model is no exception. They’ve added neodymium magnets which deliver a much higher output which filters through an 18 volt 3-band EQ, delivering ultra clean notes without any overload. The controls include a master volume, treble, mids and bass.
This helps to get tones that are as sonically impressive as the visual beauty of the body.
You’ll find a Music Man vintage bridge with a string-thru design, and custom tuners as well.
What is a fretless bass?
Yeah…I know – the answer is obvious, right? A fretless bass has – wait for it – no frets.
In all seriousness, though, it really goes a little deeper than that.
Frets are used in modern western instruments like the bass or the guitar to create proper note intervals. The traditional Western chromatic scale has 12 tones from octave to octave, and that’s what you get with a fretted instrument.
The note played at the 12th fret is an exact octave of the open string, and all of the frets in between are mathematically placed to divide the string length to produce the remaining 11 semitones.
With a fretless bass, the limitation of having just those 12 tones available is eliminated; you can get all of the juicy microtones that are ‘in between’. You’ll find that playing one provides options for both sound and technique that you just can’t get from a traditional fretted bass. Which leads me to…
Why should you play a fretless bass?
There are several reasons why a bass player may choose to go the fretless route. It certainly isn’t the most common way to go, for sure, but there are aspects that are particularly attractive.
Let’s take a look…
Smooth pitch transition
Let’s say you want to raise the pitch of a note in a smooth manner. The best way to accomplish this would be to bend the string (easier said than done on a bass, I know…but it can be done effectively on the thinner strings). That’s just peachy.
What you can’t do on a fretted bass is lower the pitch in that same way. Bending raises string tension, therefore a higher note. With a fretless bass, you can simply do a controlled slide down the neck. Since there are no frets to limit which notes can be played, the transition on pitch will be just as smooth as bending up.
Fret buzz? What fret buzz?
One of the most annoying things with any bass or guitar is fret buzz. It can be the bane of many musician’s existence, right? Sometimes it seems like no matter what you do you just can’t get rid of it.
No frets = no fret buzz.
Develops your ‘ear’
Since frets are used to give precise note intonation, that safety net is completely gone with a fretless bass. That means you have to develop your ear and your technique to play the notes in exactly the right location on the neck to give your notes the correct pitch (that being said, many models have lines on the fingerboard to help guide you along).
That being said…here’s a little bonus.
Let’s say you’re playing live and you notice that one of your strings is slightly out of tune. You can easily make it until the song is over if you simply adjust your finger position to play a little sharp or flat to make up the difference.
Can you convert a fretted bass to a fretless bass?
Time for a public service announcement: “If you have a desire to take one of your basses and perform a fret extraction, it may be work best left to a trained tech or a luthier.”
That’s my disclaimer. But you may be the type of person that would look at this as a challenge. If you have the skills necessary, and the thought of doing surgery on one of your instruments doesn’t scare the bejeezus out of you, then by all means, carry on…
I’ll even throw some fire on the flame – check out this video. Follow the directions and take your time to do the best work possible…and you may be able to create a great fretless bass from where there wasn’t one before.
I’d recommend possibly using a bass that may have needed fret work anyways…take ‘em out and you don’t have to worry about it anymore, right? Plus, you just might end up with a ‘new’ instrument that will inspire you to take your playing to a new level. That in and of itself may be reason enough to ‘just do it’…
What Are The Best Strings For A Fretless Bass?
The good news is I’ve already put together a detailed article on bass strings with some recommendations, I highly recommend you check it out. When it comes to fretless bass guitar strings, there aren’t any differences in the types available but some work better than others on a fretless neck.
Roundwounds are steel strings (pretty much all bass strings are made from some form of metal alloy, from nickel to stainless steel) that have a round wrap around a core wire. These strings tend to produce the brightest sound, but they also have the roughest surface – that means more finger noise when sliding up and down and potential wear on the fingerboard of a fretless (over a long period of time)
Flatwounds are constructed in the same manner as roundwounds, but they have an ultra smooth finish and therefore may tend to sound warmer and are often the safer choice. Other strings which work well on Fretless are coated strings and tapewounds (steel strings wrapped in a flat nylon tape) which are often the safest option as far as fretboard wear is concerned.
Be prepared for a much more muted tone, though. Also, there’s no denying that they will feel a lot smoother under your fingers. As with most things, in the end the ‘best’ strings will be the ones that feel the best to your fingers and sound the best to your ears.
Fretless bass guitars can be wonderfully expressive instruments that can produce tones that can be far beyond what a traditional fretted one will give you. They can be a good way to take the skills which a studied bass player has already developed and expand on them, resulting in a greater tonal palette to work from – which means more creativity.
They aren’t for everyone though, as held evident by the relatively limited amount of models that are commercially available. That’s not a bad thing per se, but it is a testament to their uniqueness.
It may go without saying that knowing what to look for in a good fretless bass guitar may be a challenge, and that’s one reason why I think that both the Schecter Stiletto Studio-5 Fretless Bass and Ibanez Bass Workshop SRH500F Fretless Electric Bass deserve a place on my short list of best fretless bass guitars. Both models offer completely different tonal perspectives, but it’s their affordability which I like the most.
Since fretless bass players may be considered in short supply, a large amount of good practical info can be difficult to find. Do a brother (that’s me, by the way) a favor and leave some comments and/or opinions below – you just may be doing someone else a favor at the same time.