Home » Music » Fretted vs Fretless Bass – An IN-DEPTH Guide, Pros and Cons

Fretted vs Fretless Bass – An IN-DEPTH Guide, Pros and Cons

Performer Life is supported by its readers. If you buy something with our links, we may earn a commission.

When it comes to musical instruments (like the bass guitar), self-expression is one of the significant aims of picking it up. One major goal of any player is to express their artistry and their entire personality on the musical instrument of their choice. 

The good news is that there are many ways this can be achieved; each individual is different and thus would want to self-express differently. This explains why there are always different specifications for musical instruments (like the bass guitar). 

In the case of bass guitars, each bass will always be uniquely modified. These modifications might include mechanics, electronics, body, design, and overall construction.

This ensures that every player has a bass guitar, regardless of what they resonate with. 

One aspect of the bass guitar that is often modified and diversified by both players and manufacturers is the bass’ neck (when we say “neck,”  we also include the fretboard). This diversification of the neck helps in both tone and ergonomics. 

Some necks are longer and bigger, while some are shorter and slimmer. Some basses have frets, while some are fretless. In this article, we will discuss fretted and fretless basses and explore their differences and why players favour each. 

Fretted bass guitars are the norm, while fretless ones are a bit of a rarity. Frets are important to bass guitars because they guide players to play bass notes in an acceptable and standard intonation easily. 

Frets determine the correct positions of each note; thus, they make bass playing a lot easier—especially when playing chords on the bass. On the other hand, fretless basses offer an unlimited space of musical and tonal possibilities. 

You can play notes outside the standard Western scales with a fretless bass. All you have to do is use your ears—there are no boundaries to what you can do in pitch and tonality. Also, slides and vibratos are smooth on fretless basses—you can almost sound like a human voice. 

However, fretless bass guitars have their downsides, too. You will rarely find a beginner bass player with a fretless bass. This is because this instrument requires top-class mastery. In all ramifications, there is better bass for a beginner player. 

This article will analyze the differences between fretted bass guitars and their fretless counterparts. If you have always wanted to know the differences, this article is for you. All you have to do is read on! 

About the Fretted Bass

A fretted bass is an acoustic or electric bass guitar with a series of raised metal strips, known as frets, embedded along the fingerboard. These frets divide the fingerboard into specific segments, allowing the bass player to play notes with precision and control. 

Frets are raised metal strips made of nickel, stainless steel, or brass embedded into the fingerboard of a fretted bass. 

The frets are placed at precise intervals, following a logarithmic scale known as equal temperament. The distance between each fret corresponds to a specific musical interval, typically a half step or semitone. 

The width and height of the frets may vary depending on the bass guitar model, but their function remains consistent across instruments. 

The frets serve as reference points for the player, facilitating the production of precise pitches and allowing for the execution of techniques such as pitch bending, vibrato, and slides.

During the 1930s, Paul Tutmarc, a musician and innovator from Seattle, Washington, revolutionized the world of music by creating the first electric bass guitar with frets intended to be played horizontally in its contemporary configuration. 

However, they have been the norm since the introduction of the “Precision” bass by Fender in October 1951. 

Since then, fretted bass guitars have become widely popular and have been instrumental in shaping various genres of music.

The fretted bass guitar’s design with its frets provides several advantages to bass players. The frets offer a visual and tactile reference for accurate note placement, enabling musicians to play in tune and maintain consistent intonation. 

This feature is particularly valuable for beginners and those who require precise pitch control in their playing. Fretted bass guitars also facilitate the execution of techniques such as chords, arpeggios, and complex melodic lines. 

About the Fretless Bass

A fretless bass guitar is an electric bass guitar that lacks the traditional metal frets found on fretted instruments. 

Instead of having frets, the fingerboard or neck of a fretless bass is smooth, resembling the fingerboard of traditional stringed instruments like the acoustic upright double bass or violin. 

The absence of frets allows for a unique playing experience and offers a distinct sound characterized by smooth slides, glissandos, and a more expressive and vocal-like tone. 

Fretless bass guitars are favoured by many accomplished bassists across various genres for their versatility and ability to create melodic and nuanced basslines.

The key distinction from the fretted bass guitar lies in the absence of frets on the neck. Instead, the fingerboard is typically made of wood, such as rosewood or ebony, with markers or side dots indicating the positions where the frets would be. 

These markers assist the player in locating specific positions on the neck. The strings on a fretless bass are typically round-wound or flat-wound, with the latter being a popular choice due to their smoothness and ability to produce a warm tone. 

Fretless bass guitars can be electric and acoustic, with electric versions utilizing pickups to amplify the sound, while acoustic versions rely on the body’s natural resonance.

Historically, after adopting the fretted bass in the 1950s, musicians started to explore new sounds and techniques, and some began removing the frets from their bass guitars. 

Notable bassists like Jaco Pastorius and Sting popularised fretless bass in the 1970s and 1980s, showcasing the instrument’s expressive capabilities and unique tonal qualities.

Since then, fretless bass guitars have become integral to musical genres like jazz, fusion, world music, and progressive rock.

Fretted vs Fretles Bass Review

The scales, theory, design, build, and electronics are nearly identical when comparing fretted and fretless bass guitars. The main differences lie in the tone, strings, and playing technique. 

A fretted bass has metal frets embedded on the fingerboard, dividing the neck into specific notes and providing a reference point for precise intonation. On the other hand, a fretless bass lacks these frets, allowing for a smoother and more expressive playing experience. 

Fretless bassists can explore microtones and slide between pitches without frets, offering a greater range of tonal possibilities and melodic expression. 

Tonally, fretted bass guitars offer a cleaner and more defined sound due to the frets providing clear note separation and sustain. The frets contribute to a sharper attack and a distinct “twang” or “pop” sound, particularly when playing with techniques such as slapping and popping. 

On the other hand, fretless bass guitars have a unique tonal quality characterized by a smooth, mellow, and vocal-like sound. The absence of frets allows for subtle pitch variations, glissandos, and vibrato techniques, resulting in a more expressive and nuanced tone. 

Fretless bassFretted bass
Lacks metal frets and has a smooth fingerboard, often with markers or side dots indicating fret positionsHave visible frets on the fingerboard, creating horizontal lines
Allows for smooth slides, glissandos, and microtonal variations between notesFrets restrict pitch variations and sliding between notes
Requires the player to rely on finger placement and ear training for accurate intonationProvides clear note separation, precise intonation, and a defined attack
Difficult to play and requires more trainingEasier to play and suitable for beginners
Smooth, mellow, and expressive toneSharper attack, distinct note separation, and a cleaner sound

Fretted Bass Pros and Cons


  • More widely available and accessible compared to their fretless counterparts.
  • Commonly found in music stores and come in various price points, offering options for musicians with varying budgets.
  • Can be played comfortably at various action heights. Higher action may allow for a stronger attack and potential for bending notes, while lower action can facilitate faster playing and smoother transitions between frets.
  • Highly versatile instruments suitable for a wide range of musical genres and playing styles
  • Recommended for beginners due to their user-friendly nature
  • The presence of frets is beneficial when playing complex basslines with intricate rhythms or executing techniques such as chords, double stops, or tapping
  • Compatible with standard bass accessories such as capos, string mutes, and various effects pedals, expanding the sonic possibilities and creative options for bassists


  • Can be less expressive compared to fretless basses due to the absence of subtle slides, glissandos, and other techniques that rely on smooth finger movement along the fretboard
  • restrict the player’s ability to produce microtonal variations and pitch bends
  • sometimes suffer from buzzing or intonation problems
  • generally have shorter sustain compared to their fretless counterparts due to the dampening effect of the frets on string vibrations
  • Frets can wear down over time with extensive use, requiring maintenance or eventual replacement
  • Maybe less suited for certain music genres that rely heavily on fretless bass techniques, such as jazz, fusion, or world music styles 
  • Sliding or gliding your fingers along the frets can sometimes cause discomfort or friction
  • Offer limited customization options in terms of altering the pitch range or implementing unconventional tunings

Fretless Bass Pros and Cons


  • Allows for a more expressive and smooth tonal character
  • provide a wide range of tonal possibilities and expressive techniques, including slides, glissandos, and microtonal playing
  • It allows you to transition into different notes, enabling smoother legato playing seamlessly and enhanced melodic expression
  • Provide players with precise control over intonation
  • Allows for exploring microtonal nuances, harmonics, and different tonal textures
  • Allows for more nuanced dynamic control, enabling players to emphasize softer passages 

The video is a perfect example of a fretless bass’s expressive and tonal abilities.:


  • More challenging to hit the desired pitches consistently due to precise finger placement requirements. 
  • It involves a learning curve, as players need to develop a heightened sense of pitch and fingerboard awareness
  • It may require more frequent maintenance and setup to ensure optimal playability
  • absence of frets can result in increased finger noise, especially when sliding or gliding between notes
  • lack of frets can cause strings to wear faster as they come into direct contact with the fingerboard material
  • Maybe less commonly available in music stores 
  • Not as suitable for genres that heavily rely on the precise pitch, such as certain types of rock, pop, or metal

Famous Players Who Play Fretted Bass Guitars

  • Paul McCartney: The legendary bassist of The Beatles, Paul McCartney, primarily played a Hofner 500/1 Violin Bass and Rickenbacker 4001S, both fretted instruments.
  • John Paul Jones: As the bassist of Led Zeppelin, John Paul Jones is known for playing a wide range of bass guitars, including the Fender Precision Bass, a fretted instrument.
  • James Jamerson: James Jamerson, a highly influential bassist known for his work at Motown Records, primarily played a Fender Precision Bass.
  • John Entwistle: John Entwistle, the bassist of The Who, often played a variety of bass guitars, including the Fender Precision Bass and the Alembic Series I.
  • Geddy Lee: Geddy Lee, the bassist of Rush, has been widely recognized for his skilful bass playing on a variety of bass guitars, including the Fender Jazz Bass
  • Carol Kaye: Carol Kaye, a highly respected session bassist, has played numerous guitars, including the Fender Precision Bass.

Famous Players Who Play Fretless Bass Guitars

  • Jaco Pastorius: Jaco Pastorius is widely regarded as one of history’s most influential fretless bass players. His innovative approach and virtuosic playing style on the fretless bass revolutionized the instrument’s capabilities.
  • Bernard Odum: Bernard Odum, James Brown’s bass player, is mentioned as one of the early adopters of the fretless bass and an influence on Jaco Pastorius.
  • Mick Karn: Mick Karn, best known as the bassist for the band Japan, played fretless bass extensively. His unique fretless bass lines contributed to the band’s distinctive sound.
  • Pino Palladino: Pino Palladino, a highly respected session bassist, has incorporated fretless bass into his playing on various recordings. He collaborated with artists like D’Angelo, John Mayer, and Eric Clapton.
  • Tony Franklin: Tony Franklin, known for his work with The Firm and others, is recognized for his fretless bass skills. He has developed a signature fretless bass model and has been sought after for his melodic and expressive playing.

Fretted Basses, In Summary

Fretted basses are a common type of bass guitar with metal frets embedded along the fingerboard. They share similarities in design, build, and electronics with fretless basses but differ in tone, strings, and playing technique. 

Fretted basses typically have 20 to 24 frets, although some may have fewer or more. They offer clear note definitions due to the frets guiding finger placement. 

This makes them easier to play, especially for beginners, as the frets indicate the precise pitch locations. Fretted basses are widely preferred by bassists in various genres of music for their distinct sound and versatility.

Fretless Basses, In Summary

A fretless bass is an electric bass guitar that lacks the metal frets typically found on the fingerboard. It resembles traditional string instruments like the acoustic upright double bass.

Fretless basses provide more freedom to the player, allowing for smooth transitions and access to micro-notes on the strings. Some fretless basses have markers or stripes on the fingerboard to aid note navigation. 

These instruments require the player to accurately find and play the notes without the assistance of frets, resulting in a unique and smooth sound. Fretless basses are popular among musicians seeking a warm, natural bass tone and flexible playing style.

Buying Guide/Frequently Asked Questions

Which brands are known for producing quality fretless bass guitars?

Some reputable brands known for their fretless bass guitars include Ibanez, Fender, Music Man, Yamaha, and Warwick. These brands offer a range of options suitable for different playing styles and budgets.

Which is easier to play in tune, a fretted or fretless bass guitar?

Fretted bass guitars are generally considered easier to play in tune due to the fixed frets providing reference points for accurate finger placement. Fretless bass guitars require more precise finger positioning to achieve accurate intonation.

Can I convert a fretted bass guitar into a fretless one?

It is possible to convert a fretted bass guitar into a fretless bass guitar by removing the frets and filling the fret slots.

However, this process requires skill and knowledge of instrument modification or should be done by a professional luthier.

Do fretless bass guitars require special maintenance?

Fretless bass guitars require regular maintenance, including keeping the fingerboard clean and properly lubricated, monitoring string wear, and replacing them when needed.

It’s essential to care for the fingerboard to prevent excessive wear and maintain optimal playability.


In conclusion, fretted and fretless bass guitars offer distinct advantages and cater to different playing styles and preferences. Fretted bass guitars with raised metal frets provide precise note placement and are suitable for beginners and players requiring consistent intonation. 

They offer a cleaner and more defined sound with clear note separation. On the other hand, fretless bass guitars offer a unique playing experience with smooth slides, glissandos, and microtonal variations. 

They allow for a more expressive and vocal-like tone and are favoured by accomplished bassists in genres like jazz and fusion. Both types have pros and cons; the choice ultimately depends on individual musical preferences and playing style.