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A fretless guitar is simply a guitar that does not have frets. A fret is a raised, often metal, part on the neck of a guitar or other stringed instruments that help musicians play in tune by fingering within fret intervals. Frets add a richer sound to especially acoustic instruments, whereas a fretless acoustic guitar is somewhat damped or produces less reverberation, resulting in a flatter or more muted sound. For this reason, most fretless guitar types come in the form of electric guitars, so that the damped sound is not as appreciable.
There are plenty of predecessors to the fretless guitar. Most classic stringed instruments, the violin, viola, cello and upright bass, do not have frets. Acoustic guitars in the US typically still have frets, though there are a few exceptions. Outside of western music, there are many more fretless acoustic guitars. One reason for this is that tuning can be significantly different without frets, and non-Western scales for tuning may be preferred in certain music.
In the US, this type of guitar was likely first produced in the 1960s, and there have been several guitar virtuosos who play either a fretless guitar or bass guitar or both. Usually, these guitars are electric. They’re still uncommon and they require more skill to play. Without frets, as any player of a violin or cello can tell you, your fingering must be absolutely precise. Place your fingers just a little wrong, and you’re playing the wrong note, or playing sharp or flat. In rock music this may be viewed as an advantage, creating slight dissonance.
Famous guitarist Jimi Hendrix used a Black Widow fretless guitar in the studio in the late sixties, and according the site Unfretted.com, the guitar was stolen. Unfretted claims Hendrix had ordered another one just before his death. Frank Zappa used fretless guitars in numerous recordings in the early 1970s, often to push the envelope on sound and dissonance with his unusual version of rock.
Other musicians who are known for their work on fretless guitars include Steve Vai, Andy Summers and Pat Metheny. Vai is considered a veritable rock virtuoso and Summers is best known as the guitarist of The Police, but also for his fearless and experimental playing, particularly in albums recorded after The Police broke up. Pat Metheny, arguably one of the best jazz guitarists in the world, uses the instrument in some of his pieces. His jazz fusion music is equally adapted to fretless work since he often experiments with the music of other cultures, where the sounds of a fretless are more appropriate.
Though the fretless guitar may not be the instrument of choice for many rock and acoustical guitarists, it has inspired a small following. This is clearly shown at the New York City FretLess Guitar Festival, held in early fall every couple of years. The festival features plenty of musical performances on the instrument, and there are workshops and demonstrations to attend for those just learning how to play a fretless.