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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.
@Vincenzo -- a lot of fretless instruments don't have those big, old brass frets to mark but they do have lines painted on where the fret should be so the guitarist first approaching the instrument can figure out where his fingers should be.
Second, you do have to be very precise with a fretless guitar but those who play them develop the speed they need and can throw in a bit of dissonance on purpose here and there. Imagine the fun a freestyle jazz player could have with that.
One thing I am not sure about is the notion that you can tune these differently than fretted guitars. Alternative tunings for fretted guitars are fairly common, so I'm not sure how much different you could make a fretless guitar sound.
I've honestly never heard of such a thing. It seems there would be two problems for people picking up a fretless guitar. First of all, how do you know where you are on the fretboard? Frets tend to mark where you need to be, so picking up a guitar without those handy signposts would be confusing.
Second, the great thing about frets is that fingering does not have to be precise. Just get behind the fret, press down on the string and the fret takes care of the rest for you. It seems that feature allows for a bit less precision and can lead to more speed.