Slide on over: The Best Fretless Bass revealed

Last Updated on May 2, 2021 by Dave Tudor

So who’s your favorite fretless bass player and what song makes you want to rip all the frets off your fretted electric bass with wanton abandon?

I guess we’ve all got our quintessentially favorite fretless basslines that exemplify the sheer versatility of these hugely expressive instruments. 

For me it’s Pino Palladino’s legendary intro to Paul Young’s ‘Wherever I lay my hat’. I don’t even particularly like the song, but Pino’s sublime fretless bass work has stuck with me since the song was released in 1983. You instantly recognise the song from the bass intro. It was of course originally recorded in 1962 by Marvin Gaye.

You may have other fretless bass player favorites: Mick Karn of Japan for example, or how about Cream’s Jack Bruce, Weather Report’s Jaco Pastorius, Victor Wooten or Primus’ Les Claypool?

So what are fretless basses?

Sometimes there’s no other way of explaining something other than stating the obvious and now is one such occasion. Now pay attention people, a fretless bass guitar is the same as its fretted counterpart but without any frets! 

Aesthetically, electronically and functionally they’re practically the same – especially if the model in question has fret markers which do look like frets from the front. They derive their roots from the upright double bass which gives them their unique sound. Sliding up the neck on a fretless bass has a sound all of its own.

Throughout this best fretless bass article, we’d like to introduce a new word to the English language – Mwaaahh! You won’t find it in any dictionary but if you’ve ever played fretless bass guitars you’ll know exactly what we mean. 

For those unfamiliar – it’s the sound a fretless bass guitar makes when you slide up and down the fingerboard. If ever a word summed up this sound – it’s this!   

Why would you want to buy a fretless bass guitar? 

In short, for tonal variety, smooth, effortless playing and those awesome tonal harmonics and fingerboard slides and glides. 

If you play a fretted bass and just need something entirely different in your locker then a fretless bass could be just what you’re looking for. They’re particularly suitable for jazz and ballads, but listen to how Les Claypool uses his bass and that turns tradition on its head. Fretless bass guitars are more versatile than they’re given credit for.   

Is it harder to play a fretless bass guitar?

Probably. You need to be accurate with your fingering and whereas on a fretted bass guitar you aim for just behind the fret to hit a note, on a fretless, if you’re using one with fret markers, you’re looking at hitting the note ON the fret. With a little practice, you’ll master it. 

A fretless bass guitar however gives you near infinite control over feel and sound shaping – simply because you’re not restrained by frets. You can find all those fingerboard microtones that exist between two notes that you can’t access on a fretted bass. 

So can you slap a fretless bass?

Fretless basses don’t tend to be used for slap styles, but the short answer to the question is ‘yes’  – but with reservations. 

And if you need proof…

If you’re using roundwound strings, we’d be a bit concerned about damaging the fingerboard with excessive amounts of slappage. Flatwounds probably wouldn’t give you the slap sound you’re hankering for, but they would be kinder on the fretboard. 

But really, if you’re a Mark King aficionado, a fretless bass guitar wouldn’t be your first choice.  

What are the best bass strings for a fretless?

Renowned for their bright, percussive tones, roundwound strings are the most commonly used flavor on fretted bass guitars but on a fretless variant with their nickel core and wrap around wire, there’s always the possibility of ‘denting’ the fretboard. Some players swear by them though so there’s no hard and fast rules here.    

Typically, fretless bass guitars are strung with flatwound strings. They’re not as aggressive sounding and in the hands of a skilled player, they sound warm and silky smooth and almost dull compared to roundwound strings. 

Another bonus is that flatwound strings are less likely to tear your fingers to shreds when you’re sliding up and down the fingerboard to reach notes.   

Do you need fret markers?

We would recommend buying a fretless bass guitar with fret markers. But it’s really up to you. Sure, you’ll see experienced fretless players revving up and down the fretboard with no markers and there’s no denying they look fantastic, but your tuning and finger positioning will be more precise with markers, especially if you’re just starting out. 

Plus, in our opinion, as visual guides, they really help with playing scales on a fretless.  

Criteria

Keeping it simple is the order of the day here. These characteristics form the foundation of our fretless bass guitar review:

  • Construction / Build Quality
  • Sound
  • Price
  • Versatility  

OK on with the review. Budding Pino Palladinos – read on to find out our top picks for the best fretless bass guitars available today. 

But before we get down to business – if reading detailed reviews isn’t your thing, or you don’t believe patience is a virtue then we’ll cut to the chase. Our choice for the best fretless bass is the Fender Player Jazz Fretless Bass Guitar. So now you know!


1. Best Overall: Fender Player Jazz Fretless Bass

Mexican manufactured Fender guitars may not have the status of their American made stablemates but there’s no doubt they’re better value for money. 

For some, the US pedigree is everything. For everyone else, Mexican made Fenders represent a lot of guitar for your buck. They may be lacking some of the bells and whistles but they’re anything up to a grand cheaper!

This is the second Jazz bass in this shortlist and for your money you get the usual staple diet of goodies: slender neck, dual pickups and those characteristic rumbling Fender Jazz tones. It’s a tried and tested combination. 

This model sports an alder body, Pau Ferro fingerboard and a maple C-shaped neck with satin urethane finish for effortless slides in true fretless fashion. The Jazz tones are provided courtesy of two Fender Player Series Alnico 5 single coil pickups. 

You can get some great funky vibes from this set-up – bridge pickup full on and neck pickup backed off a little. Roll of the tone a bit and play finger style by the bridge pick up and you’re there!  

The Pros

  • The finish on this fretless bass is excellent and the 4 saddle bridge offers accurate intonation and easy action adjustment. It’s a bass that’s just crying out to be played
  • Buttery smooth neck. Personally we like it – a lot – but fans of matt finishes may find it a bit slippery 
  • Good value for money when pitched up against USA Fenders
  • We’re sorted on the dot/marker front. The Fender Player Series Fretless Jazz Bass sports tidy white inlaid fret line markers and side dot position markers centered between the lines

The Cons

  • We’ve mentioned this before but Jazz basses are substantial beasts so if you’re going to be gigging with this it’s something to keep in mind 
  • The supplied 0.045 – 0.100” Fender Bass 9050L stainless steel flatwounds sounded a little dull to us. It’s a subjective point
  • That’s about it 

The Verdict

Well it’s a Jazz bass so you know you’re getting one of the most tried and trusted bass guitars on the planet. 

Most people will know straightaway if this is the bass for them. If you like narrow, fast, comfortable necks and the versatility of blendable pickups for a variety of tones then you won’t go far wrong. 

In terms of the fretless factor, the Fender Player Jazz won’t disappoint. Equipped with a nice set of flatwounds, slides up and down the neck are effortlessly smooth. 

Who should consider the Fender Player Jazz fretless bass?

This is a mid-priced instrument that’s worth every penny. The ideal candidate for this bass is the owner of a fretted Jazz who fancies a fretless.  

Take a look at the Fender Player Fretless Jazz Bass at zZounds


2. Best on a Budget: Squier Classic Vibe 60s Jazz fretless

Since 1982, like Gibson with Epiphone, Squier has carved a niche in the marketplace as being Fender’s ‘affordable’ brand. Electric bass players have bought them in their droves over the years. 

There have been many incarnations of Squier guitars since their inception – and to be honest the quality varies wildly – but it would be true to say that the brand has produced some pretty high quality products since their inception.  

Squier Classic Vibe instruments are inspired by vintage Fender models of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s – and here we take a look at the 34” scale Squier Classic Vibe 60s Jazz fretless bass guitar.  

The Fender Jazz bass needs no introduction and arguably its popularity is eclipsed only by its stablemate – the Fender P-bass. The Squier Classic Vibe 60s Jazz Fretless continues the tradition with dual ‘blendable’ Fender-designed alnico single-coil pickups providing a deep, punchy electric bass tone.    

Bass guitar beginners and more experienced musos alike will appreciate the inclusion of fretlines on the Indian Laurel fretboard. The slim, fast C-shaped bolt-on neck is everything you’d expect from a Jazz. 

A vintage style bridge and tuners just adds to the retro look – as does the vintage tint gloss finish on the maple neck. Body material is poplar – a full-balanced, versatile tonewood that really brings out the deep tones of this bass guitar. Rich and soulful.    

The Pros

  • Classic Fender Jazz looks. A budget to mid-priced bass with a retro feel
  • A nice sounding bass guitar. The alnico pickups provide plenty of tonal variation from smooth to growl to downright funky
  • Smooth, fast neck 
  • Includes both white inlaid fret line markers and side dot position markers centered between the lines. Both welcome inclusions
  • Priced just about right

The Cons

  • No case or gig bag supplied
  • Maybe just us but we found the fret markers difficult to see in darker environments
  • Not really a gripe but Jazz basses are heavy by default

The Verdict

A classic bass for a decent price. For the best fretless sound, you’ll need to swap the roundwound strings for flatwounds.  

Who should buy this bass?

Smaller players might find Jazz basses too heavily generally. But if you like the classic Jazz shape and sound – and who doesn’t – this guitar won’t disappoint.  

Head on over to Amazon for the latest pricing on the Squier Classic Vibe 60s Jazz Fretless Bass


3. Best 5 string fretless bass: Ibanez SRF705 Portamento

This is the first of two (low B) 5 string bass guitars in this review – and it’s an Ibanez so you know you’re guaranteed excellent build quality and sound flexibility.

This isn’t a cheap instrument, so, depending on your finances, it may not suit someone who wants a fretless to experiment with. At this sort of money, you’ll most likely know what you want – and have the beer vouchers to pay for it.  

The 34” scale SRF705 sports a 5 piece maple/walnut through neck and Okoume top back and body. We’ll come clean – we had to Google the fretboard material – Panga Panga – because we’ve never heard of it. 

Apparently it’s a close relative to Wenge which is a dense wood like ebony with similar mechanical characteristics and feel. That means tight lows and mid range, along with a sharp attack in the high end.

Providing the sounds are two passive split coil Bartolini MK-1 pickups – but there’s also an Ibanez exclusive AeroSilk Piezo pickup complete with Ibanez 2-band EQ with active tone control. 

There are 6 control knobs on this beast: Piezo volume; 2 x pickup volume controls; Piezo active tone; bass boost/cut and treble boost/cut. You can dial in just about any tone with this configuration. 

Flip the SRF Portamento over to the rear and you’ll see recessed controls assigned to each individual string to control the volume of the Piezo pickup. Great if you use different string gauges. The SRF705 is supplied with flatwound strings.    

Please note: there is a 4 string version of this bass available

The Pros

  • The AeroSilk Piezo system is excellent for producing tones akin to an upright bass 
  • The Bartolini pickups are surprisingly quiet for single coil – and they’re very versatile
  • Huge sound with virtually endless flexibility via the myriad of pickup/piezo/EQ combinations. Awesome mwaaahh factor!
  • Great accessibility to the silky smooth 30 fret, 2.5 octave neck. The SRF705 really bridges the gap between an electric and an upright bass
  • Screwdriver-less battery access
  • Marker lines on the side of the neck

The Cons

  • No case
  • Arguably there may be too many control knobs on this bass making sound selection confusing, especially when playing live between songs
  • It’s expensive

The Verdict

Undoubtedly one of the best fretless bass guitars in this review. It’s not a budget instrument but it just oozes quality.

Particularly worthy of note is the sheer flexibility of sounds available through the pickups/piezo arrangement. A top class, high quality instrument and one of the most desirable 5 string fretless basses around in our opinion.  

Who should consider the Ibanez SRF705 5 string bass? 

It’s hard to determine who wouldn’t like this guitar. Build quality is fantastic; sounds are excellent and it’s extremely comfortable to play. Hard to justify as a beginner instrument. The price tag is a bit hefty.

Take a look at these two videos for an indication of the SRF705’s tonal versatility:

Take a look at the Ibanez SRF705 5 string fretless bass at zZounds


4. Recommended: Fender Tony Franklin Fretless

We simply had to create a ‘Recommended’ category for this bass guitar.

In fretless bass circles, Tony Franklin is a legendary bass player. Aside from a mountain of session credits, the English supremo is best known for his work with the likes of Jimmy Page, Roy Harper, Whitesnake, Kate Bush, David Gilmour and Kenny Wayne Shepherd. That’s him on the featured image for this article (image courtesy of https://www.fretlessmonster.com).

And let’s face it, you’ve got to be half decent to have a signature instrument and Tony Franklin is very much the real deal. The collaboration between guitar maker and bass guitarist resulted in the Fender Tony Franklin fretless bass guitar, which was launched way back in 2006.  

In terms of pure quality and sound, the Fender Tony Franklin Fretless is the best bass on this list. But it’s also the most expensive by a long way and for that reason it will be beyond the budgets of many players.  

Let’s dig into the specs. You get a C-profile bolt-on maple neck, a buttery ebony fretboard (you do get side marker dots), and alder body. The body and ever so silky neck are finished in exquisite nitrocellulose lacquer which looks absolutely awesome. The Lake Placid Blue color is jaw-dropping.   

But then things get interesting. First up, you get a Tony Franklin designed ‘P/J’ pickup configuration, which in layman’s terms means a bright split single coil Precision bass neck pickup AND a growling Jazz bass bridge pickup.

Note that this bass comes with a 3-way selector switch. Pretty unusual in bass guitar circles but you can’t blend tones like on a Jazz. 

The second interesting feature is the inclusion of a Hipshot Drop-D tuner on the E string. This works fantastically well allowing you to drop tune quickly and accurately at the flip of a lever. 

OK let’s summarize:

The Pros

  • A 100% premium instrument. Flawlessly manufactured and finished. Outstanding. 
  • The P/J pickups and 3-way selector switch is a heavenly combination. Rich, deep tones. A Fender P-bass and Jazz rolled into one
  • Instant drop D tuning 
  • You get a deluxe hardshell case and even a set of nickel-plated Tony Franklin signature strings (0.045 – 0.105”). And a high quality cable is thrown in
  • Don’t hold us to this, but the fretboard is hard ebony. You should get away with roundwounds without fear of damage

The Cons 

  • There are none. Except the price

The Verdict

As we’ve said, if money is no object, buy this bass. It sounds fantastic, looks divine and takes fretless bass playing to another level. It’s even engraved with Mr Franklin’s signature on the neck plate. 

The man even has his own YouTube channel.

Sounds? Aggressive, intense, and responsive or just plain mellow. Any style will work on this bass.   

However you pay for the quality – and no matter how good an instrument is, if you can’t afford it, it’s a non-starter.  

Who should buy the Fender Tony Franklin Fretless Bass? 

Well Tony Franklin for one. If you’re as good as he is, it’s a no brainer. This is a professional instrument for discerning players. You want the best, you have to pay for it.   

‘Like an aggressive Grizzly Bear’ someone commented on YouTube:

See the Fender Tony Franklin Fretless Bass atzZounds


5. Schecter Session Stiletto 5 Fretless Electric Bass 5 string 

Schecter guitars are one of those brands that aren’t quite in the big league in terms of popularity, but really they should be. In every sense – sound, playability, quality and value for money – they’re up there with the best. They’re not widely known for their fretless bass guitars. 

After the Glastonbury festival in the UK in 2019, sales of Schecter guitars soared after The Cure’s blistering headline performance. Cure frontman and guitarist Robert Smith is a long-term advocate of these excellent guitars and has his own signature model – the Ultracure.  

Schecter also make fine bass guitars – the Session Stiletto 5 fretless electric bass being a case in point.     

Made in South Korea, this is a 5 string bass with a swamp ash body, bolt-on maple neck and fretboard. It’s a 35” scale instrument so a tad longer than the norm. It comes equipped with side dot markers/ebony side blocks so you’ll always know where you are on the fretboard.  

The Schecter Session Stiletto 5 has plenty of grunt under the hood via its EMG bridge and neck pickups. Enhancing the sonics even further is a 3-band EMG battery powered active EQ that really does the business in terms of flexible sound shaping. 

The electronics work well with the materials used to make this bass. It sounds full across the entire audio spectrum – from mellow to thunderous – and exhibits great sustain.  

The Pros 

  • Good to see that flatwounds are supplied as standard (Ernie Balls)
  • Incredible range of sounds. The EMG pickups and EQ are superb
    Subjective – but a decent set-up straight out of the box
  • Versatile. Someone said jazz to death metal. We’d go along with that
    High cutaway allows excellent fretboard access

The Cons 

The Verdict

With its half-marked fretboard this is a distinctive looking, mid-to-upper priced fretless bass guitar. It’s well made from quality materials, stays in tune well and has a palette of sounds that would rival any bass in its price bracket. Recommended.    

Who should consider this bass?

A quality, pro standard fretless bass that we think is marvellous value for money. Nobody in their right mind would be disappointed with this. 

Take a look at the Schecter Session Stiletto 5 string fretless bass at zZounds


6. ESP LTD B-204 Fretless Bass

Since its inception in 1975, ESP has evolved into a leading guitar manufacturer. In 2020 it celebrated its 45th anniversary. Today it also has exclusive US distribution and partnership agreements with Engl (tube amps, cabs and accessories) and Takamine guitars.

Without compromising on quality and introduced in 1995, the Ltd range of guitars represents ESP’s affordable range. This is where the B-204SM-FL sits.    

The first thing that strikes you visually is its ‘spalted’ finish which exhibits some really interesting coloration and grain patterns, making this instrument really stand out in a crowd. You get an ash body with spalted maple top in natural satin finish and a five piece maple/jatoba neck.

There’s no shortage of wood variation in this bass – and it looks fantastic – especially contrasted against the black nickel hardware. 24 clearly marked frets means you’ll have no trouble hitting the right note.    

Equally interesting is the electronics on the ESP Ltd B-204SM-FL. The pickups are ESP designed passive SB-4s but adding additional tonal flexibility is ESP’s active ABQ-3 EQ. There are 5 knobs to twiddle: volume/balance/ABQ-3 3-band EQ (control bass, midrange and treble individually).

The Pros

  • If you like natural bass guitars, this is a real head turner
  • Comfortable, fast neck
  • A fantastic value for money mid-priced instrument
  • Loads of mwwaaahh for your buck
  • Plenty of tones to experiment with from the pickup/EQ combination – and virtually no hum

The Cons

  • Because the grain on the spalted maple top is unique, no two guitars will be the same. You may be unlucky and buy one with little ‘spalt’. The generously spalted variants definitely look better
  • Quite a heavy bass – but well-balanced. You’ll need a pretty wide strap
  • The B-204SM-FL is supplied with roundwound strings. Some users have complained that these mark the fretboard. Beware. Get some flatwounds or tapewounds
  • No case – but you can get your hands on one here

This is a decent (if incredibly short) video from the ESP website:

The Verdict

With its distinctive stripe on the rear of the neck, fans of natural finished bass guitars will like this instrument. Amazing build quality with great tone and playability. It’s competitively priced but worth setting aside some extra bucks for a professional set-up to make it even better. 

Sound-wise, the ash body and bolt-on maple/jatoba neck give this bass highly focused low end with bright and punchy mids. 

Who should consider the ESP Ltd B-204 fretless bass?

It’s priced so it won’t break the bank and pictures really don’t do it justice. It’ll work great as a standalone fretless bass or as an accompanying instrument to a fretted instrument. Good quality for the money. 

The ESP Ltd B-204 Fretless Bass is in stock at zZounds. Take a look for the latest pricing


7. ROGUE LX200BF FRETLESS SERIES III

We’re straying deep into bargain basement land with the Rogue LX200BF Fretless Series III. Rogue don’t even have a website!

From what we can tell, Rogue guitars are built in South Korea by Sunbo. We also understand that Rogue is a house brand for the Musicians Friend/Guitar Center. 

This is undoubtedly one of the cheapest fretless bass guitars you can buy. In fact it’s hard to believe that instruments can be made this cheaply – and it’s good that they can because not everyone can afford inflated prices or may not need anything too elaborate. Enter the Rogue LX200BF.  

So what do you get for not much money? Well, the LX200BF is pretty well specced, featuring an extended maple neck, basswood dual cutaway body, rosewood fingerboard, traditional-style split and single-coil pickups, 2 volume and 2 tone controls, die-cast machine heads and black hardware. You don’t get a case.  

Unfortunately (and perhaps understandably) the build quality falls short. The neck front and back are unfinished and sound-wise the bass lacks any real ‘personality’. 

That said, the stock pickups don’t do a bad job by any means. It sounds best with everything full on in our opinion – and it comes with flatwound strings. 

The Pros

  • It’s a strictly entry-level but playable fretless bass for hardly any money. Corners have obviously been cut in terms of build quality, finish and hardware
  • The paint job is actually passable. And the neck was OK

The Cons

  • No fret markers. Only dots. And they’re not correctly positioned
  • Quality control is lacking. We learned of one user where both tone controls affected the sound on ONE pickup
  • Tons of fret buzz and rattle. We were able to improve this by fitting better strings

The Verdict

It would be unfair to be too hard on the Rogue LX200BF. It is what it is – a very affordable entry-level fretless electric bass guitar but with inherent corners cut in terms of product quality. 

The sound is passable but unless you’re on a mega tight budget or you want one of the cheapest fretless axes on the planet to see if it floats your boat, then it’s hard to recommend this bass.

The problem is, with cheap instruments, quality control is often hit and miss. Consistency goes out the window and it’s pot luck what you’ll end up with. 

Who should consider the Rogue LX200BF? 

Someone who wants to dabble with a fretless electric bass guitar, doesn’t care too much about quality control and is prepared to accept this instrument for what it is. When all’s said and done, it’s really not a bad deal for the money.

See the latest pricing for the Rogue LX200BF Fretless Bass on Amazon


The Bottom Line 

Taking everything into consideration we’ve made our decision but it wasn’t easy. The best bass in this list from a sound and build quality perspective is the Tony Franklin fretless bass. But it isn’t our top pick (although it comes highly recommended).

Because while it’s worth every cent, the price is just wallet throttling. So, with that in mind, we’re looking for the best price to performance ratio, and for that the bass that ticks the most boxes is the Fender Player Jazz fretless.

In our book, it offers an optimum balance between quality and affordability and bags our top spot.  

 

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