How To Play Fretless Bass Guitar In Tune

It's cruel but some producers have been known to call the fretless the 'guessing stick', with many a poor bass player left exposed by its mystery. If you come from playing a fretted bass guitar, the fretless will prove a challenge. However, this video lesson teaches you a few ways to remove the guesswork and conquer the abyss of the fretless fretboard.

Lined vs. Unlined

Lined fretless basses have lines where the frets would be and that gives you half a chance to play the correct note, although it's still by no means guaranteed.


On unlined fretless bass guitars, you must rely more on the side dot markers. Having owned both I prefer unlined. It took me a long time to get there and the lessons in the video are a big reason why. Like the scene in Star Wars where Luke Skywalker takes a lightsaber lesson blindfolded, you are forced to use your senses. I think this ultimately removes you from the crutch of the lines and frees you up a little more.

Unlined fretless bass guitar

Unlined fretless

Fear and Confidence

When you move from fretted to fretless, you can be a good bass player but still sound terrible. It's unavoidable. At first. The fretless requires more from your senses - more focus from your ear and more visual checks.

Sounding so bad at first can knock your confidence a little and cause you to fear the fretless. Push through this. Just keep going with these exercises and you'll build the muscle memory and expertise to play beautifully.

Here's my favourite ever fretless line, played by Jaco Pastorius on Joni Mitchell's Hejira.

It doesn't matter whether you played a lined or unlined fretless - Jaco played lined - but tuning does matter. Three ways to master intonation:

Use Open Strings

  • Play an open E string then the G# at the 13th fret, G string (there are no frets on a fretless but you get the picture...).
  • Then try an open A string and a C# on the 6th fret, G string.
  • Pluck an open D and the 2nd fret, A string.

These are all intervals (major 10ths and a 5th). You'll hear if you're in tune or not. Watch the video for a great tip on what to do with your fretting hand fingers.

Use Harmonics

Play through the harmonic chords using the chord chart in my free ebook. Here's a video going through those chords. Make sure the fretted note is bang in tune with the harmonics (obviously check that your bass is in tune before you do any of this).

Use Drones

Play scales, arpeggios, and triads against a drone. This will drastically tune your ear up. The aim is to train your ear to become super quick at recognising if you're in or out of tune and then be able to adjust that quickly with your fingers. The connection between mind and body becomes much better with practice. You can download 12 drones for free here.

The fretless is more difficult than the fretted bass, especially if you're moving to it after learning a fretted instrument. 

It takes, time, it takes patience, it takes determination, but so does anything difficult that you want to master. Stick with it though and you will be able to make one of the most beautiful sounds in music.

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