Frets!? Where we're going we don't need frets!
In the world of Bass there is a strange compulsion, one which anyone who hasn't embraced the depths of the beaconing lowness possibly wont truly appreciate.
From Jaco to Jack Bruce, Les Claypool to Charles Berthoud the primal instinct to go back to the beginnings of bass, to cast aside the convenience of frets, and go old school is always there.
The mighty urge to go fretless is always a temptation.
To that end, I am sometimes called upon to convert a bass with frets to its de-fretted state. Let’s go over the considerations and techniques necessary to embark on this jazzy journey to slinky sounds.
Behold, this exceptionally nice 6-strong Cort bass.
Now, before committing to a fretless conversion, consider the instrument itself.
Are you sure this is the right choice for this riff stick?
Will the conversion negatively affect the resale of the instrument?
Am I happy to outlay the cost to convert?
Is the bass string through?
That last one is important if you want to use flat wound strings, as they cannot be used on string through body instruments.
If you've mulled these considerations over and have decided to go ahead here's a run-down of what’s involved in a conversion.
First job, de-fretting: To begin we remove the nut and manipulate the truss rod, to put the neck into a gentle back bow. The back bow helps fret removal by relieving any compression on the fret slots caused by neck relief (forward bow).
Now using special fret removal pliers, masking tape, a fret board guard and soldering iron we heat the frets to liquefy any glue inside the slot. Then quickly and carefully work the fret out of the slot with the pliers. This can be a slow process as we need to be careful to avoid any chipping, so the slots look clean.
There are a few different methods of filling in the slots. Some make a wood/glue paste, some use putty. But in this case, I chose to offset the rosewood top with some thin cut maple I carved and glued into place. After leaving the slots to dry overnight they can be carefully trimmed flush with a sharp chisel.
Now the fret slots are filled, and excess removed, we use a straight edge and manipulate the truss to make sure the neck is straight. Once straight we use the appropriate radius block to sand down the neck starting coarse and getting gradually finer till the fingerboard is totally smooth and tactile.
From here we must choose how best to protect the top. Maple tops require sealing by tru oil, polyurethane, or cyanoacrylate glue. This is because maple reacts poorly to the oils and sweat secreted by our hands resulting in discoloured grey/green stained wood and rough raised grain. However, the small amount of maple we have used is already effectively glue sealed and the top has a wonderfully tight grain so a through waxing is perfect to finish.
And there you have a basic overview of the process. On this bass I also hand crafted a bone nut because I’m a classy bitch, and because now there are no frets. I would have had to re cut the plastic nut anyway to accommodate the new action and while we are upgrading, in for a penny in for a pound. Ya know?
Well, I hope this has illuminated somewhat the process of fretless conversion. And given you some pause for thought regarding whether to attempt it with your own instrument. Should you be interested further drop me a line.
Till next time stay safe and riff hard.