The fretless bass is one of the most iconic and easily identifiable sounds in all of music. The second you hear that woody, melodic sound, you instantly know it’s a fretless bass. Countless records feature the sweet sounds of fretless bass, and music today wouldn’t be the same without it.
Since fretless basses have become so common in jazz, R&B, and beyond, it’s easy to forget that they haven’t always been around. While fretless upright basses have been a thing for a very long time, the fretless electric bass is actually a relatively modern invention—one that greatly changed the sound and course of modern music. Today, let’s look back at the history of fretless bass, how it came to be, and how it’s been used in music since its invention.
Where Did Fretless Bass Come From?
The history of fretless bass, like many things in music, is a bit murky. No one knows exactly who first removed the frets of an electric bass and fashioned it into a fretless. We will likely never know who actually invented the fretless bass. That said, one of the earliest documented users of an electric bass was none other than Rolling Stones bassist, Bill Wyman.
When you think of fretless bass, The Rolling Stones probably isn’t the first artist that comes to mind. However, Bill Wyman was actually one of the first users of the fretless bass. As with many musical inventions, it all started with gear issues.
Wyman first started playing bass on an electric guitar with the two bottom strings detuned. While playing in an R&B band in 1961, he purchased a cheap bass from an acquaintance. He was excited to finally have a real bass, but he was quickly disappointed when he realized the bass had issues. He said it rattled with every note because of how worn the frets were.
Deciding to fix the bass, Wyman removed the frets. He planned to replace them later on when he had the money, but the bass sounded great without the frets. And thus, the electric fretless bass was born. Wyman’s fretless bass can be heard on many early Rolling Stones albums and singles, such as Paint It Black.
After Wyman removed his frets and showed the world that fretless electric basses could work, the fretless bass started to become more widespread. In 1965, Ampeg released the first production fretless bass, the AUB1. With an incredibly iconic fretless player on the radio and production fretlesses starting to hit shelves, it was only a matter of time until other players became interested in fretless bass.
Soon, there was a wave of new fretless bassists forging their own sound with the instrument. Dan Friedberg of Bonnie Raitt’s band, Rand Forbes of the United States of America, and more were seen using fretless basses. There are two players who stand-out from this wave of early fretless players—Rick Danko of the band and Bernard Odum of James Brown’s band.
Rick Danko’s bass playing is incredibly unique, and his use of the fretless is a big part of his sound. Though most associate fretless bass with jazz, Danko used it to great effect in The Band’s eclectic mix of roots, rock, blues, and more. Due to the rather raw mix, his unique playing can be heard loud and clear on the Neil Young classic, Revolution Blues.
The other standout player from this era was Bernard Odum. With James Brown and his band, Odum created some of the most timeless and beloved basslines of all time. I’d say more, but I don’t think it takes an expert to figure out why Odum is seen as one of the best and most important bassists of all time. Just listen to the sheer funkiness of James Brown’s I Got The Feelin’ and Odum’s ability is obvious.
Now, the man you’ve been waiting for—Jaco Pastorius. When most people think of fretless bass, they think of Jaco. He is easily the most iconic and well-known player of fretless bass. His association with fretless bass is so iconic that it’s hard to even imagine it without him.
Jaco was undoubtedly a true master of the fretless bass. His playing was melodic, soulful, technically impressive, raw, innovative, and powerful all at the same time. He really could do anything with the trusty “Bass of Doom” in his hands. Whether he was doing post-bop and free jazz with his own band, pushing fusion forward with Weather Report, or working with Pat Methany to take Joni Mitchell’s 70s material to new heights, Jaco always managed to impress. Sadly, Jaco tragically died after being beaten outside of a club in 1987 at the age of 35, cutting his revolutionary career painfully short.
Interestingly, Jaco’s tone is noticeably brighter than many of the most famous fretless bass players, and this is primarily owed to his preference for stainless steel bass strings. This may be an unconventional choice for a fretless bass, but then again, Jaco is no conventional player.
All you have to do is listen to a clip of one of Jaco’s many lengthy solos to see why he is considered by many to be the best bassist of all time, fretless or not. If you find yourself spending the rest of the day binging Jaco albums and live performances, I am not sorry.
Post-Jaco Fretless Bass
It should be no surprise that Jaco left a massive footprint on the world of bass and music in general. Countless players were inspired by the sounds Jaco was able to create and picked up where he left off. While there are many players who could be included in this list, these are a few of the most iconic and interesting post-Jaco fretless players.
Pino Palladino is an incredibly well respected fretless bassist who has played with seemingly everyone. He has played with the likes of The Who, David Gilmour, Elton John, Jeff Beck, J. J. Cale, Eric Clapton, Melissa Etheridge, D’Angelo, Nine Inch Nails, John Mayer, and many more. His playing is very versatile, ranging from smooth and melodic fretless lines to more aggressive, blues heavy playing. With a discography like his, it’s clear he’s comfortable playing just about anything.
While Pino also plays a lot of fretted bass, he frequently uses a fretless. Many of his best bass lines are fretless, and he’s been an inspiration to many upcoming fretless bassists. His bass line on Paul Young’s Wherever I Lay My Hat (That’s Home) is a great example of his skill.
Tony Levin might be the most unique player on this list (besides Les Claypool). Though he’s equally well-known at this point for his unique approach to slap bass, or for playing the Chapman Stick with King Crimson, he’s also an incredible fretless bass player.
Throughout his career Tony has racked up quite a list of credits; he’s worked with Pink Floyd, Herbie Mann, Yes, Carly Simon, Don McLean, Lou Reed, Buddy Rich, Paul Simon, Alice Cooper, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Tom Waits, Warren Zevon, Stevie Nicks, David Bowie, and countless others.
Playing wise, Levin is a very creative and inventive player, while also being incredibly versatile. He can play heavy and complex rhythmic lines like those with King Crimson, melodic jazz playing, straight rock playing, and more. However, his most iconic bassline has to be from Peter Gabriel’s hit Sledgehammer.
No list of modern fretless bassists would be complete without Les Claypool. Many non-bassists may know him as the guy who did the South Park music, but there’s a lot more to his career than that iconic intro.
Claypool is mainly known for his work in Primus, one of the weirdest bands of the 90s that somehow got a major label deal. His playing is, well, “unique.” There is certainly no other bassist you could mistake him for. He is a virtuosic player who was famously denied entry into Metallica for being too good (and weird). His playing is incredibly rhythmic, filled with slapping and popping, tapping, flamenco style strumming, and more. He has carved out his own incredibly identifiable bass style with his custom, six string, fretless basses.
While there are countless examples of his wild and wacky playing, Jerry Was A Racecar Driver is a classic Primus track with his fretless bass upfront and center.
The fretless bass started out as a desperate modification by Bill Wyman to improve the sound of his low quality bass, but it ended up becoming its own instrument and taking the music world by storm. From rock to jazz to new-wave, the fretless bass has become an integral and iconic part of music. Many songs and albums just wouldn’t be the same without it. Whether it’s in the hands of a jazz virtuoso like Jaco or a session expert like Pino Palladino, there’s nothing quite like the sweet, woody, and melodic sound of the fretless bass.