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A fretless guitar is a guitar with a fingerboard without frets. While fretless guitars are typically modified versions of factory-made traditionally "fretted" guitars – the frets being removed by the player or a professional luthier – they can also be custom-made by professional builders who specialize in fretless guitars.
Fretless guitars are similar to fretted guitars, with the exception that they do not have any frets to act as the lower end point (node) of the vibrating string. Rather, on fretless guitars, the node is established by pressing the string against the fingerboard, resulting in a vibrating string that extends from the bridge (where the strings are attached) to the fingertip, instead of to a fret.
Fretless guitars differ from fretted guitars as follows:
They require greater finger position precision, because the position of the node of the string is continuously variable (being established by the position of the finger) rather than fixed (established by the position of a fret). As a consequence of this, chordal playing in particular is more difficult to achieve cleanly on a fretless guitar.
The resonance of their strings is different and may require more apt plucking or modified amplification (pickups) to achieve desired volume
The smooth form of the fingerboard allows for continuous slides between notes, rather than being notched to individual notes
Fretless guitars are fairly uncommon in most forms of western music and generally limited to the electrified instruments, due to their decreased acoustic volume and sustain. Fretless bass guitars are the most common form of fretless guitar. This is due to similarities with the upright bass, and also because the bass guitar is generally not played as a chordal instrument.
Bunny Brunel had used a fretless bass on many recordings since the 1970s, usually a signature Carvin BB75 bass.
Les Claypool (of Primus and his many other side projects) uses a variety of fretted and fretless basses, including Carl Thompson four-string fretless and six-string fretless Rainbow Bass, and an upright 5 string.
Mick Karn (former bassist of Japan and avantgarde musician) used fretless bass guitar from the late 1970s up until his death in 2011. Karn mainly used Travis Bean during his early Japan years and Wal (bass) after 1981.
Bill Wyman, (former bassist of The Rolling Stones), was the first bass player to use a self-made fretless electric bass that he created by modifying a UK-built Dallas Tuxedo bass, in 1961. He removed the frets because they were rattling. This can be heard on many of the early Rolling Stones records.
Festivals featuring live fretless guitar music have been held for several years both in the US and in Europe. In New York, the first NYC Fretless Guitar Festival was held in 2005. In the Netherlands, the Dutch Fretless Guitar Festival has taken place since 2008.