Fretless bass guitars are challenging to master, but those that have the skill can reap the rewards of a smoother, warmer sound than your average fretted bass. Knowing that everyone has different personal preferences and budgets, there was no possible way for us to research all fretless bass guitars and choose a single one and say, "this is the best fretless bass for everyone." Instead, we broke things down by budget and chose three fretless basses that offer the best balance of quality and performance in their respective price range: under $1,000, under $500, and under $300. Article Summary
Bass guitars are hard to master with all of the different techniques and unique playing styles. Even once you become experienced to a point where playing bass is like a second nature to you, there is another level of difficulty ahead: going fretless. Fretless bass guitars are considered to be the very top in terms of necessary skill. As their name suggests, there are no frets on the fretboard. Until recently, fretless basses didn’t even have fret markers, which sort of help if you are not sure where each note is. Today, there are both styles available.
Like any guitar, buying a fretless bass comes down to quite a few variables. Some are general requirements that most people are looking for, such as quality components and overall good performance. Others are more personal, like what style you personally want, how many strings, and how much you’re looking to spend. Finding the best fretless bass for you comes down to choosing a guitar that offers a good middle-ground between the general needs and the personal ones.
Over the course of about a week and a half, we looked at over 30 fretless bass guitars that have developed solid reputations for their sound and quality. We know that everyone has different budgets when it comes to buying a guitar, so we grouped models into common prices ranges (under $300, under $500, and under $1,000) and scored them based on their performance-to-price ratio. We have included mainly models which come with fret markers, which are going to be more attractive to an average user. Those with a plain fretboard are still a pretty niche type of instrument.
After hours of comparing components, listening to audio recordings of each model, and reading experiences from people who actually own the guitars in question, we’ve chosen three fretless basses that we think offer the best performance in their respective price ranges.
The best fretless bass under $1,000
For about a grand, the Schecter Stiletto Studio-4 comes across as the most well-rounded fretless bass you can get under the thousand-dollar marker. Schecter is not a bass-specific brand, but they are well known for the quality of their guitars. For a company that started out as a parts supplier for other guitar manufacturers, they definitely know how to put together the very best your money can buy. Their Stiletto Studio-4 depicts that pretty accurately. It belongs to a family of bass guitars that has been proven many times over, which means that you are getting a guaranteed performer.
Schecter has chosen a combination of mahogany and Bubinga for the body of this model. The finish is a natural one, with a semi-glossy transparent lacquer applied directly on the tonewood. The contrast between Bubinga and mahogany gives it a two-tone appearance and honestly makes it extremely attractive from a purely aesthetic point of view. The neck is a multi-ply maple and walnut design that features a fretless rosewood fretboard. As we have mentioned earlier, all of the basses on this list come with fret markers and so does this Schecter.
In terms of electronics, you are looking at a tried and tested EMG 35HZ series combination. You get one of these humbuckers at the neck as well as the bridge position. The pickups are wired to an active set of electronics, which means that Schecter Stiletto Studi-4 comes with a fully functional three-band EQ. The rest of the controls include the master volume and the blend control.
The tone of this guitar is quite something. Those EMGs are nothing new, nor are they rare, but the combination of mahogany/Bubinga body really gives you an edge. With a lot of range available thanks to the onboard three-band EQ, you can pretty much dial in just about any kind of tone you want. Being fretless, the action is quite an important part of the whole equation. Schecter offers these basses with a pretty rugged but accurate hardware, meaning that you won’t have too much trouble with the tone in that sense.
The overall build quality is simply impressive, which is nothing out of the ordinary for Schecter. One of the great things about this bass is just how comfortable it is to play. They have selected a thin C neck profile and paired it with a very ergonomic body shape. You can easily reach even those higher notes on the fretboard without straining your hands. Some say that Schecter instruments, in general, are more geared towards metal music. In most cases, that statement would be true. However, this bass is more than suitable for a variety of genres, including blues or jazz.
For less than a grand, the Schecter Stiletto Studio-4 Fretless is a great bargain. If you’ve got the money to spend, this is what we’d consider one of the best fretless bass guitars on the market.
The best fretless bass under $500
Going down the ladder to the under-$500 range, we find ESP LTD’s B-205 to be the best in its class. This thing will cost you about a half of what that Schecter is worth, but that doesn’t mean it’s too far behind in terms of performance. The first thing you will notice about this model is the fifth string. Overall, most bass players like having that extra range even though you will always have the purists who won’t budge away from a four string bass. The bang for the buck with this puppy is borderline impressive. It fair to say that it punches way above its weight class.
Compared to Schecter’s hard mahogany body, ESP went with the somewhat standard ash body covered with a spalted maple top. The shape is a super Strat variation that is similar to that of Yamaha. In terms of comfort, this guitar “sits in” very well. The neck is a 34″ scale bolt-on unit. They went with a thin U profile which can be explained by the presence of that fifth string. The tonewood used for the neck is a combination of maple and rosewood with a rosewood fretboard on top. Just like the Schecter, this also comes with fret markers which define 24 extra jumbo frets.
Moving on to electronics, we see a set of ESP’s own SB-5B pickups. This is an active setup that comes with a three-band EQ, a master volume, balance and ABQ-3 knobs. The tone you get is much more versatile and colorful than what is expected from a budget bass guitar. As a matter of fact, it almost seems to be too good for to be true. Its build quality, finish and overall aesthetics give it a strong, expensive vibe. However, there are some realities which are hard to bypass. The tone, although pretty wide in range, is still somewhat limited compared to the Schecter. Putting those EMGs right against these SB-5Bs results in a pretty clear victory for the former. Even so, for this kind of money, the ESP’s tone is impressive.
One of the most important things about any guitar, the hardware, is on point as well. ESP chose a pretty heavy duty bridge for the B-205. It is more than capable of maintaining the key as well as preventing the action from dropping out. On the other end of the business, at the headstock, there’s a set of LTD’s standard tuners. While they are definitely not on par with some niche brands, you won’t have to worry about the guitar falling out of key.
The most important question here is whether or not it is worth getting a five string fretless like this one. Can a bass guitar in this price range even meet the standards of a quality fretless? The answer is a strong yes. The ESP LTD B-205 is a true workhorse that just keeps on giving. Its versatility makes it a great choice for a variety of music genres, including the heavier ones as well. There is absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t consider this model as your first fretless bass guitar.
The best fretless bass under $300
When we step into the entry level segment of the market, Squier is pretty hard to beat. This brand has been the patron saint of beginners, both guitarists as well as bassists out there. Squier is owned by Fender, and they’re basically just lower-priced “value” versions of Fender guitars. They’ve had a bit of a shaky reputation in the past, but it is fair to say that they pulled their stuff together pretty well in the last few years. These days, Squier is a brand that no longer delivers a bare minimum, but rather pretty well-rounded guitars in all segments of the market. Their Vintage Modified Jazz Bass speaks volumes in that regard.
If you are familiar with Fender guitars, you probably know about their legendary Jazz bass. After all, this is one of the models that has pretty much defined the way we understand electric bass guitars. Squier’s modified Jazz bass features a similar, but ultimately different body shape. You will also notice the lack of the pickguard, on the sunburst models. With that said, this model comes in a variety of versions, some of which do come with the pickguard. Squier chose Agathis as the tonewood of choice. The neck is a standard maple design that comes with a slim C profile. It is a bolt on piece, just like we are used to.
Unlike the guitars in the under-$500 and under-$1,000 price ranges, Squier’s is passive in nature. The tone is produced by two jazz-style single coils, one at the neck and one at the bridge position. These are wired to a simple circuit that features two volume knobs for each pickup and a tone knob. The great thing about the electronics on this model is the fact that it was designed by Fender. In other words, you get a good portion of that standard Fender Jazz Bass tone.
Compared to the previous basses on our list, you will find this Squier to be pretty conservative. The tone will have its limits, just like any passive setup has, but the overall range is still fairly decent. The most important thing to keep in mind is that this thing is solid. The build quality is on point and you don’t have to worry about the action nor the tuners. In the world of affordable entry-level guitars, that matters a lot.
At the end of the day, there really aren’t too man drawbacks to the Squier Vintage Modified Jazz Bass. Being relatively cheap makes it a perfect tool to dip your toes in the world of fretless basses. In addition, it offers those on a tight budget a great solution – plus, it’s basically a Fender!
How we picked our top three
Finding a good bass guitar requires a lot of consideration, but finding a good fretless bass takes that statement to another level. The fact that you are dealing with a guitar that has no frets increases the complexity of the design (to a certain point), and also makes some of the surrounding components even more important than before. Below are some of the key factors that helped us choose the best fretless bass among the dozens of options we looked at.
The lack of frets brings to focus the importance of good build quality. With frets, you can still adjust the guitar so that you get the performance you need. Once the frets are gone, the hardware has to do all the work. We looked for models which have been proven to work, not only through dependable components, but also through customer feedback. Each of the three basses we chose comes with a set of hardware that is capable of supporting the nature of a fretless guitar. Naturally, more expensive guitars will be better in that aspect than cheaper ones. In addition, we checked customer reviews to ensure people were happy with the quality over time. Some guitars, as we know, can be great in the beginning but then weaken with time. The three we chose had fantastic reviews from many different players.
No matter how unique they are, fretless basses are still basses at the end of the day. They share the same components as traditional basses and are expected to offer the same level of performance. We wanted to find models that sounded good and offered a certain dose of flexibility. As such, we have decided mainly include active systems due to their extended range and flexibility. However, since not everyone likes the sound of an active bass, we have also added one passive model.
The truth of the matter is that price is one of the most important things people look at when shopping for any guitar.. If you are trying to find the upper limit, chances are you will walk into some pretty high figures. We wanted to show you several solutions from a variety of price ranges. This way, you are presented with a good choice no matter what your budget is. Finding affordable fretless models which are actually worth the money was difficult but we turned to proven brands for help and we found exactly what we were looking for.
Things to consider before buying
Shopping for a fretless is very similar to shopping for a traditional fretted bass. You are still looking at the same factors, only this time you will have to include a few more. In order to make it easier for you to find what you are looking for, here are some of the most important personal considerations to pay attention to when choosing the best fretless bass guitar for you.
What’s your budget?
Before you even start looking at various models, defining your budget will make your life much easier. The idea here is to find a number you are comfortable working with. There is one unwritten rule when it comes to buying guitars, and that is to get the best your money can get you. A precisely defined budget will let you know exactly where that upper limit is. We have divided this guide into several price ranges for that very reason.
How many strings do you want?
The number of strings doesn’t only mean that you have an extended tonal range that reaches deeper, it also means that you will have to adapt your technique. Five string bass guitars feature longer and wider necks, which could be tricky to play if you are used to four string models. While most players transition to a five string rather easily, you still need to factor in the pros and cons of going five-string when choosing your new bass.
Do you want an active or passive bass?
Whether or not you will want to get a passive or an active setup is completely up to you. The former are generally more expressive while the latter have an extended range that many appreciate. Answering this question has a lot to do with the genre of music you play the most. For something like jazz or blues, a passive bass would definitely be more fitting. However, if you need a jack of all trades that can play technical death metal today and then do a long blues jam session tomorrow, an active bass is way better.
The benefits of using a fretless bass vs fretted
There is a widespread misconception that going fretless is a statement of one’s skill. While they are definitely more difficult to play, there are actually a number of advantages a fretless design has over a standard bass. Below are some of the most significant ones.
Extended freedom of expression
Fretted bass guitars offer a range of notes that is defined by the number and size of their frets. That means that you can only play the already-defined scale which we all know. With fretless basses, that is not the case. Since there are no frets to define the notes, you can play a number of pitches that you simply can’t on a standard fretted bass. In other words, you have an extended freedom of expression, which is a powerful tool if you know how to use it. On a similar note, if your bass drops out of key even slightly, you can easily compensate for that detune directly on the fretboard.
Doing a glissando, or a slide as it is more widely known, on a guitar is something that most bassists love. The difference between a slide on a fretless bass and a fretted one is like comparing night with day. A fretted bass will always produce a bumpy slide. You can’t simply make those frets go away, no matter how fast you do the slide. On the other hand, a fretless neck offers the kind of smoothness that is on a whole new level and simply cannot be matched with any other design.
The difficulty of going fretless comes from the fact that you need to know the position of the notes by heart. On top of that, since your fingers are the only thing that shortens the length of the string, you will have to apply a lot more pressure on the fretboard. In other words, fretless basses are unforgiving when it comes to mistakes or flimsy technique. Fretless basses will train your ear to recognize pitches with higher accuracy. Without that skill, playing this type of bass guitar is pure torture. If you are just switching to fretless for the first time, it will force you to get your skills on a certain level which will make playing fretted basses a walk in the park.
Wrapping it up
Fretless bass guitars are definitely something you should consider if you already have a significant amount of experience under your belt. When a standard bass starts lacking in challenge, a fretless is bound to spice things up. You will certainly not be disappointed with all the new notes and sounds you’ll be able to play. We’ve shown you what we believe to be the best fretless bass guitars for most players in each common price range – but as always, if none of these models caught your interest, use the advice in our last few sections to ensure you choose a model that’s a perfect fit for your personal preferences and playing style.