Go fretless USA! Seriously, is there anything cooler than a fretless bass? I was an exclusively fretless player for years – first doing a fretless conversion on my old Peavy B-Quad 4, and later defretting my number one bass, my 1974 Ovation Magnum. Urban myth may say that Jaco yanked the frets out of his bass with his teeth and filled the slots with peanut butter, but the reality is that there’s a lot more precision work involved. Last week I did a fretless conversion on a Fender Aerodyne Jazz Bass. Check it out:
The Aerodyne has a rosewood fretboard, with no dots, which makes it a good candidate for a clean looking fretless board.
Using a specialized fret pulling tool, I very carefully removed the frets. To help facilitate fret removal, I tighten the truss rod to put a bit of back-bow in the neck, which seems to open the fret slots just a bit and allows the fret to slip out easier. Oftentimes the frets are glued in place, so I usually heat the fret with a soldering iron as I remove them, to melt the glue and help prevent wood chipping. Now, careful as I am, there is sometime no helping getting some chip out. It all depends on the type of wood (ebony usually chips like crazy), how dry the wood is, etc., but there’s no way to guess: the wood is going to do what it wants. There are times I will spend several hours just filling in chips after I’ve pulled the frets – it’s often just part of the gig. I got lucky with this one: not a single chip! Huzzah!
Next I prepped the fret slots, by running a short file over the board to knock down any high spots, and then re-cut the fret slots and cleaned them out thoroughly. This step is critical to get a nice straight fret line that looks factory fresh. Once the slots were prepped, I checked the radius of the bottom of the fret slots. Some fretboards have a flat fret slot, others follow the radius of the board. This is important to know when I’m installing fret lines: if I don’t cut the fret lines to match, there will be gaps underneath them that may cause the line to collapse. This particular neck’s fret slots where radiused to match the board (18cm), so I painstakingly cut a matching curve into each of the maple fret lines I was making. The fret slots on this bass weren’t cut all the way to the edges, and the edge of the fretboard was painted, so I cut each maple piece to the exactly length of each slot. I could have cut the fret slots through the edge, but it would have broken up the clean look of the fretboard edge, and I like to keep things classy.
I glued each of the maple pieces in, and allowed them to dry over night. The next day I came in and cut them flush with my ridiculously sharp chisels. This is the fun stuff.
Now, here’s where a lot of people who attempt this miss the boat: it’s not done! Just as having the frets perfectly level are imperative for a clean playing instrument, a fretless board also needs to be perfectly level. If it’s not dead flat, it will buzz and gutter out in spots, and won’t impart a consistent tone throughout the instrument’s range. So on the neck jig it goes!
The neck jig allows me to simulate string tension on the neck, and work the fingerboard under actual real world playing conditions. I level the board with a long straight beam and radius blocks, ensuring a dead straight neck and a perfect radius.
Normally when doing a fretless conversion, I sand the neck with increasing grits, so that when I’m done the board looks like glass even without finish. This one, however, is getting an epoxy coat on it, which will protect the wood and give the bass a zingy-er, brighter tone. I’ll document how I do the epoxy coat in the next blog post. Until then, feast your eyes on this beautiful fretless neck!