Fretting a fretless bass

I’m a fretless guy. My first foray into fretless bass was back in 2001, when I yanked the frets out of the carbon-fiber neck on my Peavey B-Quad4. Over the years I’ve rarely owned a fretted bass, and have gone deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole of fretless playing – so much now that my current Warmoth bass has no lines, no dots, and no side dots. This works well for me, but when it came time to swap necks on my bass, I realized I would have a hard time selling something so specialized. So I decided to install frets before letting it go. Here’s my process for fretting a fretless bass.

First of all, it’s important to understand how fretboards are made at the factory, and why it’s so difficult to fret an instrument after it’s been built. Typically fretboards are slotted before shaping, when they are still flat and rectangular. This makes the job super easy – you can cut fret slots with nothing but a jig and a table saw. But fretting a fretless bass once the fretboard has already been shaped and radiused is close to impossible without sophisticated tools. Fortunately for us, we have a PLEK machine which can make a difficult task easy (as long as you know what you’re doing).

Let’s get started! First, I removed the neck from it’s body, and installed it on our surrogate bass and loaded into the PLEK.

Typically when we’re working with the PLEK, it references frets and strings to know where the instrument is located, but this bass has neither. I taped a dummy fret into position at the nut slot to guide the PLEK to where I wanted it to be.

The PLEK’s sensor, combined with careful programming would indicate exactly where the neck is located and it’s shape, which creates a digital image that the PLEK can use to reference where the fret slots should be cut. This is where expertise comes into play – one can’t simply throw a guitar into the PLEK and expect amazing results. I took careful measurements, and really scrutinized my own programming. I would only get one shot at this, otherwise the bass would be ruined. No guts, no glory! Here we go!

Now here’s the fun part: I programmed the PLEK to only cut a partial fret slot, leaving a 2mm gap on each side of the fretboard’s edge. This basically creates a sort-of wood binding, which makes for a cleaner look, and would help maintain the neck’s strength, as the fretboard wasn’t sliced all the way through. Also, the fret slot depths followed the radius of the neck instead of a flat cut, so there would be no air gaps under the fret tangs. Neat!

Alright! Now I’ve got something I can work with. The fret slots are perfectly sized and placed, so now it was a simple matter of pressing some frets in. We’ve covered refretting many, many times, so I’ll gloss over the details here a bit (there’s tons of examples on our Facebook and Instagram pages). I pulled our favorite medium Jescar 47×104 fretwire, and radiused it to match the board, and cut each fret to length. We always undercut the tangs on bound boards, and file them smooth so they sit flush on the board, like so:

We also always press and glue our frets, rather than banging them in with a hammer. This maintains the radius of the fret and makes them sit in the slot nice and snug.

Once all the frets are in, we clamp them up in a matching radius caul and let them sit overnight. The next day I beveled, dressed, and polished the fret ends, and then strung it up and ran it through the PLEK again to level the frets under string tension. We PLEK every refret we do, just to account for any inconsistencies in the pressing process and manufacturing inaccuracies in the frets themselves.

Egads, I have fretted a fretless bass! Behold!

This is the first fretted bass neck I’ve owned in years, which feels very odd to me after so much time playing exclusively fretless. This neck has got to go!

I figured that a fretted neck without side dots would still be a bit much for most people, so while I was at it I would I added side dots, too:

Now this piggy is ready for market! Even though this has been a gigging bass, with all the honest wear that entails, it’s going to be a much easier sell with frets than without. If you’re interested in this neck, hit us up! [EDIT: This neck has been sold!]

As you can see, fretting a fretless bass is a rather complicated task – but we got you, fam. If you’re sick of the struggle with your fretless bass, we’d be happy to assist putting frets in it.

For those curious, here’s my current Warmoth bass, now with a finish-free torrefied maple neck:

And if you’re even more curious, I used this bass exclusively on my most recent solo project from UFO Death Cult, entitled On Darkest Wings. Check it out!

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