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View Full Version : Anyone tried fretless ukulele?



MatthewVanitas
08-11-2010, 04:15 AM
I know such things must exist somewhere, and a fretless concert (with flat brass strips where the frets would be - pic (http://www.fleamarketmusic.com/images/market/36713-Fretless-fret.JPG)) sold on Flea Market recently.

I'm interested in such a beast since I'm interested in playing around more with microtonal scales, quarter-tones, Central Asian music, etc. I also play fretless Appalachian banjo, so I have some familiarity with fretless fingerboards with nylon strings.

Anyone tried one, have one? Any reason I should get an inexpensive uke (like a cigar-box uke) without frets to mess around with?

blizz79
08-11-2010, 05:31 AM
If you cant find one, It would be easy to make. Pull the frets out, then fill the frets with some sort of soft wood. Sand flat and you got it. I've seen it done on a bass before, but never a uke. Could be interesting. I think guitars loose alot of volume and sustain after the frets are out. most of the fretless guitars I have seen are electric.

lindydanny
08-11-2010, 06:48 AM
Heck, you could make one from scratch pretty easy too. Fretting is one of the hardest luthier skills to learn and do correctly.

I keep thinking about the advantages of having one. Especially when i see so many fretless basses (like the U-bass) around. The best part about it would be no one could play your instrument but you!

~DB

shwee
08-11-2010, 09:17 AM
I haven't tried one, but if I did, I'd want it to be this one! :D

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sidfatD641w

pulelehua
08-11-2010, 10:36 AM
I've played fretless banjo as well. The thing which was tough, and might be a MORE important issue on the ukulele, is intonation on chords. You've probably thought it through, but I found the sound on a fretless banjo was very much a creature in its own right, and quite unlike a fretted banjo.

Keep in mind, as well, that with a much shorter neck, the pitch changes will be that much larger with small movements.

MatthewVanitas
08-11-2010, 11:39 AM
I've played fretless banjo as well. The thing which was tough, and might be a MORE important issue on the ukulele, is intonation on chords. You've probably thought it through, but I found the sound on a fretless banjo was very much a creature in its own right, and quite unlike a fretted banjo.

I haven't found it an issue on the fretless banjo, though some of that might be since it's not so "strummy" and you're less likely to notice minor discord as you're bouncing around an arpeggio while frailing.

Also with fretless nylon instruments like oud, they're melodic with some harmony, not generally fully chorded.

So in the two main examples I have, you don't really do chording in the same sense as uke. And indeed, if I get such a piece it'd be more to do melodic work. No real advantage to being fretless for strummy-strummy; it's the detail work where you can slide and/or do microtones that the smooth fretboard helps.



Keep in mind, as well, that with a much shorter neck, the pitch changes will be that much larger with small movements.

Yeah, despite the linked concert fretless above, I'm pretty sure I'd want a uke to be at least tenor to make fretless work.

BadLands Bart
08-11-2010, 12:07 PM
Heck....I have enough problems WITH the frets!!!!!

Chris Tarman
08-11-2010, 12:22 PM
I haven't tried one, but if I did, I'd want it to be this one! :D

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sidfatD641w

That is AWESOME! And it sounds way better than a ukulele made of legos has any right to sound.

clayton56
08-11-2010, 10:44 PM
I think a fretless uke would sound great. Reason being, sustain is important for a fretless instrument, and the ukes are made of harder wood like koa have more sustain than spruce topped instruments. I think you should spring for an ebony fingerboard; you can buy one from Stewart MacDonald for just a few bucks. Adds a lot of class to the neck.

ADD
08-11-2010, 11:33 PM
Have been practicing on the fretless concert I recently bought on Flea Market. Some days are better than others. Picking is easiest so far. Chording more difficult (those frets give sensory feedback, almost like a stop) and especially with certain strums - not sure why, but arthritis and carpal tunnel don't help either. Sustain not great. Funky sounds with slides (done very little of this before) but definitely easier on the fingers. Will let you know more if I progress. One semester of violin 35 years ago sounded pretty awful. Would probably be about the same with this uke if it didn't have the fret lines and I had to use a bow. Fiddlers out there probably chuckling to themselves right now. But, I believe, this is not a lost cause, yet.

ADD
08-22-2010, 10:18 PM
This is really an update from previous post. In the right hands, the fretless uke I bought sounded wonderful. Gave it to the teacher from the senior center to play without mentioning that it was fretless. He played beautifully as he always does and loved it. He only noticed that the body of the this (concert uke) was much deeper than others when I asked what he thought about it. It is a beautiful uke and I think he may well be the next owner of it.

Gutless
02-21-2012, 03:26 PM
I built a quick, fret-less ukulele over X-mas 2012. Sounded horrible at first, in substantial part because of my technique, although there was more to it. Lowered the action substantially. Moved to tuning a semi-tone below ADF#A with GCEA strings, and now it's much better behaved. Fret-less ukuleles have the disadvantage that the only fret is the bone in your fretting finger, which is not narrow, and which is covered with flesh. This causes energy introduced by plucking to be lost to your fingers. You can partially compensate, when possible, by keeping on your fingertips (or fingernails) when fretting, unless you have to barre a fret, which can be problematic in terms of tone. I suspect that you could overcome some of the disadvantages of fleshy, finger-frets, by using higher tension strings, or moving your tuning up a tad for more tension. The higher tension option would be most easily achieved via Aquila's Nylgut strings, if you don't like plain metal strings, or can't do the math to provide yourself with a set of plain steel strings providing the proper tuning and tension. Another possibility is to develop a "lap ukulele" option, because the plastic side of my electronic tuner works very well as a slide steel.

You can, with a few days of time to allow for those moments when you simply run out of patience, or other needs take precedence, manufacture your own fret-less ukulele. Use a plain, round cookie tin, a suitable piece of oak, maple, or poplar for the neck (which is also your fingerboard), four friction pegs, and a little piece of maple molding to use to make a floating, biscuit style bridge and nut. Put a rectangular hole in the side of the tin, near the bottom (opposite the lid), and slide the neck piece through, close to the bottom (on which your biscuit bridge will freely rest beneath the tension of the strings). (How close the neck is to the bottom will control the action at the bridge, which must be very low or you won't like to play the instrument.) You can slit a piece of rubber tubing with a fine diameter and slide it over the sharp edge of the hole, once you're sure you can slide the neck all the way through to the back with the rubber protector in place, to protect yourself, or make up for any gaps. The rubber tubing should flex enough to hold the neck in place. Make it permanent (the tubing) with some gorilla glue once you've got it right. From that point on, you need to find a way to connect the strings at the back, and reverse install a set of friction pegs at the other end. Drill holes into the neck just above where the nut will go for the strings to go through to the back. It's not that hard if you have some basic planning and carpentry skills. I'm sure you can figure out how to use a sharpie marker to add fret marks and dot marks, and how to finish it smooth with Polycrylic once the fret marks are very, very dry. (Make sure everything the strings touch is nice and smooth through the diligent application of some very fine sandpaper and a round file. Steward-MacDonald has a calculator for fret positions and bridge placement, which you can mark.)

When you're done, you can claim to have a fret-less, resonator ukulele!

Fret-less, to me, is a great deal more fun than fretted. It's faster, requires less thought, encourages practice because it's more fun with very low action higher on the fingerboard, and if you can't manage to put thicker fingers in the precise positions needed around the twelfth fret, where the frets would be half an inch apart on a fretted soprano instrument, you can still come up with a reasonable approximation without repeatedly stalling to attempt the perfect landing on the frets while practicing. I remain curious about the lap ukulele option, which I've never played beyond toying around with the electronic tuner's edge on this fret-less instrument, because a fret-less instrument seems ideally suited.

Finally, get used to playing an instrument that won't sound like a fretted, wooden ukulele. If you take it that seriously, then this isn't for you.

Good luck!

P.S. Don't forget to paint palm trees, parrots, or a sunset on the side of the cookie tins to cover up the scratches due to construction! If you're going tacky, go all the way! (Cover the dried image with some Polycrylic for protection when your masterpiece is done!)