Although I have owned a couple in the past, I don’t currently own a fretless bass. If I want to emulate somewhat the sound of a fretless on a fretted instrument I have to make some changes to the way I approach the instrument. Usually this involves playing with a lighter touch, trying to minimize fret noise when moving along the fingerboard, and rolling back the treble a bit on my amplifier.
In last Friday’s Basspiration post I spoke about the late Jaco Pastorius and the hand grenade his fretless playing dropped into the electric bass world in the 1970s. Although players like Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters had recorded previously with the fretless bass, Pastorius’ implementation of the instrument was the tipping point. Suddenly, players were awakened to the possibility that they didn’t always have to play below the fifth fret of their instrument and that they could play singing countermelodies in the bass register. In fact, because he played a fretless bass, the whole concept of frets seemed antiquated in the brave new world being ushered in by Pastorius. In Pastorius’ wake came some brilliant fretless bass players (among them Pino Palladino, Mark Egan, Michael Manring, Gary Willis, Jimmy Haslip, and Alain Caron) and a bunch of imitators who had very little musical personality other than that of being a “Jaco wanna-be.”
The Pastorius fretless sound began fining its way onto many hit records. In fact, in the 1980s, the fretless bass sound became just as important as slapping and popping had been in the 1970s. Consider the following 80s hit songs that featured a fretless bass (and the bassist in parenthesis):
- “Every Time You Go Away” by Paul Young (bass by Pino Palladino)
- “The Lady in Red” by Chris de Burgh (Palladino again)
- “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” by The Police (Sting…duh!)
- “Wrapped Around Your Finger” – The Police (Sting again)
- “Senses Working Overtime” – XTC (Colin Moulding)
- “You Can Call Al” by Paul Simon (Bakithi Kumalo)
- “True” – Spandau Ballet (Martin Kemp)
- “Sledgehammer” – Peter Gabriel (Tony Levin)
- “Nikita” – Elton John (Palladino)
- “The Boys of Summer” – Don Henley (Larry Klein)
- “Sunset Grill” – Don Henley (Palladino)
- “Radioactive” – The Firm (Tony Franklin)
- “Wherever I Lay My Hat (That’s My Home)” by Paul Young (Palladino. He quotes “The Rite of Spring in the song’s intro)
- “Hold On to the Nights” – Richard Marx (Patrick O’Hearn)
- “Do You Remember?” – Phil Collins (Palladino)
- “I Wish it Would Rain Down” – Phil Collins (Palladino)
- “Save a Prayer” – Duran Duran (John Taylor)
- “Black Velvet” – Alannah Myles (some digging on the ‘net suggests this was a fretless bass sound sampled into and played on a keyboard)
- “New York Minute” – Don Henley (you guessed it…Palladino)
As should be obvious from the above list, Pino Palladino pretty much owned the “fretless bass on a pop single” landscape in the 1980s. I will have a blog post dedicated to his playing in the future as he is one of my bass heroes and biggest influences.
The fretless bass sound didn’t die with the passing of the 1980s. It also found its way onto several hits in the 1990s. Consider the following:
- “Tears in Heaven” – Eric Clapton (Nathan East)
- “Get Here” – Oleta Adams (Palladino)
- “I Can’t Make You Love Me” – Bonnie Raitt (James “Hutch” Hutcherson)
- “What I Am” – Edie Brickell & New Bohemians (Brad Houser)
- “Ants Marching” – Dave Matthews Band (Stefan Lessard)
- “Evenflow” – Pearl Jam (Jeff Ament)
- “Alive” – Pearl Jam (Jeff Ament)
- “Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover” – Sophie B. Hawkins (Mark Egan)
- “Jerry was a Racecar Driver” – Primus (Les Claypool)
- “Run-Around” – Blues Traveler (Bobby Sheehan)
- “Manifest Destiny” – Jamiroquai (Stuart Zender)
Since the mid-1990s the fretless sound has fallen out of favor somewhat. When producers speak of the sound now it is usually with a note of disdain. “A fretless bass? Well, that sound is okay if you want to sound like 80s Britpop.” This is an obvious reference to the ubiquitous of Palladino’s playing on so many hits. Even Palladino felt it was time for a change as he reinvented himself into a hip-hop/R&B bassist nonpareil by playing almost exclusively a fretted fiesta red Fender signature Precision bass.
One notable exception to the recent fretless backlash is singer/bassist Esperanza Spalding, who played a Fender Jaco Pastorius signature model on her 2012 album Radio Music Society and who now plays a custom-built 5-string fretless. In an interview with Premier Guitar Magazine she said that she prefers the fretless to the fretted because (given her background of playing upright bass) fretted instruments are baffling to her.
Viva la fretless and may Esperanza Spalding’s tribe increase.
As a bonus with this post, here is a Spotify playlist with most of the songs mentioned in this post.