How I Defret a Six String Bass

What’s better than a six string bass?  That’s right: a six string fretless bass.

The reason why I am a bass player and a luthier goes all the way back to when I was 13.  My parents had just got Sky, and I was flicking through to MTV.  The channel was showing a European festival, possibly Rock Am Ring; the first thing I saw was Les Claypool, eight finger-tapping a solo in “Tommy the Cat”.

Now I knew nothing of guitars at the time, but I was astounded.  I turned to my friend Knuckles – who played guitar astonishingly well even back then – and asked, “What’s that he’s playing?”

Knuckles replied: “It can’t be a guitar, because there’s the guitarist behind him. It has strings, but no frets, so I guess it must be a six string fretless bass.”

“Well, I guess I’m just going to have to play six string fretless bass”.

And I do.  What this has to do with my luthiery is that Les was playing his Rainbow Bass.  A stunning piece of work by Carl Thompson. Some years later, as I put down a £1000 deposit to have a six string fretless made by Carl (already owning the Ken Smith shown in the picture) I realised that I had better start making them, because this hobby was getting too expensive.

I digress.  A customer brought in a six string for me to defret, which I am always delighted to do.

First, I remove the frets.  Gently does it: I don’t want to chip the fingerboard.  The gaps aren’t going to be covered up with new frets, so special care is required.

Here you can see that the frets have all been removed, without any issues.

Now I insert ash veneer, the same thickness as the fret slot.

Here the veneer has been scraped and sanded flush.

Then I sand my customer’s fretboard, using 1200 grit sandpaper, and polish it with lemon oil.

Nearly done.  Lastly, because there are no longer any frets, the nut is too high. So I file down the slots and set up the bass, to give it the really low action that fretless players like.

Obligatory “down the neck” shot.

Now the customer has a real instrument.  First thing I do when I play I six string fretless is play the intro to “Fish On” by Primus.  It’s my favourite bit of bass playing.  I still can’t make it sound quite like Les, though.

Then again, here’s a clip of Les playing it live and making so many mistakes (be warned, genteel reader: he does use an expletive at one point).  It reminds us all that we’re all human.

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