Tapping is hard. Playing a fretless bass well with spot-on intonation is also hard. It is no surprise then, that tapping on a fretless bass is incredibly hard, to the point that some don’t even believe it to be possible.
However, there are fretless players out there who regularly incorporate tapping into their basslines. It has been proven to be perfectly possible, and nothing is stopping you from learning the technique.
For me, tapping on a fretless bass is one of the most challenging things I have ever tried in my 14 years as a bassist.
I can tap with great speed and control on fretted basses, but I sound horrible on a fretless. I have however given it a fair shot several times and can tell you exactly what makes it so different. Therefore, I have written this article to show you everything you need to know about tapping on a fretless bass.
Can you tap on a fretless bass?
Even though the technique is rarely utilized, it is possible to tap on a fretless bass guitar. However, producing a clear tone while having proper intonation when tapping on a fretless bass requires significantly more skill than tapping on a fretted bass.
If you want to tap on a fretless, you can. Well, at least if you put in the huge amount of practice required to make it sound good.
A fretless bass sounds different when tapped than a fretted bass. Overall, fretless basses tend to have a smoother sound than fretted ones. When tapped the strings do however need to be tapped hard, which can produce a somewhat aggressive tone.
Thus, the resulting sound has a unique character. It is not strictly smooth, and not strictly gritty either. The tone has a character that can be utilized in both slow and heavy songs with the right EQ. The tone is also more noticeable in a mix than a tapped fretted bass and cuts well through other instruments.
Related Reading: Should You Start With A Fretless Bass As A Beginner?
There are bassists who have made tapping on a fretless work. One example of this is Micahel Manring who occasionally incorporates tapping (and many other less common techniques) into his playing. Les Claypool is a similarly creative bassist, who taps the main riff on one of Primus` biggest hits, “Jerry Was A Race Car Driver”, on a fretless:
Why it is difficult to tap on a fretless bass
It is difficult to tap on a fretless bass because it requires spot-on intonation at two places at the same time. Furthermore, it is more demanding to produce a clear sound when tapping, due to fretless basses requiring more finger strength.
Most aspects of playing the bass come down to preference. However, I am yet to meet a single bassist who found tapping easier without frets. There are several reasons for this, and why lacking frets makes tapping harder:
- Intonation – Having proper intonation is a major part of playing the fretless bass well. If you have ever tried a fretless before, you will know that this is a skill that takes time to develop. When tapping, you will have to do this at two spots at once. Furtheremore, using your plucking hand to tap has a different feel than playing high up on the fretboard with your fretting hand. Thus, you will need to spend a lot of time practicing intonation and developing new muscle memory.
- Finger strength – The lack of frets makes it more demanding for your hands to fret strings. This becomes even more noticable when tapping. Tapping a string with a single finger requires significanlty more strength than fretting a string with a squeezing motion while having thumb support.
- Less forgiving – Tapping on a fretted bass already requires a good bit of precision. Notes are close in proximity high up on the neck, and you have less room for error than when playing a deep groove. Mistakes will thus be more noticable, and basslines you can tap on a fretted bass might sound disonent and weak on a fretless as a result.
- Multi-tasking – All of the above make tapping harder. However, the fact that you`re adding even tasks to an already demanding tequnice is what makes tapping on a fretless so difficult. With a bit of practice you can become decent at any one aspect of tapping. It is putting it all together that is by far the most time-consuimg and difficult task.
How to make tapping on a fretless bass easier
Tapping on a fretless bass can be made easier by lowering action or by switching to a lighter string gauge. Furthermore, having proper intonation is easier on a lined fretless bass, than on one without lines or side dots.
When (not if) tapping starts feeling difficult on the fretless, try some of these tips to make things easier:
- Minimize fingertip surface – To not sound disonant, you will need to be precise when tapping. This will be easier when you tap the string with as little of your finger as possible. Thus, your fingertip should be the only part of your finger that touches the string when tapping. This is not the end all be all though, so do not bend your fingers into uncomfortable positions to achive this.
- Lower action – Low action generally makes basses easier to play. This holds easpeically true when tapping on a fretless. Lower action results in tapping becoming less demanding on your fingers, and requiering less finger strength.
- Fret Lines / Side Dots – Fret lines or side dots make it easier to not be off in your intonation. Thus, they will make it easier for you to be precise in you tapping and master the technique quicker than without them. It is possible to add side dots and frets lens yourself, or get them done at a luthier.
- Lighter Strings – Similar to lower action, lighter strings make fretting and tapping easier. In addition to requiering less finger strength themselves, lighter strings also enables you to lower the action further. Be mindful that lighter strings will also change the tone of your instrument. Generally, switching to lighter strings means sacrifcing tone for playability.
- Start slow – When learning a new technique that requires multi-tasking, its best to start slow. Find or make a bassline, then slow it down significantly (As slow as 60BPM tends to work well for me). Then, practice it at the slowed down tempo until you can play it comfortably. Increase the tempo, practice until you can play it comfortabley, and reapeat til you can play the bassline at the original tempo. It will take time, but will ultimatley be faster than only practicing at the original speed.
The question is not so much whether you can tap on a fretless bass. It is whether you should.
If you love the idea or sound of it and are willing to put in the practice required, I say go for it. However, keep in mind that tapping on the bass is a technique that rarely sees the light of day in bands. Unless you are a solo bassist or play a genre where the technique is appropriate, it might not be worth the effort for most bassists.
On the other hand, bassists have a bad rep for being too anonymous. If you are looking to play more melodic lines in a band and be in the spotlight, tapping on a fretless is one of the best ways to achieve this. It is an incredibly impressive musical feat, and people will recognize the difficulty of it.
If you do give it a try, don’t give up on tapping even though it seems impossible at first. Start slow, and apply the tips outlined above. It will take time, but if tapping on a fretless is something you want to pursue after soaking in this article, it will also be worth it.
Looking for more flashy and unconventional techniques for the bass? Then how about pinch harmonics? If this sounds intriguing I have written a full guide on Pinch Haromincs for the bass guitar here.