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I would like a fretless bass guitar, and I am considering giving an old bass a new lease of life as a fretless instrument.

I would like to know how to go about achieving this at home, by myself, to as high a standard as possible, for as little cost as possible.

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This will be a pretty complex project. Will answer (or add to current answers) later today. –  Jduv Mar 8 '11 at 12:07

5 Answers 5

up vote 12 down vote accepted

When converting a fretted instrument to fret less you have a couple of options if you want to DIY:

  1. Modify the current fingerboard in some way. This includes purchasing a fret-puller like @ekaj suggests, pulling out all the fretwires, and filling in all the fret slots with wood putty. Unfortunately you will suffer from the issues that @Alex mentions in that the entire neck will react much differently to changes in relative humidity and temperature--so you are left with a more brittle instrument. This is probably the cheapest option, but has the most risk.

  2. Purchase a new, fret-less fingerboard and install it on the old neck. This is a little more involved than the previous strategy. Start off with visiting your local luthier or find a company that sells raw fingerboards. Warmoth may do it but I haven't asked them. Describe to your supplier the specifications of the neck you want--scale length is irrelevant because we don't have any frets :D, but radius and fingerboard wood are good things to start with. Get them to send you a new fingerboard to your specifications. Once you have the new fingerboard, remove bindings if there are any on the neck, and then you can remove the old fingerboard by using a fingerboard iron or similar tool. You could perhaps achieve the same thing with a very hot hair dryer or even a clothes iron set to very low levels. Once you heat the glue up all you have to do is slide a knife in between the neck and the fingerboard to break the glue bond. Move slow, and in sections and it'll be off in no time. Glue the new one in using some hide glue and clamp it tight for 24-48 hours. This option will set you back the most in cost of tools, labor, and time spent--but it's good experience if you ever wanted to get into luthier work. All this is assuming, of course, that your bass has a fingerboard glued onto the neck. If the neck is a solid piece move on to option 3.

  3. Purchase a new, fret less neck. Finally, you can save yourself a load of trouble by cruising over to Warmoth's site and purchasing a new fret less neck. They more or less sell necks that will fit any bass's profile--and if they don't have one to fit yours then can make one. The only important thing is to line up the neck correctly pocket for installation. This would be your middle of the road economic option, and my recommended one.

That's it, and good luck!

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+1 for option #3 as the safest way to go. Plus, if you decide you don't like it, you can always put the old neck back on. –  Alex Basson Mar 9 '11 at 11:14
    
@Judv - I actually asked this on behalf of a bassist I know, have passed on the fretless neck link and will pass on the good luck :), cheers for the answer. –  DRL Mar 9 '11 at 11:45
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I will probably do this myself at some point; however, i stuck fretless guitar into google and this video popped up; somewhat unrelated to the question but its brilliant youtube.com/watch?v=1PyOZhgQnvU one of those guitars is on my wishlist for sure. –  DRL Mar 9 '11 at 11:54
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Sick sick sick video...thanks. I'm going to sell all my guitars on ebay now. –  Jduv Mar 10 '11 at 1:39
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The advantage to buying a new, fretless neck is that you can always go back to the old neck if it turns out you don't like the fretless one. It's an expensive option, but a good one. –  neilfein Mar 13 '11 at 19:58

THIS IS SIMPLY A COPY OF MY ANSWER FOR THIS QUESTION, WHICH HAS BEEN CLOSED AS A DUPLICATE (@Meaningful Username asked me to add the answer to this post.)

Looking online, opinion seems to be split about the merits of doing this, with some sources pointing out that you can simply buy a fretless neck for a reasonable price. But I certainly remember bass playing friends of mine removing the frets from basses, to convert to fretless, and I can understand why you would want to do this with a bass you don't currently use.

I'm pretty sure my friends just knocked the frets out and didn't worry too much about doing it properly… But there is plenty of info online about how to take a more measured approach.

One comment that seems to pop up regularly, is that you should be okay as long as you are not bothered about putting frets back in later! This is because you may well cause some damage to the neck while removing the frets. It's easy to fill any splinters that come away from the fretboard, then sand and refinish, but it would then be hard to refret.

I managed to find a site where you can download a free eBook taking you through the full bass-defretting process, here. I downloaded the book and it looks pretty good; it has really detailed information and a lot of pictures! It is recommended by other sources online.

A much shorter version of the same method can be found here. I won't simply copy the text here, but some of the main points are:

  • remove the neck if possible, before starting this job.
  • don't use a screwdriver to remove the frets (!) Instead, use "end cutters, a flat nail clipper, or another specially designed tool to lift the frets out."
  • try to glue down any splinters that come off the neck immediately; this will mean you have less filling and refinishing to do later.
  • if the frets don't want to come out, soften the glue by applying a soldering iron to the frets directly, but be careful not to scorch the wood of the neck.
  • if you want the fret grooves to match the colour of the neck (i.e. you don't want "markers") then save sanding dust from the neck as you sand it, you can mix this with glues to make a matching filler.
  • "use a radius block to sand and finish your defret"

Other sources suggest a couple of other useful points:

  • put masking tape either side of the frets before removal, to help avoid marking the neck.
  • you can fill the gaps with a thin veneer before sanding to make fret markers.
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I de-fretted my jazz bass fingerboard using a soldering iron to heat the frets, helping the wood to release them. I'd tape on either side of the fret to protect the fingerboard itself, and then gently rock the fret back and forth until it freed from the rosewood and pulled out. The operation was very successful and my fingerboard is not damaged in any way. IF you are careful and delicate, you can pull it off without trouble

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If you want to do it without screwing up your bass look up a fret puller like this : http://www.stewmac.com/shop/Fretting_supplies/Pullers,_nippers,_sizing/Fret_Puller.html?actn=100101&xst=3&xsr=231 .. that one's kind of expensive but you can probably find something cheaper

I personally would find someone like a luthier or a guitar shop who could do that work without possibly cracking the fretboard or something.

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The frets are actually replaceable parts made from fretwire. They are sunk into slits in the fretboard wood. Ask your local guitar shop to remove the frets, or try for yourself using a pair of pliers. You can somewhat protect the fretboard by taping it during removal.

After that, you are left with a slitted fretboard. From a woodworking aspect, I would fill the slits with a wood putty, and carefully levelling the result (maybe sanding). But I would not expect the result to be perfect, because the putty will be of different hardness than the wood.

If the finish is no good, the fretboard too can be replaced, but I dont know how that works. Unslotted Fretboards are available in shops.

Fretwire looks like this: http://www.stewmac.com/shop/Fretting_supplies/Stewart-MacDonald_Fretwire.html

Unfretted fretboard looks like this: http://www.stewmac.com/shop/Bodies,_necks,_wood/Acoustic_guitar_fingerboards/Unslotted_Fingerboard_for_Guitar.html

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This is exactly what Jaco Pastorius did to his Fender Jazz bass to make it fretless. But while it worked for him, he was somewhat lucky. Because the wood putty doesn't react to changes in humidity in the same way that the fingerboard itself does, you risk the neck potentially warping. –  Alex Basson Mar 8 '11 at 21:52
    
I'd definitely advise against "or try for yourself using a pair of pliers" as you will likely damage the fretboard. Taping will help, but you need an actual fret puller like what @ekaj suggests. –  Jduv Mar 9 '11 at 3:18

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