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Is there a specific way to check the intonation on a fretless bass, i.e. adjusting the string lengths at the bridge, or does it simply not matter, as we're keeping in tune by ear anyhow?

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I might rephrase this question to: "Do saddle adjustments/string intonation matter on a fretless bass guitar outside of the fundamental, and if so, how do you check it?" –  NReilingh Sep 3 '12 at 15:01
Of course they do! Check them as on a guitar using 12 and 19 fret harmonics as the perfect pitch of the notes produced when the strings are pressed on the appropriate frets.However, my question is about FRETLESS basses. –  Tim Sep 6 '12 at 6:25
Sorry, typo on my part. The fretless part is what makes this question interesting--would you consider that alternate phrasing of the question? –  NReilingh Sep 6 '12 at 13:42
Let's see if there are any more responses using the rephrased question.Thanks. –  Tim Sep 20 '12 at 8:16
Did you know about the true temperament system truetemperament.com/site/index.php ? –  user1306 May 11 '13 at 20:02

4 Answers 4

I think it matters if you care about having consistent technique and intonation.

The reason is, correct intonation makes the strings in tune with each other as you move across the fingerboard in the exact same position. You want the octave on one string to be the same place on the fingerboard as octaves on all the other strings (on an imaginary fretline). The difference is that with a fretted bass, that point is fixed (ignoring neck adjustments, refretting, dressing, etc.). On a fretless, it doesn't matter where the imaginary fretline lies exactly, as long as the strings are in tune relative to each other.

The reality though, is that this is probably a finicky adjustment. I am just making this up now, but using something like a capo (because fingers are less precise because they are soft and fleshy) and first making sure it is perpendicular to the neck, would then let you adjust all of the intonations so they are correct for that position, e.g., first octave position.

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Although, as there is no 'ideal' capo, you'd need to actually have a capo that compensated for the different thicknesses, tensions and height in order to really do this. –  Dr Mayhem Sep 21 '12 at 19:39
@DrMayhem I don't think so - it's really just about getting a good precise perpendicular. Basically, if you bar all 4 string with your index finger, it should be in tune, or if you play a harmonic on one string and then move down, you should hit the harmonic on the next string in the exact same place. While this is easy to do with octave harmonics, when you get into the higher harmonics you need really precise positioning to hit them exactly. To be honest I would never worry about this stuff, myself. Being purely academic here :) –  RedFilter Sep 21 '12 at 19:56

You can make sure that you're in the ballpark using traditional intonation techniques. Play a 12th fret harmonic on each string, and compare that to a 12th fret "fretted" note. I say "fretted" because, well, there are none. You get the idea.

Use a tuner, and just ensure that you are in the ballpark when fretting right on the 12th fret line (if you have the line markers on your neck). If you don't have a marked neck, general ballpark in tune is fine.

You just want to ensure that things aren't off by a huge amount, so that you don't have to reposition your fingers in the fret as you ascend and descend the neck. In that case, you would be playing "right on the line" for the lower frets, but may have to sit back further in the fret as you ascend.

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Thanks jp. What I actually did was use masking tape around 12th fret ( my basses have no fretlines),and mark on it where the '12th fret' was, as in harmonic.It's important, as , if '12th fret' is in a different place for each string, I'd be searching up or down for each separately, and with 5 of them, it might as well be right. –  Tim May 11 '13 at 11:09

It really shouldn't matter, as you correctly state, because you adjust your finger position in order to hit the correct note.

In saying that, however, there is a reason you may wish to adjust intonation in certain circumstances. I haven't delved to deeply into this, but for a well set up instrument with a neck matched to particular resonant frequencies you could improve the frequency response by correctly adjusting string lengths. I think this is towards the high effort end of things though, and not sure of the value in normal use.

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To some extent, muscle memory will come into play and your finger, whether there is a fret there or not, will "know" where to go.

If the instrument isn't properly adjusted like normal for intonation then you'll have you wander more for the correct pitch.

A half hour with a strobe tuner (meaning, something accurate enough to warrant the time with it) and adjustment at the bridge (dependent on model and manufacturer) will allow you to correctly set it. Just because frets aren't there doesn't insist that intonation adjustment is optional. Especially with vertical fret markers.

Does this fretless bass have fret markers at all on the fingerboard? If so, they can be a visual guide, and therefore would require a good intonation setup to be worth anything visually to you.

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Para 1 and 2 agreed, which spawned the question.However, if the intonation is out,the notes won't be accurate. Markers are there , no fret lines.Thus, it would be beneficial to have correct intonation. –  Tim May 12 '13 at 21:06
Yes, therefor you get a strobe tuner, or take the bass to a specialist with one, so you can correctly intonate the strings one by one at the bridge using the open string harmonic and where the 12th feet would be at, be it a marker or the player's position of the 12th fret. –  Shawn Strickland May 12 '13 at 22:59

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