There are fretless versions of electric guitars and basses. Instruments in the violin family are (almost) always fretless. But what is the general term for this when expanded for other instruments, like trombones, slide saxophones, theremins and other instruments that do not have fixed pitches?

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    What's an almost fretless violin? Or, do you mean they're almost always fretless? — A problem with this question is that it's hard to draw a clear line. Sure, piano and organ are 100% fixed-pitch and theremin is 100% continuous-pitch, but most other instruments have some sort of discrete choice built in yet can also perform more or less pronounced pitch bends and require fine-intonation by the player on each note. Striking example: recorder, which with its holes one might think should be discrete, but really isn't. Commented Aug 12, 2020 at 8:27
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    @leftaroundabout I think the OP had fretted violin in mind. It is not almost fretless violin, but violins are (almost always) fretless
    – Tom
    Commented Aug 12, 2020 at 8:29
  • The examples instruments given are all of the real contiguous pitch type. Others are imaginable (piano with bend wheel?) which have the normal scale structure, but are capable of bridging the gaps. Shall they be included in the searched term?
    – guidot
    Commented Aug 12, 2020 at 12:16
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    @CarlWitthoft I did not know this instrument before, but this one seems to be capable: youtube.com/watch?v=POzJoi463UI
    – Tom
    Commented Aug 12, 2020 at 13:01
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    @Kaz You proved that musicians are as nerdy as programmers :D
    – klutt
    Commented Aug 12, 2020 at 20:33

2 Answers 2


I would suggest: continuous pitch instruments.

  • Interesting that it got a Wiki page! Personally I don't see any value to grouping said instruments, but if it is helpful here and there, why not use it. Commented Aug 12, 2020 at 12:52
  • @CarlWitthoft Well, it's a Category page, those are auto-generated on wikis anyhow. Commented Aug 12, 2020 at 20:45
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    @CarlWitthoft would there not be value in grouping such instruments for a composer working on microtonal music?
    – kojiro
    Commented Aug 13, 2020 at 0:47
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    @kojiro Not really, as any wind or string instrument can be "bent" to produce microtones. Commented Aug 13, 2020 at 11:44
  • I'd suggest hyphenating it for clarity: continuous-pitch instruments.
    – gidds
    Commented Mar 29 at 17:17

The expression technique of producing a continuous tone while smoothly varying the pitch from one note to another is called portamento.

If we use the term portamento instrument, it's clear we are referring to a variable-pitch instrument that fundamentally supports portamento playing.

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    But a skilled player can, in fact, perform a portamento on a fretted/keyed instrument like a guitar or trumpet or clarinet. Being able to portamento on a certain instrument doesn't indicate that it doesn't have fixed pitches. Commented Aug 12, 2020 at 20:54
  • @NuclearWang I would say that these instruments do not fundamentally support portamento. If an instrument fundamentally supports portamento it means that a complete neophyte picking it up for the first time can obtain the effect easily, and that it can be easily applied to all or almost all of the notes of any melody, including large intervals as much as an octave or more.
    – Kaz
    Commented Aug 12, 2020 at 22:38
  • @Kaz a complete neophyte can't produce the correct note or effect on pretty much any instrument. period. Commented Aug 13, 2020 at 11:45
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    @CarlWitthoft There are tons of counterexamples. Anyone can hit a key on a piano and get a tone. Or blow into a harmonica. A toddler could blow into a slide whistle while moving the piston to produce a portamento from one pitch to another. That's what makes a slide whistle an example of an instrument which fundamentally supports portamento. You don't have to produce portamento in spite of the instrument's limitations; it is designed to produce it.
    – Kaz
    Commented Aug 14, 2020 at 21:51

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