1

There are many fretless percussion/stringed instruments from/relating-to many different cultures each tuned to a predetermined set of notes/note relationships.

In our (Western?) culture it seems to be assumed that a fretless guitar would be tuned in the same manner (Eadgbe) as its fretted prototype. (That’s not been the case with slide guitar retunings--primarily structured so as to be able to be played with a single ‘bar’ extending the width of the fretboard.)

Q1) Has there been any research/experimentation in an alternate tuning that might best suit a fretless guitar?

Q2) If one were to think in this direction (of a more appropriate alternate tuning), what factors would one take into consideration: a) particular to a fretless situation (where additional (microtonal) notes are available…) and possibly b) critical of the fretted situation (where equal temperament adjustments have been made)

3

That's certainly not the only way you can tune a fretless guitar. It may be the most common – because fretless guitar is still often considered as more of a novelty option for one quirky solo, few guitarists are going to learn a different tuning for it, and in particular lead guitarists tend to always use standard tuning (modulo homogeneous flattening), at least on the upper strings.

But I reckon of the few guitarists who specialise in fretless guitar, most actually prefer open tunings. That's certainly sensible if you're playing blues. Ned Evett is a great example.

Open tunings of course tend to confine you to a few keys – with a slide not so much, but with fretless full bar chords aren't really an option, so modulations are almost impossible.

I have my fretless guitar tuned in all-fourths, but with a diagonal nut (not real multiscale, just a capo) so the double octaves are again on almost opposing position on the outer strings, and I can actually finger fourths on adjacent strings with different fingers (in real standard tuning, the upper note of such a fourth inevitably comes out too high).

My Dimavery fretless guitar The “diagonal nut” (capo)

I think this is a pretty good compromise, though actually I don't practise fretless guitar enough to really be able to prove it.

  • A diagonal nut is an absolutely fascinating answer to the conundrum of playing the same position on 2 strings on a fretless... I wonder if slanting the bridge too would be useful, to keep the offset more consistent up the neck. – Some_Guy Nov 21 '16 at 11:57
  • Possibly. I already adjusted the bridge as much as possible in that direction. But anyway I haven't come anywhere close to mastering chords on fretless guitar even on the lowest positions, so I don't care that much about the high ones yet. – leftaroundabout Nov 21 '16 at 12:28
1

Tuning is more important for chordophones than for single note instruments. At the end of the day, guitar tuning is based around 2 things:

  • the spacing of about a 4th is right for the scale length (try and play anything reasonable on a guitar tuned in 5ths below about the 7th fret)

  • it offers a lot of usable chord shapes.

For a melody instrument, only the first half of this equation is necessary. So you have two options: either you accept that fretless guitar is just a melody instrument, in which case standard tuning is as good as any other is pretty good.

If you want to play chordally; admittedly I have't spend all that much time with a fretless guitar, but for me it seems like standard tuning isn't up to much for for fretless chordal playing. Fretless fingering pretty much means that you can't play the same "fret" (which from now on I'll call "number") in tune on different strings, unless it's a barre.

0
1
0
2
3
x

fits this.

As does

2
3
2
0
x
x

because the 3 is higher than the barred 2

But E and A minor are gone, because you have the 1 below the 2 2s. As is C7, ( x 3 2 3 1 0 ) (or with the top muted, my personal favourite moveable 7th shape).

Moving on to other moveable chords, the two most common barre shapes are impossible too, the best you can do is the root, the fifth and the third for an E shape, and not that much at all for an A shape. An E shape barre chord can either be voiced as say

x
x
4
x
5
3
or
3
3
4
5
x
x

and even that 2 note barre is difficult to keep in tune.

Open fifths is a good tuning for fretless instruments, but doesn't work at a guitar's scale length.

A good fretless tuning would in my mind, give you a good few moveable chord shapes of 3 or even 4 note clusters, and not stretch more than a diminished 5th at the very most between any 2 strings.

Is there is a tuning for a 6 stringed instrument that meets these constraints better than standard tuning does? There may be, but in the short time I was with a fretless guitar, I wasn't able to come up with one.

It seems to me that a fretless guitar then, is much more suited to melody playing and occasional double stops. So for that purpose standard tuning is as good as any other. Since we are already abandoning open chords, though, I might venture that perfect fourths would make more sense. And what might seem like a disadvantage at first (no longer being able to use your memorised shapes from standard tuning) is probably an advantage in disguise: it will force you to look at the instrument afresh, and play to its advantages rather than falling into old habits which, many of which don't translate well. Plus, you can use the same shapes wherever you are, which can really change the way you play.

The other thing that fretless guitarist often end up doing is playing over the E or A string as a drone. Imho, if you're going to go in that direction, it makes a lot more sense to go all-in and tune open.

0

As a fretless guitarist I usually tune standard for solos and an alternative tuning if chords are being used. There is a whole section on my website on alternate tunings with comments on usability etc. To quickly change tunings I use a Roland VG-99, all my alternate tuning patches are also on the website.

http://www.unfretted.com/extras/alternate-tunings-for-fretless-guitar/

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